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Lessons on building power in a union



Julia Peck,

A session at Strike School with Union of Teachers Los Angeles organizers Jollene Levid and Brian McNamara.

On six Tuesdays and Thursdays in September and October, over 3,000 workers from northern England to Palestine to South Africa logged into Zoom, gleefully announced their union affiliation in the chat, and settled in for a master class in power-building.

This was Organizing for Power: Strike School, a virtual course for labour activists worldwide run by legendary US union organizer Jane McAlevey and the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. The attendee list spanned unions, climate strikers, migrants’ organizations, and tenants groups from 70 countries. Attendance was free, and sessions were simultaneously interpreted into six languages.

Julia Peck is a member of Cambridge UCU (University and College Union) and ACORN in the United Kingdom. She is a linguist currently working on cultural literacy education. This article originally appeared in The Oak.

Naturally, it wasn’t a stale Zoom seminar: it wouldn’t be Strike School if it didn’t harness the pulse-quickening energy of industrial action. The first session began with Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, telling the story of the moment she called for a general strike to end Trump’s 2019 government shutdown, electrifying the media and labour world. (The shutdown ended the next day.) The final session closed with Stacy Davis Gates, a director of the Chicago Teachers Union, calling the strikes she’s led through the streets of Chicago “almost a religious transformation”.

In between, we bounced between plenary presentations, international breakout groups, extracurricular practice sessions with our unions and a trained facilitator, and a crowd favourite called “the fishbowl” where participants joined Jane onscreen to practice with her what we learned, thousands of us cheering them on in the chat.

Over the six classes, living rooms around the world flashed across our screens, their occupants grappling with the same questions we all have: how can we stand stronger against exploitation and inequality? How do we convince others that we’re stronger together, that it’s worth their time and energy? How do we strike —with 90 percent participation—to win?

Together, across eight time zones but feeling much closer than that, we learned five key lessons that are as applicable to unions as they are to any bottom-up campaign.

1. Most of Our Time Should Be Spent Talking and Listening to Those Who Aren’t Already on Board

Tally up the time you spend organizing per week: if most of it is spent in committee meetings, you’re doing it wrong. McAlevey teaches that safety in numbers—numbers overwhelming enough to give any landlord or boss serious pause—should greatly outweigh the comfort of organizing only those who seek us out or are already involved. (McAlevey might remix Billy Bragg’s syndicalist anthem to “There Is Power in a Really Freaking Massive, Demographically Diverse Union”.) So we learned that the road to winning radical demands for labour and housing justice is lined with stops at our neighbours’ doorsteps and our colleagues’ desks.

But the imperative of reaching out to uninvolved colleagues isn’t simply about adding another name to a members’ list. One-on-one conversations are precious opportunities to listen hard and connect someone’s unique circumstances to the wider struggle of the movement. Even if the outcome isn’t an immediate new member, the conversation has created a personal link between them and the union and made them reflect—a process that might ripple out as they talk to those around them. Furthermore, it forces us, on our side of the phone or desk, to tune ourselves in to the concerns of our colleagues and sharpen our messaging and work accordingly.

This part of Strike School made the more introverted among us quake in their boots. But outreach conversations don’t have to be awkward or confrontational (or worse, ineffective) if they have structure. Perhaps McAlevey’s most well-known contribution to the organizing world is her 6-step Structured Organizing Conversation (SOC): a roadmap to a productive and compelling interaction with someone yet unconvinced. Sample SOCs can be found in this guide from LaborNotes, this video from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and even McAlevey’s own Jacobin article adapting the SOC for family gatherings where you might need to organize your cousins.

It takes practice (seriously: role-play with your comrades over and over), but it boils down to two things. A good SOC begins with a long stretch of listening—where you shouldn’t be doing more than 30 percent of the talking—and ends with a clear ask and a follow-up plan. The action your interlocutor has committed to take should stem from their own ideas and frustrations; you’ve simply guided them to connect their struggles to the imbalance of power that the union is actively dismantling.

2. Don’t Third-Party the Union

In Strike School, this was presented as a maxim about semantics—when you write an email or flyer, don’t say “the union” in third person!—but it gets at the heart of the question about what the union is. If we present the union as an entity outside of you and me, then we’ve lost the message about how it binds us together: it becomes a service we can occasionally consult for help rather than constituting our relationship as workers. McAlevey teaches that if we put workers’ agency at the centre of the conversation, then it becomes clear that the union is us, and exactly what we make of it.

However, “we” and “us” can miss the mark when our messaging is about specific actions that need doing—the first person plural is nebulous when what we need is to spotlight the worker’s agency in the here and now. We shouldn’t be afraid of the second person: you, after all, is an integral part of us.

Strike School facilitators gave the following example of language that might be on a social media post or flyer and how to improve it:

Bad (third-person, jargon-y): “The union really needs everyone to step up and get more active so the union can win better protections in this CBA!”

Good (second person, clear ask): “The only way for you and your colleagues to make the kind of improvements you want in these negotiations is if you and everyone in your school takes the first step and signs the petition.”

In the same vein, McAlevey recommends a near-blanket ban on saying “thank you” in union organizing—no “thanks for coming out to the meeting!”, no “thanks for circulating the petition!”. (At this point in the session, the Zoom chat exploded with social anxiety.) The thinking is that “thank you” is an inappropriate response to the worker doing something for themselves. Instead, it converts union-related work into favours that members do for union leadership.

How do we fill the gaping holes where “thanks” would go? McAlevey suggests praise and language that centres the worker’s accomplishment, like “Great to see you!” and “Wow, you’ve moved people!” Strike School facilitator Jollene Levid assured the anxious that we’re not eliminating gratitude, but rather ensuring that we “convey a political message in every conversation.”

3. Make Maps and Charts Galore

If you paid attention in geography class—or grew up in a marine community—you know that maps and charts are different things, and if you’ve ever gone anywhere, you know they’re essential. In a union, visualizations are crucial for tracking the build-up of power both inside and outside the workplace, and equally importantly, for planning where to focus energy next.

A sample wall chart from a nurses’ union for one worksite, the SICU, at a hospital. Image credit: Jane McAlevey

Charts, or more specifically, “big wall charts”, are a McAlevey specialty: they are internal, constantly-updated documents for tracking member participation at each worksite. The idea is that every worksite—say, a department at a university or a unit in a hospital—should know exactly what percentage of its members participate in the actions it puts on at a given time, with a serious goal of 90 percent. An action to test participation, what McAlevey calls a “structure test”, can be as small as asking everyone to wear a union pin or colour to work one day, or something more substantial, like signing a petition. What matters is that participation is tracked each time, and that’s where the chart comes in: on a large posterboard at the worksite, leaders log participation next to workers’ names (McAlevey’s preferred method is with neon-coloured stickers). A conspicuous gap in stickers means more outreach is needed for certain folks before subsequent tests, while a full chart means that when the time to strike rolls around, the worksite is ready.

Maps, for our purposes, are power maps, based on the simple observation that no worker is an island. Every member of a union has family, friends, links to religious groups or football teams or the organizations where they volunteer. In other words, every worker has potential leverage in different corners—possibly very powerful corners—of the local community.

In the lead-up to a strike or other action visible to the public, McAlevey recommends meticulously gathering workers’ affiliations, and then doing another layer of mapping to visualize the relative power each of those individuals or organizations has in the local community. The extra legwork can make or break a strike: McAlevey tells the story of discovering that a member of the union she was coaching was on a first-name basis with the pastor of the most powerful progressive church in their city. One letter from him backing the strike galvanized support and awareness from a huge swath of the community, leading to overwhelming public pressure and their eventual victory.

4. Leaders and Activists Are Different, and It’s Essential to Identify Them

Horizontal structure is the hallmark of grassroots organizing, but it doesn’t mean that everyone has the same role (try building a car with only pistons). Instead, McAlevey teaches that a well-run union takes advantage of the range of skills in its membership. The simplest dichotomy she presents is leader vs. activist, which boils down to capacity vs. commitment.

A “natural” or “organic” leader will have obvious capacity for moving people, even outside a union setting—perhaps they’ve run their own successful petition or gotten everyone in the workplace to participate in an event. Their commitment to the union, for now, is trivial, and they may even begin as anti-union because they believe they can win things on their own. It’s our job to strategically convince them otherwise.

An activist has commitment to the union already: they’re a proud, card-carrying member we don’t need to convince. Though they won’t have tons of experience organizing people, they likely have their fair share of valuable skills: they might be a creative or media whiz, a number-cruncher, the most well-liked in the workplace, or simply committed to getting things done.

Labelling our comrades on a binary is icky (and difficult), but crucially, these roles aren’t fixed: unions should be constantly offering trainings, skillshares, and opportunities for members to build their organizing capacity. Likewise, natural leader types should be rotating out of “chair” roles and into committees, deepening their skills in specialized areas.

But, McAlevey says, the leader/activist binary is critical in high-risk situations like strikes, when the goal is 90 percent participation and we need huge results. In the lead-up, unions should identify at each worksite the natural leader(s) and the “activist” who knows the most people there. Then, McAlevey prescribes a strategy to court the leader, the key being to resist the temptation to talk to them first. Rather, talk to the sociable activists first to get the lay of the land at the worksite and find out more about the leader and those they trust. Then, meet with the person closest to the leader and try to find out one thing the leader hasn’t been able to fix in the workplace yet. This should give you a motivating issue for your final Structured Organizing Conversation (see #1) with the leader themselves, about why they’ll be stronger and more effective as part of the union.

5. Take Everyone With You

As they get closer to winning, campaigns tend to narrow: a select set of leaders might bottleneck to negotiate with the boss, while others might hang back, waiting for a debrief. It might be unavoidable to have a small number of spokespeople for the endgame, but you can avoid entrenching an imbalance of power and investment in the union by diversifying roles instead of eliminating them.

One way to do this is to create committees that specialize in a different aspect of the negotiations (or whatever your organization’s tug-o-war with the powers that be looks like). Invite all members to join one: they go on to become experts in one facet of the fight, making them invaluable resources when it’s time to talk strategy. Those who have the negotiating role, or greater access to power, depend on those committees for information and insight—so that those leaders are truly representatives of the group rather than gatekeepers.

McAlevey used the example of this Negotiations Bulletin made each day by striking nurses in Philadelphia. Image credit: Jane McAlevey, reposted by @lucas_kev on Twitter.

The benefits go way beyond group dynamics: taking everyone with you helps you win. Having a robust, organized, well-researched team during negotiations means that you’re ready to rapidly evaluate, accept, reject, or demand amendments to any proposal the boss comes out with, without the existential crisis that so often hits campaigns when they’re faced with the possibility of a partial win. It’s in the boss’ interest for unions to feel overwhelmed or unprepared, but having the largest possible team can flip the script entirely and overwhelm the employer.

Another tactic is to take non-members along for the ride, too, via your communications strategy. McAlevey swears by having a team rapidly produce a “newsletter” full of photos and quotes detailing how negotiations with the employer went that day. If you deliver the newsletter to everyone in the workplace including non-members, they’ll feel involved, and they’ll get the scoop from the union first—rather than the boss.

You can find out more about Strike School in this interview with Jane McAlevey, Eric Blanc’s essay about its significance, and Sophie Hemery’s report in Novara.