Organising to win 1: ‘We are patient, disciplined and methodical’

As a union, how do we actively seek out and nurture the most respected grassroots leaders to strengthen our organisation in the workplace?

That was the core question at the heart of an inspirational visit to PCS by renowned union organiser, Jane McAlevey.

She spent two days intensively training a group of 26 full time PCS staff in some of the techniques and practical methods for organising members.  Her main focus is on forming ‘high participation’ unions at workplace level, as a precursor to union power. The course therefore focused on how to distinguish between mobilising (asking existing activists to do something) and organising (getting members and non-members active in the union).

McAlevey has decades of experience in community campaigning and union organisation in the USA, as well as being a scholar and author of two books on organising, power and the labour movement, with a third on the way.

She spoke to PCS head of campaigns and organising, Nick McCarthy:

Q: Can you tell us about an organising campaign you have been involved in?

A: There’s been quite a few of them over the years. One of the recent ones was in 2016. In the fifth largest city in the United States – Philadelphia – against pretty stiff odds, seven hospitals were union organised with a bottom-up approach. There were a total of nine National Labor Relations Board elections, so workers had to vote their way into forming new unions. In those elections there were some nurses, some technical workers, different kinds of workers from the hospitals, and at the end of the day thousands of new workers, in one year, were brought into the union. It was actually a tremendous victory - it was the single biggest organising campaign in the US in 2016.

Q: Why do you think you won?

A: I think we won because we actually put the energy for the campaign on the workers themselves. Central to the way I was trained to be an organiser is a fundamental belief that we can never underestimate the intelligence of ordinary workers.

I’ve got a lot of experience doing this. I’m meeting up with workers who, frankly, are brilliant. They are super skilled in their jobs but they have never been through a tough organising campaign, they don’t really understand what the employer is going to do step-by-step in the campaign, in the way that someone who has experience can walk them through it.

So I think the workers won, quite frankly, because from day one we put the onus of the campaign on them. We said we can talk to you about what the employer is going to do in this campaign, we can talk to you about how the employer is going to raise the fear level, we can prepare you for what we think has worked in the past in other big campaigns, but it’s going to have to be you and your co-workers yourselves actually taking the most important steps of standing up, being united, not showing fear, showing your unity, taking risk, putting it on the line and building solid majorities.

And we built solid majorities with the theory that’s called leadership - and that’s about how do we find and build a network in each workplace of the most respected worker leaders in the workplace, those who are most respected by their colleagues and their peers? When we patiently take the time to figure out who are those most well-respected workers, then they themselves can lead their coworkers through a tough campaign, to a very big victory.

Q: What particular techniques did you use to get a high level of participation in those campaigns?

It starts with being patient on the front end of the campaign – to identify, in each branch, those most respected leaders. They don’t present themselves easily, they don’t step forward and say ‘hey, I’m the most respected leader in my workplace!’ so the methods that we focus on are talking to lots of workers and asking who they turn to when they are having some kind of issue at work.

The method on the front end takes more time. We are patient and disciplined and methodical. Lots of conversations, asking workers when they’re in a tough spot, who’s the worker they want to turn to most?

Once we identify those workers, because they are the most respected, the participation rates begin to shoot up.

The second thing we do is once we think we have identified this network of the most respected workers, we begin to do something called charting and structure tests. We do public activities – we do majority petitions, majority sticker days and a majority photo poster, where everyone wears a sticker or we put photos of all the members on a poster and publicise it among them. So we are driving the idea, from early in the campaign, that to win a tough campaign actually requires majorities of workers, not a minority. If we want to win a really amazing collective agreement, with great terms and conditions, once the workers form the union, we say to the workers right up front, ‘you and your co-workers are going to have to be ready, potentially, to have some kind of collective action - not just informational picketing but real picketing, you might even have to walk off the job to win the kinds of terms and conditions that you want. Particularly in the era that we’re in right now, certainly in the Trump era.

We’re very up front with the workers about what it’s going to take to win, we stress being patient and identifying the network of the most respected workers.

And by the way, they’re not all for the union. In some cases we have to spend a bit of time figuring out who’s the best person to recruit them into our network because we don’t assume that they are necessarily pro-union. Some of them even start out being kind of anti-union.

So the next challenge is to recruit them to the cause of collective action and trade unionism. And once we’ve done that we begin to move very public campaigns that involve risk, where the most respected workers – who are now leading the network and leading the campaign – begin to demonstrate risk-taking and ask their co-workers to take it with them.

We put a huge emphasis on people taking public risk, public action, collective action, together.

Have you got a message for PCS members?

I think your union is heading in all the right directions. I couldn’t be more pleased with what I’m learning about, what I’m seeing. Every single action, including the national pay ballot on the pay cap… the idea that PCS has actually taken the campaign and putting it out front, putting it in the field, making it a campaign where you are asking people to take risk, prepare for taking perhaps a strike, to make it just a little bit more fair, the world that we’re living in.

I don’t know why the Tory leadership think it’s okay, year after year, for your members to take less while the 1% are getting richer and richer, buying more houses in London and having fancy cars, and the workers are actually not making the kind of gains that the PCS members deserve.

I think the leadership here is taking all of the right steps, I think you are heading in a terrific direction. We don’t turn a giant cruise ship overnight - we take it in steps, we turn it piece by piece, but I’m super excited and I believe that the members can bust the pay cap.

I’m counting on you to bust the pay cap in this country and win the fair raises that you deserve.

Updated 6 December 2017

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