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Unionising your workplace

A ten-step guide to workplace organisation from scratch. By Patrick Smith

December 6, 2008
4 min read

1 Keep it quiet at first

When faced with mistreatment in the workplace, it is tempting to respond angrily and spontaneously. It is much more effective, however, to step back and think strategically about long-term solutions. Dissent from an individual may result in that person being singled out as a troublemaker – and while it is illegal to fire someone for union organising, the management will still often try their best.

2 Talk one-to-one

Before launching into producing leaflets and organising rallies, it’s important to get out and talk to your workmates personally – outside the workplace if possible. Get enthusiastic people talking to as many other people as they can so it doesn’t look like a one-person crusade. Listen to colleagues’ concerns, don’t rant at them: it’s important to dispel the image of the organiser as a dogmatic agitator. Don’t approach people who are likely to talk to the management at this stage.

3 Focus on real issues

Make sure that you’re addressing practical issues that are really affecting your colleagues – pay, holidays, safety – rather than musing about esoteric ideals such as the injustice of the bosses making a profit from your work or the right to self-management. People need to see attainable goals and a clear benefit to organising.

4 Don’t get burdened with being ‘the union’

Obviously some people are going to have to do a little more legwork than others, but try to avoid giving the impression that you alone are capable of solving everyone’s problems. It may be tempting to get new people on board by making it look as though they will get massive benefits for little work, but making it clear from the start that everyone will have to pull their weight will pay off in the long-run. Ensure that everyone is given something to do, even if it’s only a small task.

5 Set up an open forum

Once there is a base of support, organise a meeting. Keeping it informal to begin with will make people much more likely to attend. This first meeting should be an open forum to air concerns and ideas for moving forward. Don’t come in with too fixed an idea of how this should run – it’s bound to be a little chaotic as people finally get to vent their frustrations.

6 Publicise your efforts

You’ll need to extend your support base beyond a few faithful followers, and that means it’s time to put your head above the parapet. Produce an informative, accessible leaflet and distribute it to workmates. At this point, the management is bound to find out someone is trying to organise, but by now there should be a group of you – and a group is much harder to attack than an individual.

7 Approach a union

You’ll need to decide on an appropriate union to join. The choice may be obvious in some industries, but in other cases it will involve research. Elect a delegation to approach the union. The kind of relationship you have with the union will shape the nature of the organisation in your workplace. But once you’ve contacted a union, don’t take a step back and let the bureaucrats run the show. If you don’t want people to lose interest quickly you should see the union as giving support with the shop floor taking the lead.

8 Find allies

Make contact with any other unions within your workplace or organisation. It is important to see where your joint concerns lie in order to work together on wider campaigns. This will also help ensure that they can protect against scabbing if you decide to take strike action.

9 Start with small demands

Take on the management on small issues such as the dress code or whether staff can listen to music while working. If you win, people will see you can take on the bosses and hopefully join up. If you don’t, then people will start to see just how unreasonable the management can be when faced with even the most humble of appeals – and they’ll want to do something about it.

10 Escalate!

As confidence builds, people will naturally come to the conclusion that you should be taking on the management on more serious issues. Inevitably there are likely to be more serious consequences, but hopefully by now people should be ready to consider a ‘go-slow’ or even strike action if demands are not met. Do be prepared for setbacks – this won’t be one long walk to freedom, and it will often seem like you’re standing still, and sometimes moving backwards. But every victory, however small, will make it all worth it.

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