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Organizing And You: Lessons from Labor History



I made a joke on Twitter a while ago:

and it recently came back up because a member of my family got their first union job and was like "every job should be offering these sorts of benefits" and so I went ahead and wrote down what I remember of what my dad told me. My father had many jobs, but his profession was basically a labor union organizer, and he talked a lot about the bedrock foundation items needed to be serious about organizing collective action. Here's what I remember.


 The Thomas M. Comeau Principles of Organizing -- a fundamental list for finding and building worker solidarity from 50 years of Union Involvement. This list is not ranked; all of the principles stated herein are coequal in their importance. Numbering is a rhetorical choice, not a valuation.

1) Be good at your job. Even in an at-will state, it is much harder for an employer to justify a termination if your performance is good. If there are goals you are expected to achieve, document your ability to achieve them (if they are not achievable, document that too). Nothing protects individual workers from the whims of employers except a union, but barring that it's never a bad idea to keep a record of your performance. DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, KEEP TRACK OF SOMEONE ELSE'S PERFORMANCE, NOT EVEN IF THEY ASK.

2) Document everything. Have a conversation with your boss? Record notes immediately afterwards. Try and stick to facts rather than feelings or suppositions. In a meeting/on a call with company representatives? Actively take notes on what was said and to whom (recording / wiretapping laws are tricky, and change by location; do not rely on a recording if you don't know if you legally acquired it, and never use someone else's recording). Ideally these documents are hand written in ink on paper; if you're taking notes using a computer or a phone, first, make sure it's one YOU own, and not the company, and second, print it out and put it with your other documents. There should be no discussion between you and your employer that does not include a dated collection of notes.

3) DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, DO ANY SORT OF DOCUMENTING OF YOUR ORGANIZING ACTIVITY. Never put anything in an email or a journal or a phone conversation that an opposing counsel would ask you to read from the stand. Everything related to starting or joining a union should be done off the clock, off company property, in person, face-to-face as much as practicable. If you must use a phone, do not use a cellphone; use a land line, preferably someone else's. Do not use email. If you must write something down, write it in pencil, on paper, and burn it afterwards. If this all sounds paranoid, take the time to look up "wiretapping" and "discovery" at your local law library.

4) The cops do not work for you. If there is an opportunity for an employer to get you crosswise with the cops, EVEN IF YOU HAVE DONE NOTHING WRONG, they will do so. And the only liar worse than a boss is a cop. If you are organizing in a company / location that does not currently have a union, chances are very good that the employer already has a fiduciary relationship with the cops, and their pockets will ALWAYS be deeper than yours. Do not count on the law being on your side.

5) Regardless of your personal and professional relationship with your supervisor/employer, or any statements to the contrary, they do not work for you. The Human Resources department (whatever it may be called) does not work for you. You are not "part of a family". You are an employee, and your primary relationship with your employer is fiduciary. The company doesn't work for you. The only thing that works for you is a union.

6) You do not have to become an expert in Labor to organize, but research and history help. History doesn't repeat, but it sure as hell rhymes. Read up on Organizing in the modern world (post 1865). Some other good places to look are at the history of Pinkertons, coal miner's unions, and the Haymarket Affair and related events. If you're trying to organize in the US or similar areas, it's probably not a bad idea to learn about Liberation Theology. Do yourself a favor and find, read, and understand Robert's Rules of Order; most existing unions use that at least as the basis of handling decisions around collective action.

7) Do not get angry with fellow workers if they start by refusing to discuss the idea of unions. Life under Capitalism is complicated, and hard, and it is impossible to fully know another's trials and tribulations. The goal of organizing it to work together to lighten EVERYONE'S burden, even if they don't agree with you; even (maybe especially) when you think other workers are assholes. Your enemy is never other workers. Your enemy is always employers exerting unequal pressure on the workers.

8) You are not alone! When in doubt, go to your local Teamster's Union hall and ask for help. They may not be the correct resource for your situation, but they'll know who to call. If you work in IT or in IT-related fields, the CWA (Communication Workers of America) or the SEIU (Service Employee International Union) may also be a good resource to contact. Organizing is a process that is often excruciatingly slow, but it is also a process that often is the only way to protect yourself and others from the whims of Capitalists. Good luck. You're doing the Lord's work.


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