A brief guide to
Unionising your workplace
Steps, tips and resources for organising your workplace from scratch
Being in a union is about having a say in the things that affect you in the workplace. Your ability to do this depends on power – which comes from numbers, unity and willingness to take action. This guide focuses primarily on the first of these: growing the number of workers in the union.
There is no one way to build a union – but there are some tried and tested techniques you can use, no matter what size your workplace, and even if you’re the only IWGB member. The steps below don’t necessarily need to be followed in a linear fashion – and in fact are more likely to be ongoing and circular, as you continue working to grow the membership and build on successes.
• IWGB School of Organising training materials
• LaborNotes Secrets of a Successful Organiser handouts
• Article summarising the Organising for Power (Jane McAlevey) training
1. Have one-to-one conversations
The process begins with understanding a worker’s self-interest and helping them come to
their own understanding, through face-to-face discussions, that his or her self-interest
can only be realised through collective – not individual – action; that is, through a union.
– Jane MacAlevey
The first step – and one which you’ll come back to repeatedly – is to have one-to-one conversations with your co-workers. These conversations are precious opportunities to listen hard and to connect someone’s unique circumstances to the imbalance of power that the union is working to dismantle. While you can have useful discussions in a group setting, it’s important to have these conversations one-on-one and in-person as much as possible.
Organising conversations don’t have to be awkward or confrontational if they have structure. The most well-known is the 6-step Structured Organising Conversation or SOC (see links in the resource box below). A good SOC begins with a long stretch of listening – where you shouldn’t be doing more than 30% of the talking – and ends with a clear ask and a follow-up plan. Don’t rush these conversations – allow at least 30 minutes. The key is to find out what people care about, and connect that to how the union can help them improve their situation. Keep the focus on the practical issues that are affecting your colleagues, such as pay, overwork, leave, safety.
Tip: It’s often good to have a script – you don’t have to follow this mechanically, but know the points you want to get across, and what outcome you want from the conversation. But most importantly: listen, don’t rant!
Tip: Instead of saying ‘the union’ (which positions it as an outside entity), say ��we’, ‘us’ and ‘you’.
Tip: Keep your recruiting quiet at first. Talk outside work hours and use personal (not work) communication channels if you can. Don’t approach people who are likely to talk to management at this stage.
• IWGB School of Organising - organising conversations training
• IWGB School of Organising - organising conversations worksheet
• LaborNotes guide to an organising conversation
• Organising conversation guide #1 and Organising conversation guide #2 (renter’s union)
• Organising conversation on youtube
2. Set up an organising committee
You can’t build a union by yourself – and anyway, it’s important that it doesn’t look like a one-person crusade. Get together a core team of 3 to 5 workers who are willing to share the work and conversations. Try to recruit people who are influential amongst staff, also called ‘organic leaders’. Meet up regularly – ideally every week or fortnightly.
3. Mapping and charting
You’ll need to be really systematic in order to reach everyone. Mapping is undertaken at the beginning and throughout any campaign – including recruitment – to provide information on who works in a workplace and where, whether they’ve been spoken to about the union, and whether they’re a union member.
Meet regularly to update the map with new info, to discuss what you are going to say in one-to-one conversations, and to debrief on how your conversations went. Make sure you record how each conversation went (use charting for this – see below). When talking to staff, ask them who else you should be speaking to, and add them to your map.
Charting follows from mapping, and tracks the issues, engagement and activism level of workers over time. It can be helpful to rank people on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is an active member, 2 is a non-active member, 3 is a supporter but non-member, 4 needs to be persuaded, and 5 is anti-union. As part of charting, you should be identifying how influential particular workers are. You can do this be asking people who they would go to to sort out an issue, or by asking someone to ask others to do something (eg. sign a petition) – if they do it, this tells you they have influence over others.
Tip: Get enthusiastic members involved in mapping and talking to as many other people as they can - use the mapping as a collective exercise to get more members, task activists and test leaders!
• IWGB School of Organising - mapping training
• IWGB School of Organising - mapping worksheet
4. Set up an open forum
Once there is a base of support, set up a regular meeting for union members. 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.
You could also organise an open meeting for anyone interested in hearing more about the union (ie. non-members as well as members).
Tip: Invite someone from the CWB committee to a meeting to speak about the branch.
Tip: It’s important to start the practice of meeting regularly early on in your unionising effort. Aim for monthly.
5. 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. You could produce a leaflet about the union and distribute it to workmates. At this point, 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.
Tip: 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 recruit new people by making it look as though they will get massive benefits for little effort, but it’s important to make it clear from the start that everyone will have to pull their weight. Ensure that everyone is given something to do, even if it’s only a small task.
6. Identify an issue and formulate demands
You should now be ready to launch a campaign on a workplace issue. This shows what the union is for: people need to see attainable goals and a clear benefit to organising. By now you should have a good idea of the issues facing workers from your conversations and charting. Compile these and decide collectively with other members what issue to focus on (and only focus on one!).
You’ll then need to formulate a demand, or set of demands. You’ll also need to decide what tactics you’ll use – for example, a letter or petition – and a plan for how you’ll escalate if management don’t agree to your demands. This planning can be done by the organising committee, or by the larger group – what’s important is that the final demand(s) and tactic(s) are agreed collectively, such as through voting at a meeting of all members.
Tip: 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.
Tip: When workers and members are asked to take action as part of a campaign – eg. to sign a letter or petition, and ask others to sign – this is called a structure test. The extent to which organic leaders are able to motivate workers to action tells you how much support the union has and whether workers are ready to escalate their tactics. You should track the results of structure tests in your chart.
• IWGB School of Organising - developing campaigns training and issues & tactics worksheet
7. Elect workplace reps
A workplace representative (or ‘union rep’) is a member of staff who has been elected by IWGB members at that workplace to be a representative of the union. Reps act as the link between members, the employer and the union, and work to organise, represent and negotiate on behalf of members and colleagues in their workplace. There is often more than one union rep in a workplace, particularly in larger workplaces and/or where there are many members.
It is up to the members in that workplace to decide how they want to democratically elect their rep(s). Once the decision is made the union will need to approve the appointment. The new rep can take up their role once the employer has been notified by the union.
Tip: Make sure there is frequent communication between reps & members (face to face & on non-work channels). Members should know their reps by name!
• CWB brief guide to being a union rep
As confidence builds, people will naturally come to the conclusion that you should be taking on the management on more serious issues. Inevitably there is likely to be more serious pushback from management, 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