A brief guide to
Unionising your workplace
Steps, tips & 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.
How to sign up as a member of the IWGB Charity Workers:
Joining the IWGB Charity Workers Branch is easy and can be done by completing our online joining form.
This includes setting up a direct debit for monthly membership fees. The branch has very reasonable membership rates, starting at £8/month and tiered by income.
1. Get together an organising group
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 enthusiastic about unionising and 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.
* The IWGB Charity Workers has a leaflet with useful information about the union and branch that you can share with interested colleagues
2. 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
Although it’s good to build relationships through casual conversations, structured organising conversations ensure that your outreach is effective. This is a step that you’ll come back to again and again. 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.
Organising conversations don’t have to be awkward or confrontational if they have structure. Though no two conversations are alike, a good organising conversation has six essential parts:
1. Introduction: Who you are, what your concerns are.
2. Get the issues & agitate: What does your coworker care about? Why is this unfair?
3. Vision / plan to win: Why collective action? What’s the plan?
4. Call the question: Ask them to be part of the solution by taking a specific action.
5. Inoculate: Prepare for your boss’s response.
6. Follow-up plan: Agree on the next step, and when you’ll check back in.
A good organising conversation 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. 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: 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. Don’t rush – allow at least 30 minutes.
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’.
• LaborNotes guide to an organising conversation
• Organising conversation guide #1 and Organising conversation guide #2 (renter’s union)
• IWGB School of Organising - organising conversations training
• IWGB School of Organising - organising conversations worksheet
• Organising conversation on youtube
3. Mapping and charting
You’ll need to be really systematic in order to reach everyone with one-to-one conversations about unionising. Mapping is undertaken at the beginning and throughout any campaign – including recruitment – to generate 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 with your organising group to update the map with new information, 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!
Tip: Keep your recruiting quiet at first. Talk outside work hours and use personal communication channels if you can. Don’t approach people who are likely to talk to management at this stage.
• IWGB School of Organising - mapping training
• IWGB School of Organising - mapping worksheet
4. Organise an open meeting
Once there is a base of support, invite interested workers to an open meeting. Keep it informal – this first meeting should be an open forum to air concerns, ask questions and discuss ideas for moving forward. Hold this meeting outside of work hours (at lunchtime or after work).
If you haven’t already decided to join the IWGB, this is a good point at which to decide which union to join. When this decision is made democratically by the workers who are interested in unionising, it encourages ownership of the decision and can give the process greater legitimacy. In making the case for a particular union, consider its values, how it’s run, and the kind of relationship you want to have between the union and your workplace.
The IWGB’s focus on migrant and precarious workers, the democratic principles on which we’re run, and our approach of supporting members to lead campaigns in their workplaces, have been important factors in charity workers choosing to join the IWGB Charity Workers Branch.
Tip: Invite a branch committee member to an open meeting to speak about the union – email [email protected]
5. Keep building and communicating
Once you have a core group of union members you should start using some kind of common and safe communication channel – such as a WhatsApp group – to add members and organise through it.
It’s important to start the practice of meeting regularly early on in your unionising effort. Set up a regular meeting for union members, at least monthly. These can be done over Zoom/Teams etc, or even in-person depending on preference/working arrangements.
You’ll need to extend your support base beyond a few faithful followers. 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: 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, formulate demands and take action
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