Workers across the US are taking back power. Here’s how anybody can be an activist.
With the recent wave of union activism sweeping the United States—from public teachers to Amazon workers, from baristas at Starbucks to the workers of Trader Joe’s—many people may be asking themselves what it means to be an organizer and what unionization means in the twenty-first century. Drawing on my experiences as a long-time organizer in a variety of contexts—from electoral campaigns and struggles for LGBTQ protections, to organizing fast-food workers, fighting for an increased minimum wage, and many labor union negotiations—I hope to shed some light on these questions.
An organizer is a person who works towards the realization of a societal concern by seeking out natural leaders for the purpose of mobilizing as many people as possible towards a collective future grounded on shared values. The particular societal concern could be the construction or strengthening of a union, the struggle for the rights of populations formally excluded from political representation (e.g., undocumented immigrants), the struggle for rights that have been curtailed across the population as a whole (e.g., abortion access in many red states), or other concerns. But the strategy is always to identify natural leaders from the workplace or community affected, to equip them with the tools to lead, and to help develop their capacity to mobilize their peers.
In my current position as a labor organizer, I am assigned to pre-K-12 and higher education unions in Washington state. My primary aim is to develop the leadership capacity of union members. This may include speech coaching, developing their anti-racist lens, and holding training sessions for effective bargaining skills. Most importantly, organizers teach workers how to identify issues, gain support, and lead the membership on a path to resolution. We call this type of development “handing out tools.” This is my favorite part of the job, as it’s intended to “teach a [person] to fish,” instead of doing it for them.
The historical context here is that in the past it was workers walking out of the job and taking collective action that created the power of the union and achieved the workplace safeguards that we now take for granted. But over the years unions became a place to get a service, meaning that a worker with an issue at their workplace would call their union organizer, who would help resolve the problem—often these involved a contract violation or a disciplinary meeting set by the employer. We call this a service model union. In recent years, unions have vowed to go back to an organizing model that mobilizes membership through the development of leadership, worker activism, and democratic decision-making. In a union structured according to the organizing model, membership understands that regardless of their membership status, dues paying or not, each and every one of them is responsible for the success or failure of their union and its ability to achieve high standards both at work and for their families—for overtime pay, parental leave, a healthy pension, education funding, and more.
This intentional move towards the organizing model has been provoked by a recognition that the service model is incapable of overcoming the difficulties of race, class, and systemic structures that keep the labor force divided. We must build solidarity across our differences—horizontally at the level of the membership—rather than relying upon help from superiors within the union organization, which ultimately leaves the membership fragmented and dependent. Organizing styles seeing the most success today are more inclusive, have a strong analysis of the specific power dynamics they are up-against, and are actively working towards anti-racism. This requires a clear understanding of how workers have historically (up to the present) achieved positive change, and how local success can trigger broad change across the industry. Essential to this strategy is centering workers with multiple intersecting identities in organizing conversations, which helps build the solidarity needed to bridge working-class divisions and achieve positive social transformations. This isn’t about fetishizing the most oppressed, nor putting the burden of work on them; it’s about mobilizing people who can fluidly move through multiple worlds to help build links between them (whatever those worlds may be).
While I am a full-time union organizer, anybody can organize around whatever issue is affecting them. Here, I would like to share a set of tools for the would-be organizer. I should caution that although organizing tools can be universal, they evolve over time and must adapt to local conditions. Finally, I am a strong believer that taking small actions in the face of big problems can help you see the path to resolution or transformation. So, if you have a big problem at work, home, or in your state, consider the following, and place each in your tool-box for action.
The first tool is the “analysis tool.” Do your homework. Research the issue. What is the problem, its history, and who does it affect? How does it affect people differently based on identity? Why?
The next tool is the “find the leaders tool.” Who is well respected among those affected by the problem? Why? Do they represent the people affected? Has their voice proven to unify people in the past? Who is missing from the table?
Once you have found the leaders, the next step is to build an organizing committee of leaders on the issue. This committee/working group should maintain the same membership for the most part, attend regular meetings, engage in trust building, and move on the principles of consensus building. Every public comment or action must be created and approved by the regularly attending committee and no members shall speak on behalf of the issue without an agreement from the team. It is also crucially important to make sure that the committee is engaged with, and responsive to, the affected group, who should ideally be participating in supporting activities and calls to action.
Finally, the “call to action tool.” A call to action is a clear task intended to show a force of power. This must come from the most respected members of the affected group, and it must follow the “escalation strategy.” This means starting with the smallest and easiest action that will draw the widest possible participation. Then, as the issue is unfolding, the call to action gets bigger and stronger and many times becomes increasingly risky. The escalation strategy is about bringing as many people as possible along through time and trust.
After over a decade of this kind of work, I can say that organizing is certainly not a glamorous job, nor has it been easy—emotionally, or physically—and I have many ideas for improving the conditions of working organizers, including pay equity, representative leadership, and stable hours. Still, it has been incredibly rewarding to see how individuals are changed by their experience of mobilizing for a better future, finding their voice, and then changing the way that people around them see the world. This all has changed me for the better. I wouldn’t give that up.
CLAUDIA GISSEL URIBE is an organizer and anti-racism facilitator in the US labor movement with the American Federation of Teachers Washington, AFL-CIO. She has been organizing communities for over 14 years. She is also a collaborator with the feminist organization Casa Gaviota in Mexico City.
2 thoughts on “Notes From A Labor Organizer”
I absolutely love this article. I have had the honor and privilege of working with Gissel. She is a warrior for equality and fairness. Being union member has improved my work experience. I have worked for companies that didn’t have paid vacation or sick time, insurance , retirement, raises , or workmans compensation . I have al of those things now. I am involved with Labor/Management committees , sit on the Executive Board of my union. Some people balk at having to pay dues . I consider my dues as ” job insurance ” . We insure ourselves, homes , lives , cars, phones, ect. Why not your job . Organizers are community angels .
I would add that sometimes a demographic analysis of the area and effected groups is a useful step before finding leaders and starting your organizing committee.