Checklist: Are You Organizing Democratically?

Unions need active members to be strong—and people won’t stay active for long if they don’t have a meaningful say. Photo: CWA Local 1102

Labor Notes has always emphasized that union power requires democracy. That’s because unions need active members to be strong—and people won’t stay active for long if they don’t have a meaningful say.

But “be democratic” is easier said than done. What does democratic organizing look like in practice? How can your efforts be made more inclusive?

Start with this checklist, designed to raise issues for organizers and activists. It is incomplete and debatable—you may want to add your own principles, or change some that are here.

1. Do you work with others?
Organizing means working together to make change. Individual solutions are not paths to power. A one-person operation or a small clique is doomed from the start. Be patient and supportive and keep your eyes on the prize. Make it clear to your co-workers that you need each other, and that there’s room for them in your group—not just as foot soldiers, but as full, equal participants and leaders.

2. Do you question authority?
You want people to think and use their judgment. Do people challenge the boss? Speak out in a union meeting? Do they demand accountability, and ask hard questions? Support others when they do this—even when they are questioning you. In your group, encourage discussion, questions, and debate.

3. Do you confront management?
You want people to “speak truth to power.” Organize actions where people stand up to the boss. Use all the tools available to you—grievances, work-to-rule, march on the boss, slowdowns—to get people involved in putting direct pressure on management. Teach people to be smart about it so they don’t get set up—be a “model worker,” obey first, grieve later—but take the fight to management in the workplace.

4. Do you spread information, knowledge, and skills?
Give people the information they need, or better yet, teach them how to get it for themselves. Do you know how to get union officers’ salaries? A copy of the contract? Answers about members’ legal rights? Do you know how to file, investigate, and present grievances? How to run a job action? How to plan and run a meeting? Your group should be a school for organizing. Do not hoard knowledge or information, even if takes time to spread it out.

5. Do you get people involved in collective activity?
We learn how to act collectively by doing it. Start where people are and escalate from wearing a sticker, to signing a petition, to filing a grievance, up to bigger job actions—always working together.

6. Do you use creativity and make organizing fun?
Use cartoons, songs, costumes, contests for the supervisor who commits the most contract violations per shift—appeal to your co-workers’ sense of creativity and humor. Ridicule can be a powerful weapon for undermining your employer’s agenda.

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7. Do you practice democracy within your group?
As the slogan goes, “This is what democracy looks like.” Use your meetings and actions to give people a working example of democracy. Encourage people to think, question, challenge each other, but also to reach decisions, take action, and follow up. The best leaders help others participate and contribute. They're not threatened when others step up.

8. Do you bring in potential activists?
There are different levels of knowledge and involvement—from the core activist, to the regular activists, to the passive supporters. Core activists need to turn over some of their work as the group grows. Get your regular activists to learn and take on more, and make sure your supporters always have some kind of activity. When you plan an action, think about who you want to reach and how you can bring them closer.

9. Do you build dialogue and unity across potential divisions?
Inequality and democracy do not mix. Employers will try to split you up by race, gender, language, sexual orientation, job title, whatever they can find. The goals and priorities of your group need to include every type of worker. What issues do you share? Do you include people from the different groups in planning, organizing, leading, and taking action? Do you speak one-on-one with people in each group?

10. Do you talk to co-workers one on one?
Use one-on-one all the time. By talking person to person, you build relationships and learn about people’s concerns, interests, and skills. One-on-one is mostly asking questions and listening. Make it part of everything you do: give a person a flyer and talk with her about it, instead of dumping a pile of flyers on a table.

11. Do you organize the organizers?
You will need to organize the one-on-one contact so that one person is not trying to talk one on one to 50 people. Make a list of members, divide it up, and recruit people to talk one on one to a set number of workers, then report back. Keep a database of members with phone number, email, address, job, shift, etc. and a note about their interests and talents. Use your network to spread the work around—you will create more leaders and avoid burning out your core group.

12. Do you think strategically and act methodically?
Be aware of every part of organizing: brainstorming, analyzing, planning, assigning tasks, acting, and evaluating. Take the time to set clear goals for the long term, medium term, and short term. Discuss the advantages and risks of actions you are planning. Have a backup plan. Be “SMART”: make sure every task is Specific, Measurable, Assigned to a person, Realistic, and Time-specific. After the action, assess your work and set new goals.

13. Do you pay attention to roles?
Look at your group: Who decides? Who acts? Who has information? Who asks questions? Who answers? Who makes the plans? Who does the boring or interesting work? Who learns or teaches? Who is at the meeting? Who speaks for the group? The more people do, the stronger they become.

Adapted by Matt Noyes from A Troublemaker’s Handbook by Dan La Botz. Matt Noyes is a labor educator and the former education coordinator of the Association for Union Democracy. Buy copies of the second edition of A Troublemaker’s Handbook at labornotes.org/store. And check out our book Democracy Is Power, on sale for just $10. For more resources on union democracy, visit the Association for Union Democracy, uniondemocracy.org.