Understanding Union Consciousness: Knowing Where Your Co-Workers Are At Can Help Build the Union
During union-building campaigns, labor activists sometimes get demoralized because so many of their co-workers are unresponsive. Many workers don’t seem to understand much about the union, don’t seem to care, and don’t get involved.
At times, it seems like there are only two types of members: those who care about the union and those who don’t. If you’re someone who cares, it’s easy to feel like you’re part of a small minority carrying the weight of the union on your shoulders.
Thankfully, however, things are usually more complex. Beneath the apparent apathy there is often a lot of potential.
In my experience, workers in most workplaces are at many different levels of union consciousness (see box). Understanding how they think about the union can help us work with them to help increase their level of union consciousness.
During preparations for a strike in Los Angeles County several years ago, one of our shop stewards was frustrated because she was struggling to get co-workers to understand our concept of a Contract Action Team (CAT). The teams were networks of workers (at least one in every work area) who would commit to sharing information and mobilizing member support for our bargaining proposals during negotiations.
Levels of Union Consciousness
0. Union? What union? I don’t care about unions.
1. Unions are OK, but ours doesn’t do much for us.
2. The union is OK. I had a problem and they tried to help. (The union is seen as a third party.)
3. The union is OK. When there’s a problem I go to the steward and ask him to fix it. Sometimes I help a little. Once I signed a petition.
4. The union is good. I filed a grievance when I had a problem, and I helped a co-worker.
5. The union is good. When we have a problem, we get together with the steward and we try to figure out how to solve it.
6. The union is good. When we have a problem, we have to work collectively to develop a plan to involve our co-workers. When everyone works together, we can pressure management to fix the problem.
7. The union is good. We have to pitch our organizing to the level that others are on so we can reach them, and move them to get involved, one step at a time.
8. The union is essential. We have to build a strong internal union structure at the workplace working together in a stewards council, contract action team, or other member-to-member network.
9. The union is essential. The member council or action team, with input from the membership, must develop a pro-active plan of how we want things to be at work.
10. The union is essential. We must build alliances with members in other workplaces, unions, and organizations to advance our interests, not only at work, but in other areas of life as well.
Note: This list is not intended as a scale to “grade” or judge a co-worker. It is designed to help us understand what role each worker might play in a given campaign and how a given worker might take greater responsibility for the union.
I told the frustrated steward that we were promoting a concept (becoming a CAT activist) that was beyond most workers’ level of union consciousness and that’s why we were struggling.
Most of our stewards were around level five—they understood that the union is a group of employees working together on the job to empower themselves to solve problems and protect and advance their interests. Many members, however, were at level one or two: they saw the union as something outside of them, like a third party, only to be contacted when they had a problem or were in a desperate situation.
As we continued with the campaign, I shared the “Levels of Union Consciousness” list with our stewards council. We decided that our first job was to identify the more advanced workers who were already at level four or five and explain our CAT team concept to them.
Next, we would find other workers who were at levels two, three, and four and try to move them to level five. As more workers moved towards level five, we started seeing a significant change in the union.
For example, one day I was talking to a medical technologist who complained that the union didn’t do much. He knew the union had tried to deal with a couple of problems, but without success, and then “they” (the union) just dropped it. “That’s their job,” he said, “and they didn’t accomplish anything.”
I figured he was a number one or two on the levels of union consciousness. I didn’t ask him to become a CAT member, but instead asked him to sign a petition related to another problem.
I didn’t think he would jump to a number four or five, but I wanted to see if I could move him to number three.
“What’s the point?” he asked. “It won’t do any good.”
I agreed with him that the petition might not yield immediate results, but explained that it was part of a long-term campaign.
“Our goal is to get a lot of signatures,” I explained. “When only one or two people complain, management can easily ignore them. If management doesn’t fix the problem then, which they probably won’t, then we are going to attach the petition to a group grievance.”
I told him that when we set up the grievance meeting, we would get as many people as we could to attend. If a lot of people attended and spoke up, it would put more pressure on management. If that didn’t work, we would apply pressure in other ways.
“So,” I said, “the first step is to get everyone to sign this petition. Can we get your signature?” I handed him the petition and the pen. He signed.
We continued to collect signatures, got 70 percent of the workers to sign, made a copy of the petition, and submitted the originals to management. Management still refused to fix the problem.
So we made another copy of the petition, attached it to a group grievance, and filed it with management. We told the workers what had happened so far, and that when we had a date for the grievance meeting we would ask people to attend.
I saw this medical technologist again and repeated the update. Now he seemed more interested in what we were doing. He told me of a complaint he and some other workers had on another issue, and then asked if the grievance meeting had been set yet.
Since he told me about another complaint that he and other workers had, I saw him as being concerned about problems on the job and about some of his co-workers. He was now a three and I wondered if he was ready to move toward becoming a four.
LEARNING THROUGH ACTION
Union activity was still pretty new to him, and he was feeling his way, but his consciousness was increasing. Union activity was helping him grow.
This list helped stewards see that if workers weren’t at level five today, all was not lost. It also showed that we are responsible for more than just mobilizing around contracts and workplace issues. We are also responsible for developing workers as leaders and educating members about the union.
We don’t have to wait until everyone is at level five to act. In fact, a well-organized group at level five can often move the majority of workers to collective action.
This list helps us understand what role each worker might play in a given campaign, and how a given worker might take greater responsibility for the union. Our goal is to strengthen the union to protect and advance workers’ interests.
When stewards at our hospital understood this, they became less frustrated and less critical of co-workers who had a lower union consciousness. Now they had a strategy to build the union and a set of guidelines to measure their progress.