In Connecticut Hotels and Cafeterias, Recruiting a Rank-and-File Army of Organizers

What if more organizing was done by the members themselves, instead of union staffers? Cafeteria workers in Connecticut are developing their skills by taking three- to six-months leaves from their jobs to work as full-time organizers. Photo: Chris Brooks

How much stronger would our unions be if they didn’t rely so heavily on staffers with little or no experience in their industries? What if more organizing was done by the members themselves?

“A lot of people feel that the union is just money coming out of their check,” said Doretta Bowman, a food service worker at a high school in New Haven. “I don’t feel that way. The union is me and my co-workers that I work with every day. We are going to fix problems as they arise.”

That’s because her union is using its new leave-of-absence (LOA) program to put more power in the hands of members. Bowman is one of nine rank and filers so far who have taken leave from their jobs to work as full-time organizers.

UNITE HERE Local 217 represents 3,000 workers in food service and hotels across Connecticut. It has won contract language that allows not only officers and stewards, but any member, to take leave at the union’s request without losing seniority.

Workers who’ve been through it say the program has transformed them. They return to work with more skills, expertise, and ongoing organizing responsibilities.

“Rather than only having a handful of staff people dealing with 40-odd shops, we have a base of organizers that we are building from the ground up,” said program alum Stephan Alderman, a University of Hartford cafeteria chef.

The program is helping change the culture of the union—ensuring that its goals and strategies are not determined solely by staff.


New Corps of Organizers

UNITE HERE Local 217 isn’t the only union using release time to develop members’ organizing skills and boost campaigns.

Another is Communications Workers Local 1037, which represents public sector workers in New Jersey. It brings shop stewards off the job to focus on organizing workplaces where union membership is lower.

“People are responsive to individuals that look like them,” said Emma Claros, who took release time from her job at the office of the public defender and later joined union staff. “When I did worksite meetings, a lot of workers that had never talked before started talking. They were like, ‘Oh wait, she’s Latina,’ or, ‘Oh wait, she’s queer.’ It took away one level of apprehension.”

In Washington state, Safeway grocery clerk Ariana Davis took release time to do political organizing for Initiative 1433, which will raise the statewide minimum wage to $13.50 an hour over four years.

To qualify the initative for the ballot, she helped her union, Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 21, gather 300,000 signatures—many of them from its own members: “I go into the store and I talk to everyone and say, ‘Hi, I’m Ariana, I’m the one who filed this petition, and this is why it is good for us.’”

Over the past few years, Local 217 has cut its permanent staff from seven down to four.

“It sends the wrong message if all workers ever see are non-rank-and-file organizers doing organizing,” said Andrew Tillett-Saks, the union’s organizing director.

A year ago members voted 4 to 1 to increase their own dues to finance the leave program. The new funds plus the reduction in permanent staff allowed the local to create three slots for members to cycle onto staff for stints of three to six months.

The resource shift made sense to Diana St. Mark, a food service worker on leave from the University of Hartford. “We are not going to completely replace our organizers, but we are making our union stronger by getting more leaders involved,” she said.

Each LOA organizer takes responsibility for a “turf” of workers. These may be existing union members, where the task is internal organizing, or workers seeking to join the union, new organizing.

Either way, there’s a method to learn. Each rank-and-file organizer sits down with a staff mentor once a week to talk through obstacles and develop skills, sometimes roleplaying one-on-one conversations or mapping a workplace.

“I go to some of their meetings with them and they go to some of my meetings with me, so we can also model the skill and give feedback,” said Sarah Cox, a staff organizer who works with three LOAs. Parts of monthly staff meetings are dedicated to group trainings.

One benefit of the program is that it gives members the chance to form connections between worksites. For instance, St. Mark was assigned to help cafeteria workers get ready for contract negotiations.

“I didn’t know any of the workers in these places,” she said. “I didn’t even know they existed, so I really had no idea how big our union was—but I went to work building committees in those workplaces.”


Organizing Basics

Diana St. Mark sums up her new skills in four steps:

1. Have organizing conversations: Agitate workers around on-the-job issues. Give them a vision of how the union is working to address their issues. Make an ask.

For instance, when the university was demanding concessions, St. Mark asked, “If they were to stop paying for insurance, how would this affect you?”

After the worker responded, she would explain the union’s plan of action:

“If you don’t want this to happen, this is the program that we are working on right now. We have nine universities in Local 217. We have seven in negotiation right now.



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“So we are organizing a statewide fight, because all of us acting collectively will put greater pressure on the bosses around the state. They can’t pick us off one by one.”

2. Map the workplace together: St. Mark asks workers to “play an information game” with her. They sit down one on one to talk through a list of everyone at the worksite.

“I ask them to tell me who hangs out with who, who talks to each other. Then I ask them if they know, among that group, who is the one that is the most upset about how things are.”

The game gives St. Mark clues to identify social groups in the workplace and possible leaders. Then she can schedule organizing conversations with those people.

3. Build workplace committees: A committee is made up of workplace leaders who each take responsibility to talk regularly with a group of co-workers. The goal is to include a leader from every group, so that everyone is in the loop.

“My job is to turn out the committee and make sure they meet,” St. Mark says, “and keep them engaged and doing the union’s work. I also look for other leaders to bring out on LOAs, so they can get a deeper taste of organizing.”

4. Involve everyone: In some unions, contract negotiations include only a small number of union representatives and management. “Our goal is to keep all of our members on all of our campuses engaged, because whatever decisions are made at negotiations affect all of them,” St. Mark said.

“We push our committees to be the ones to speak to their co-workers, to make sure they wear buttons, to run phonebanks. We want them to know they have a voice in negotiations too.”

Whether the turf is internal or new organizing, a key focus in every worksite is to recruit leaders to an organizing committee that’s responsible for actions.

The organizer helps the committee address workplace problems with action. Often that means organizing a march on the boss. When workers go as a group to confront a manager about something, they get a taste of the power they have when they act together. Mangement gets a taste of it, too.

“In one cafeteria I organized, the manager used to be up front with his computer, watching employees, making them nervous,” said St. Mark. “After the employees started organizing delegations and confronting him, he got scared. Now he stays in the office and is too afraid to be out among the workers.”

To get workers comfortable with confrontation, LOA organizers start small and build. A new committee in a university cafeteria began by joining a mild statewide activity: members got their co-workers to sign a petition pledging to support the master contract campaign.

Next, the committee mobilized workers to present the petition to their manager in an impromptu meeting. “The first time they were afraid,” said St. Mark. “They only had eight people agree to be a delegate to the boss.”

But the next delegation drew 14. The third time, all 20 people in the shop participated. “We saw that the work was working,” St. Mark said.

Local 217 is involved in organizing drives where a majority of workers are Creole-speaking Haitian immigrants. Thanks to the LOA program, the campaign staff includes bellman Donald Jean-Marie, who shares a common culture with the people he’s helping to organize.

“About 60 to 70 percent are Haitian, so they pulled me out because I am Haitian and speak the language,” Jean-Marie said. “When workers talk to other workers, the impact is bigger.”


The new rank-and-file organizers aren’t just foot soldiers. Part of the shift away from a staff-driven union is that members help decide strategy.

For instance, Local 217 has spent years lining up the expiration dates of contracts covering 850 cafeteria workers at seven of the nine unionized Connecticut universities. In the lead-up to negotiations, LOA organizers and workplace leaders mobilized several hundred members to a meeting to plan an escalation campaign.

The LOA organizers are also expected to participate equally in staff meetings.

The benefits are twofold. One, union strategies are enriched by the creativity and expertise that workers bring to the table. And two, people feel more ownership over plans that they’ve help to formulate.

For the permanent organizers, the challenge of this new structure is that they must be open to allowing workers to take more responsibility than before.

“The thing I preach with our organizers over and over again is, you gotta let go a little bit,” said Tillett-Saks, “because if you don’t, you can run a perfectly micromanaged meeting or campaign, but you can’t build a movement.”

Even after their leaves end, rank-and-file organizers are expected to serve in staff-like roles, attending weekly staff meetings and helping organize workplaces besides their own.

“Other campuses can call me and ask for help, because they are dealing with a grievance and don’t know what to do, and they know I have more experience,” St. Mark said.

But for her, the program’s most important result is her new skill set for nipping problems in the bud at her own workplace. Shop floor leaders like St. Mark put the boss on notice that the union doesn’t leave the building when the staff representative walks out the door.

“There is a lot I can do on my own without union staff showing up in the shop,” she said. “I feel empowered. Having someone else feel that way will grow a union that is strong.”

Chris Brooks is a staff writer and organizer with Labor