Count Noses

Credit: Laborers Local 79

You’ll need a system to track members and potential members, with maps and lists. Get to know the informal leaders in the workplace.

Here’s the baseline: an active union needs to know where all its members and non-members are, and how to contact every represented worker.

But your data should go much deeper than that. The better you know the internal dynamics of your workplace—who talks to who, how does information travel, when are the crunch times each day—the more effective you will be at recruiting members as well as building power on the job.


For starters, you need a complete and accurate list. Don’t trust management to produce this. The union should maintain its own seniority list, periodically checked against any list management sends over with the dues check.

Keep track of personal emails, cell phone numbers, shift or start time, department or location, and whether each worker is a member or not. Then think about what other information you’d like to keep track of.

Is Rosie a steward? If not, who’s assigned to communicate with her? Is she an identified leader in her department? Which union actions has she participated in? Is she hardcore anti-union?

If you don’t have a list, start with whatever employee list you can find (be resourceful, be discreet). Enlist stewards to check the information for their own departments.

All this data needs to be stored, whether it’s a big Excel sheet or a customized database. Your list will need constant updating—it’s only as useful as it is accurate. Stewards should take ongoing responsibility for filling in missing contact info, adding new people and removing outgoing ones, and asking the non-members to join.

One or two leaders should take charge of tracking and coordinating with other stewards to get cards into non-members’ hands.


If you have a lot of non-members, don’t panic—and don’t assume the best approach is to work your way down an alphabetical list, talking to every non-member. You’ll want a more nuanced plan.

For starters, look for patterns in who the non-members are. Are they concentrated in a certain department, job, shift, or group where you’ve never had much union activity?

Your goal isn’t just to get membership cards signed, but to build a living union that reaches every part of the workplace. Wherever your union network has a hole, you'll need a strategy to involve that group. You might need to get the right leader on board or plan a campaign on the right issue.

Here’s a great tool to help you uncover these gaps and devise these plans: make a map. (See box.)

Mapping Your Workplace



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Start with a physical map of the workplace. You want to show where your co-workers are, and where they move throughout the day.
Use sticky dots to show each member and non-member, with colors to indicate supervisors, stewards, union activists, or different jobs.
Making and analyzing the map should be a group activity. Look for patterns and discuss these questions:

  • Work groups. Who is grouped by job, work area, or shift? Which groups see each other? Which are hard to reach?
  • Social groups. Who carpools together? Who speaks the same language? Who socializes at lunch? Who’s related? Who are all the smokers?
  • Identity. Look at gender, race, language, and sexual identity. Does the union reach every group? Do stewards reflect the diversity of the workforce?
  • Membership. Where are union members and stewards clustered? Which groups show the biggest gaps in union involvement?
  • Issues. How does each group relate to management? What are its biggest problems? Which issues could be addressed through collective action?

These conversations will help you devise a strategy for who to talk to first, and find potential organizing issues. Your map will also show you good places to talk with co-workers, away from the prying eyes of supervisors.


Rather than try to talk to everyone on your lunch or break, think about who you should prioritize because they have influence.

Every workplace has informal leaders who aren’t elected or appointed; they just are.

Think about your co-workers, and ask around. Who do they go to for help or advice? Who do they ask when they want the facts? Who do they admire? Certain names usually come up over and over. In one hospital, a certain nurse was known on his floor as “the mayor.”

Fundamentally, a leader is someone who has followers. That means there are others who will take an action—sign the petition, wear the sticker, attend the rally, join the strike—when this person asks.

Leaders often correspond to groups. Different leaders might have sway among the younger workers, the moms, the basketball players, the people who work in a certain department, or the night shift.

The people who already have followers are the ones you most want to get involved in the union. They will be the best at recruiting and inspiring others; they will be able to sustain their co-workers’ trust in the face of an anti-union campaign.

Go out of your way to get to know them, learn what they care about, and help them develop campaigns that move others into action. Time spent with these leaders will pay dividends.


For the biggest results, focus first on the area where you have the most non-members.

At the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, an organizing team of staffers and release-time members chooses six schools each semester. Organizers tailor a plan to raise member numbers at each targeted school based on its particular history and challenges.

The Indiana State Teachers Association uses a “Go Green” system to motivate worksite leaders. Schools below 50 percent membership are coded red, those above 50 percent are yellow, and those above 70 percent are green. The color scheme helps officers and reps (stewards) prioritize which schools, and even which parts of buildings, need the most help.

Last year the Eastern Howard Education Association, north of Indianapolis, formed a membership committee and divided up the list of non-members. Each person took two or three people to talk to.

Through these conversations, they discovered a unifying issue: a point system that required teachers to meet unrealistic criteria based on attendance and degrees in order to get a raise. So the union bargained a pay scale instead. The campaign of conversations, combined with the issue fight, boosted membership from 56 to 70 percent.


A chart is a good way to track your progress. It’s easy to update and allows you to see at a glance which departments are strong on membership and which are weak. Make a big version to put on the wall and a spreadsheet you can carry with you.

The simplest form of chart is just your list, sorted by work area and shift, and color-coded to show who the members and non-members are and who hasn't been asked yet. Mark each steward or activist who is helping to sign people up, and each identified leader you are hoping to recruit.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #472. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.