Jump-Start a Weak Union from Below

Credit: Sarah Jane Rhee, loveandstrugglephotos.com

What if you’re caught in a union that's not doing a good job?

What if your union is mostly invisible, or only reaches out when there’s a crisis, or doesn’t fight for good contracts, or is too cozy with the boss? Perhaps when some rep comes around asking you to recommit, you and your co-workers are saying, “Really? Why should we?”

You might even be tempted to stop paying dues yourself, as a form of protest. Don’t do it. In your heart you know workers need a union to have any shot at building power on the job.

But you also know your union needs dramatic changes. Here are some ideas on how to start making them:

  • Spend time with co-workers you trust and whose values you share. Ask them: What kind of union would you like to be a part of? Be very practical—for example: “Would you like to hear more from officers about what’s happening in bargaining?” Offer examples, but mostly listen.
  • Brainstorm goals collectively, and reach out to others who might be receptive. Use that to build a network. You might even develop a statement that expresses your “Vision for the Union.”
  • Take action. The best way to show the value of what a union can be is by getting members involved in solving problems in their own worksites. You don’t need to wait for permission—just start talking among yourselves about what the problem is, what solutions you’d propose, and how you’re going to work together to bring it to the boss.
  • Reflect on your organizing as a group, and brainstorm next steps. Is it time to run a slate for stewards or for higher offices?

Warning: This bottom-up approach to problem-solving on the job might fly in the face of your union’s way of doing things. Some of your co-workers and officers might be dismissive of your efforts, or even hostile. Stay steady, be patient, and keep going.

Read much more in Democracy Is Power.

For a longer version of this article, see "How to Jump-Start a Weak Union from Open Shop Attacks," Labor Notes #466.

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