by Jen Johnson
As a public high school history teacher for 10 years, I organized lesson plans and materials and the arrangement of my classroom. I facilitated thousands of discussions about history with classes of teenagers. I designed projects and guided the students to achieve our goals and get excited about learning and putting in the work.
Yet, somehow, if you asked me if I was an “organizer,” I probably would have said that I wasn’t. “Organizers are the professionals. I’m not a professional organizer!”
Thankfully, my union, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), has tried to change that wrong-headed perception. The CTU works hard to train our members to understand that organizing is grassroots rank-and-file work. There are leaders everywhere if you’re looking for them. Improving our workplaces and the lives of our communities are collective tasks. We can all be organizers, but there is an art and science to learning to practice good labor organizing skills.
Secrets of a Successful Organizer—a new book from Labor Notes, by Alexandra Bradbury, Mark Brenner, and Jane Slaughter—is a perfect primer on the basics of good organizing. Distilled into digestible bites, the book lays out eight main lessons—from how an organizer thinks, to how an organizer maps a work site and designs, carries out and assesses a campaign. (It even includes a brief summary of labor law and related resources.)
Unlike many wordy and inaccessible how-to manuals, Secrets of a Successful Organizer reads more like a conversation with an experienced and patient organizer, guiding you and reassuring you along the way.
You’re encouraged to see that even reading the book can be a collective activity.
“You could read this book alone, but you’ll learn more if you talk each lesson over with a buddy—or better yet, a group of co-workers,” it reads.
The book is designed to make this possible through its organization and content.
Each chapter builds on the previous one to paint a coherent picture of how to build better organizers and organizations, and have successful campaigns. The book’s eight lessons are divided into 47 shorter tips, and nearly each one includes downloadable handouts, specific organizing stories and exercises you can do with co-workers or in trainings.
The perfectionist in me loves the chart handouts. One explains “How the Boss Keeps Us Disorganized.” Another shows how to track tasks during an organizing campaign, along with who is responsible and the deadline for each task. While you’re reading, you might think things like, “Easier said than done!” but no sooner than you have, the book anticipates your concerns and, like a good organizer, inoculates you—giving you reason to hope and telling you a real story to prove the point.
For example, the book profiles Joe Uehlein, an organizer in a Georgia meatpacking plant. He and his colleagues used the escalating tactics of singing, whistling and humming at work to call out a union-busting official every time he walked on the plant floor. Each escalation was a response to the boss trying to shut down an organizing drive with ridiculous new rules. The actions scared the bosses and gave workers confidence in a short period of time, which ultimately allowed them to win a union. Tip #34, “Don’t Let the Boss Trip You Up,” then lays out the main tactics that bosses use (fear, hopelessness, confusion and division) to stop organizing.
Some of the stories are complementary and help organizers not only see the tips come alive, but point out that the workplace context will often dictate what kind of tactics are best.
The section around Tip #25, “Choose an Issue That Builds the Union,” includes the story of Los Angeles hospital workers who organized a campaign after management changed policy to mandate that workers provide a doctor’s note even for a one-day absence. A subset of workers demanded a meeting with management and, when it was held, workers took their 15-minute breaks in rotating fashion to attend the meeting. One set of workers started the meeting, then as workers had to leave when their breaks were over, new sets of workers joined. They were able to keep the meeting going as long as possible and testify as to why the change was bad.
That story contrasts well with that of the Pennsylvania social workers who organized a powerful 15-minute strike by using the flexibility in their work rules to have all social workers take their regular 15-minute breaks at the same time.
This story, contained within Tip #31, “Keep the Boss Off Balance,” is simple and inspiring, but the similarities and differences between it and the story about Los Angeles hospital workers help organizers draw on universal advice and apply it to their unique setting.
Additionally, each of the stories includes reflections, quotes and honest assessments of mistakes and accomplishments from organizers and workers on the ground.
For me, maybe the biggest lesson the book helped to hammer home is that we are often reactive in organizing, but it’s important not only to respond to crises. To be our best possible organizers, we have to proactively and strategically select organizing issues that are the most urgent and important to the broadest set of members.
Whether you’re a labor leader wanting to increase worker or member engagement, a veteran organizer in need of a refresher or a new steward wanting an orientation to best practices,Secrets of a Successful Organizer is a must read.
Buy the book for $15 + shipping here.
ABOUT THIS AUTHOR
Jen Johnson was a high school history teacher for 10 years in Chicago, where she was also a union delegate. She is currently a Chicago Teachers Union facilitator for teacher evaluation.