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Steward’s Corner: ‘There Aren’t Enough Of Us’

Above photo: Participants conversed at the 2022 Labor Notes Conference. Jim West, jimwestphoto.com..

It’s a common situation: there’s too much union work to do, and not enough people doing it. And the ill effects are serious.

Carrying too much work puts a lot of pressure on you, and you’re liable to burn out. You may find yourself overwhelmed with tasks, unable to prioritize, dissatisfied with the results—and possibly making poor decisions, because you’re too busy to solicit and include ideas from others.

Most important, this arrangement squanders the intelligence, creativity, and energy that your fellow members could bring.

Unfortunately, the most common “solutions” rarely work:

  • Grabbing whoever is nearest at hand and begging them to take over some job.
  • Scolding members: “Don’t blame the union if stuff isn’t getting done. If more members don’t step up and get involved, what do you expect?”
  • Posting general appeals in the union newsletter: “Get involved! Join a committee! Run for office!”
  • Piling one more task onto someone who doesn’t know how to say no.

Instead, consider changing how you’re asking individuals to join you. Some of your co-workers may be waiting to take on meaningful work—but they may not know it until you invite them. Make a list of people you’d like to see step up, and try this:

Offer an invitation, not an assignment. Let’s not treat union siblings the way the boss treats us. Invite your co-workers to think with you about what the union is doing or could be doing.

Follow their lead. The best bet is just to ask them what they think is important. Where do they think the union has been falling down? What is it doing well? Is there anything they’re curious about? Ask what they’re good at, what they enjoy doing, what they’re keen to learn. Maybe there’s something intriguing but intimidating that they might try if they could set conditions on it —for example, “I’ll set up a meeting in my department, but only if you’ll come with me.” Keep asking questions till you find a spark.

Create work from what they want to do. You probably feel there’s a long list of what must be done, but give it a fresh look. Maybe there are different ways to accomplish a goal, or new ideas that come from conversation with the “prospective” activist. A good leader fashions a plan that reflects members’ ideas and helps them blossom.

Bring dignity and care to the task. Dignify whatever contribution a member can make, even if it seems small to you.

Offer a work buddy. When someone is coming into union work for the first time, they’ll benefit from having someone they can go to for questions and encouragement.

Relinquish control. Since you’ve been doing so much, you may have gotten used to the feeling of being in charge of union stuff. When other members step up, step back and make space for them.

Roll Out A Welcome Mat

Beyond recruiting individuals, can you create welcoming opportunities for group participation? One union whose members reached out to me had suffered under inept leadership for many years, until nearly all the work was being done by one person, the president—who thought this arrangement was fine.

A small group of disgruntled members set out to transform the union. They wanted to bring other members in, but there was nothing to bring them to—no membership meetings, no committees, no campaigns, not even a newsletter or bulletin board. And they couldn’t get a copy of the union’s membership roster from the highly defensive president.

So they tracked down a list of all employees and set out to talk with as many workers as possible—union members or not—across job titles and work sites. They decided not to ask people to join the union… not yet! Instead, the goal was to see what kind of problems people were facing on the job, and what they thought about the union. They wanted to offer a welcoming experience with no strings attached to see if anyone responded.

After some weeks of individual conversations—and still without permission from the president—they decided to organize a meeting, which they called a “Workers Assembly,” where anyone could come share their experiences and listen. They made clear that this wasn’t a “union meeting” and there wouldn’t be any official business.

The meeting was lively and respectful, and it proved to be a magnet. Workers who had never stepped into any union space before showed up to this and subsequent assemblies. As issues surfaced in the discussions, some people got curious about how they could start taking action to deal with them.

The core group grew; division of work became possible, and more ambitious plans could be made. Some newly activated members started a newsletter, others helped co-workers solve problems on the job, and others got involved in preparing for collective bargaining, the right to which had just been reestablished by law after 40 years.

Out of this expanding base of active volunteers, eventually a caucus took shape and won leadership of the union.

The steady effort to find and engage members has continued to pay off. New people have been elected as stewards, membership recruiters are increasing the member rolls, and others are following up on community issues that affect them on the job, like violence, housing precarity, and government corruption.

Make Recruitment Collective

What about when a specific role has to be filled? I heard from a union in a high-turnover workplace that was facing this problem. Many workers didn’t last there for more than a few months. Union roles were often vacant; vital union work piled up on the remaining officers and stewards. And then, with negotiations looming, a co-president abruptly had to step down for personal reasons.

The remaining co-president needed to find a replacement, quick. But everyone active in the union already seemed to be overwhelmed. What could she do?

At an executive board meeting, she asked everyone to write down the qualities and skills they thought would be ideal in the next co-president. They discussed their ideas and agreed on a list. Then she handed out a spreadsheet showing every member who had engaged with the union in some way over the last couple of years—been a steward, volunteered for a committee, run for office, joined a bargaining or contract action team, attended a rally or meeting, or baked cookies.

She asked the board members to scrutinize the list of characteristics, and then the spreadsheet. Anyone who met a plausible number of criteria should be written down as a possible candidate. She encouraged them not to preemptively exclude anyone—“I know she’s way too busy”—and even to consider themselves.

The exercise showed a pretty wide circle of people who could fill the role, and half a dozen leading candidates, including some current board members. None declined to be considered; probably some were hesitant about the new responsibility, but they also felt honored enough to rise to the occasion. People volunteered to reach out to the other candidates.

By this time the desperation had drained away, replaced by a sense of confidence. The collective process had a strength and credibility that was very different than if the co-president had tried to recruit someone on her own.

In follow-up conversations, one especially well-suited candidate emerged, but to take the role, she would have to step down from chairing an important union committee. No problem; another of the candidates would be perfect for the committee. He agreed to do it, but he would have to step away as department steward—so he recruited a co-worker for that. A righteous cycle rolled out in front of everyone’s eyes.

Ellen David Friedman is a retired organizer for Vermont NEA and a member of the Labor Notes board. This article is excerpted from a new book she is writing about organizing.

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