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December 10, 2018

Building High Participation Unions: You Decide

By Stephen Crozer, ELLA Instructor

In further preparation for bargaining, this past June, the BC Federation of Post Secondary Educators (FPSE) held a two-day workshop conducted by union organizer, author and scholar Jane McAlevey. Like her keynote speech at the 2017 FPSE AGM, the title of the workshop was Building High Participation Unions.

From day one, McAlevey stressed that high participation is the prerequisite to power. This is not unlike Woody Allen’s assertion that 80% of life is showing up. Of course, having a goal and doing something to achieve this once you arrive is, one might guess, the other 20%. At any rate, we can be quite certain that those who are not present in some sense of the word have no power. Secondly, she distinguished between two roles that unions have: servicing and organizing. Servicing is the part unions play when employees are having trouble with management. Also, it is doing such things as going to meetings with management to ensure that potential problems for employees are prevented. The service side of unions is transactional: you pay your dues and you get your … due. So unions are, in part, organizations that provide services for their members; however, unions are also organizations that … organize. This is about reaching out to members, keeping them informed and motivated, and expecting that members will, in turn, reach back. McAlevey stated that usually only 10% of union members are active. Imagine the power a union might have if 80% of its members showed up.

Core Concepts
Jane McAlevey also introduced five core concepts. First, she distinguished between “self-selection” and “structure.” Basically, talking to those who have self-selected is preaching to the choir. She used the women’s March and Occupy Wall Street as examples. You won’t get an argument in those camps; participants have self-identified as members. But when it comes to building the structure of an organization, not everyone is a believer. You must talk to people and convince them, and this might not always be comfortable since often members of a large organization are unwavering in their cynicism. Since on average only 10% of members are active through self-selection, another 70% must be convinced to be part of the structure, at least if Woody’s participation requirement is to be satisfied.

Next, she spoke of leaders versus activists. You may wear a button saying, “Management Sucks,” but if, after a few years, you’re the only one wearing the button, you might be an activist, but you are not a leader. (Actually, you might even be showing up for the wrong activity.) Quite simply, leaders are followed. If a leader puts on a button, everyone puts on a button. Well, maybe not activists! However, if a union can get its activists and its leaders working together, 80% isn’t out of reach.

The difference k between majorities and minorities is pretty clear, but McAlevey says that, when organizing, majorities in all areas are preferable, not just an overall majority. The first goal is to get 55% of members to agree on a particular initiative. Then you aim to increase this by 5% till you reach your goal of, hopefully, a super majority. What is a super majority? Woody Allen would say 80%.

The fourth concept takes into consideration the whole worker and community-labour alliances. We know that there is more to us than the work that we do … don’t we? But does the union know that and act accordingly? Put another way, do we act this way toward each other? We are all colleagues in the DCFA as well as instructors at Douglas College. Do we share what unites us? Do we appreciate our differences and support each other? This view is looking inward, but the flipside is looking outward to our community. Do we see and appreciate the connection between our issues and those in the community around us? Do we articulate this connection in our community? Finally, McAlevey distinguishes between organizing and mobilizing. Organizing is building the union, whereas mobilizing is activating the members. There isn’t much to mobilize if you haven’t organized, which is something for us all to think about heading into bargaining. Are we organized? Jane suggested that social media can be used to mobilize, but it isn’t much good for organizing. Of course, social media was integral to the success, rather questionable in hindsight, of the Arab Spring, but those participants self-selected. Everyone believed! Once everyone believes, social media can be used for mobilization. However, organizing, building structure, is a face-to-face process. It’s about “conversion” through conversation. Once sufficient structure has been achieved, social media is a valuable tool for mobilizing.

Do Structure tests
Jane McAlevey believes in wall charts which list every member and indicate with colourful stickers the different union activities members have participated in. These charts are democratizing and engaging since all members have a visual representation of where the union is strong and where it is weak. They can then build strength from the grassroots. Each time members are asked to participate in an action, be it signing a petition or showing up at a bargaining meeting, it increases their buy-in. These are called structure tests because they test how strong the structure of the union is. If you see few stickers on your charts, your membership isn’t sticking together.

McAlevey’s advice is to start off with involvement that is low risk, say having a member sign a card in private supporting a union initiative. Next, circulate a petition where members can see the names of others but only the union sees the result, so that only the union knows if the petition is successful or not. Finally, you can go public with a photo poster of active members, but not till you have 75% (80% according to Woody) buy-in by your membership.

This process socializes members to risk, which is important since union activity has always involved risk, especially if a union’s structure is weak. Fundamentally, unions are about shifting power, and people tend not to want to relinquish power. For this reason, McAlevey advises starting privately and moving increasingly into the public eye. Initially, it’s important for a union to maintain confidentiality to protect its members so that the “boss” cannot divide and conquer. For example, if a union has a T-Shirt or a pin day before building sufficient structure and very few participate, it does two things. First, it tells the boss that not many are very interested in the initiative and, secondly, it identifies the few that are interested and often subjects them to discipline of various sorts. In such a case, not only does the initiative fail, but union success itself is put at risk. However, once a critical mass of active members is achieved, openness is preferred. At this point, instead of members being targeted, the boss is put on notice that he or she, or at least his or her power, can be targeted.

McAlevey offered a few tips for structure tests. First, petitions should be short, 2 or 3 sentences, and unifying. Don’t choose issues that are controversial among members and don’t include all the facts in a petition. Make them simple and quick to complete. Don’t go public till a union has 75% support for an initiative. Finally, and most important for the DCFA and FPSE going into a bargaining year, use negotiations as a structure test. Jane suggested a goal of having every worker sit and observe negotiations for at least an hour. These members should rotate, so that the other side of the table understands the depth of support, the structural strength, they are confronting. This gives the bargaining team significant power.

You Gotta Believe!
Of course, not everyone does. In fact, there are often “organic” leaders in unions that really don’t value unions. Organic leaders aren’t necessarily the people with titles, but their actions and words carry weight. After all, most of us are followers. If an organic leader says, “The union sucks,” chances are so do others people in that department. If the organic leader is not a believer, talk to her last. Gather information about her from activists and acquaintances in the department. You’ve only got one shot at “converting” a leader. If after you take it, she says, “You suck,” you’re unlikely to convert many others in the department.

Who Am I?
Jane McAlevey stresses the importance of having a grassroots organization based on an appreciation of the whole worker. This being the case, as a DCFA member, you should ask yourself why you became a teacher. Why did you choose Douglas College? Is the present governance structure supporting the reasons you became an instructor and the reasons you chose to teach at Douglas? Finally, if you could change one thing at work tomorrow, what would it be and how would you go about making that change?

The solidarity of the DCFA can and should support our roles as teachers and support us in making positive changes to our college. Being union members and being instructors go hand in hand. We are not one or the other but both … and we are the DCFA.

Building Community Support
McAlevey says that community is key. Again, looking at ourselves as whole workers, we are all part of various communities with different community connections. We should take the union to the community. Those personal connections to community, whether they are through service clubs, sports teams, political organizations or community groups, will get us support letters for our issues. After receiving these letters, we should not forget to send thank you letters to community leaders with lots of our signatures.

At the Table
Jane McAlevey is a strong proponent of “high participation” union negotiations. Her recommendation for small bargaining units with a couple of hundred members is to have one person on the bargaining committee for every 15 workers. For larger units, she suggests one for every 25 workers. According to this advice, the DCFA should have 25 or so members on our bargaining committee. Although she encourages rather large bargaining committees and recommends that each member of the bargaining unit observes at least one hour of the negotiations, she by no means advocates a lack of discipline at the table. In fact, the larger the group, the tighter the organization to bargaining must be. She has three rules for behaviour at the table:
  • Maintain a poker face at all times.
  • Only the chief negotiator speaks unless otherwise planned.
  • Send notes to the chief negotiator at any time. Have lots of paper for this and don’t hesitate to pass notes for a caucus, especially if the negotiator makes a mistake or clarification of a point made by management is advisable. McAlevey also encourages open communication to members. The bargaining committee should have an agenda for each day and bargaining updates including pictures and quotes of the day should be posted on a website or otherwise distributed.
Taking it Home/Making a Plan
In summing up the workshop, McAlevey gave us several suggestions for building high participation unions:
  • Have activists and/or position holders (area stewards and executive council representatives) run an organic leader ID exercise.
  • Develop a credible “plan to win.”
  • Order and/or make wall charts.
  • Start prepping lists for wall charts.
  • Make up a draft contract survey.
  • Start with open-ended questions on the first page.
  • Rank issues inside.
  • Launch structure test #1: a survey.
  • But it’s not just a survey.
  • Plan structure test #2: a majority petition.
  • Plan structure test #3: majority petition or a majority photo poster.
  • But not until you can turn a super-majority petition around in five days.
  • Don’t build the workplace organization around “meetings;” build it around action.
Oh, yes! I almost forgot. It is very hard for Canadians, but we should stop saying “thank you” to each other for participating in the DCFA. (I think “excuse me” is still okay, eh?) Thank you implies that we have done something for the other when, in fact, doing union work is helping ourselves as much as anyone else. We can encourage participation by expressing how good it is to see members attending meetings and events, but “thank you” is out. You must decide how important union participation is to you.

A student cannot succeed with 10% participation. Can our union? You decide.