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Home » Organizing » Steps for Effective Union Conversations: Anger, Hope, Union, You

Steps for Effective Union Conversations: Anger, Hope, Union, You


by Claire Park, AFM Field Organizer

An organizing conversation could begin something like this: “Hey Joe, I overheard what you said at last week’s gig about your concerns with workplace safety. I feel the same way. I’ve been talking with some of the other musicians about how unionizing could help us. Do you have time to talk more about it after tonight’s performance?”

At its core, organizing is about talking. A union’s power lies in its members and the quality of their relationships to one another. Building those relationships of trust and solidarity starts with getting to know the other person, exchanging concerns, sharing information, and discussing how to stand up and take action together. A great one-on-one conversation that moves people to act typically has the following elements and steps.

1) Listen and Get the Story

Listen and find out what’s troubling the person you’re talking to. Let’s say you’re a musician interested in organizing under the AFM with the folks you perform with at a theater in town. Simple, revealing questions might be: How have things changed since you’ve been here? What worries you? Find solidarity in being troubled by the same issues. You may ask questions like, “I’m really concerned about these dangling stage lights since management cut the stage staff. What do you think?” The ratio of listening to talking should be close to 7:3 or even 9:1, so you can find out just how you and your colleagues are being exploited by management, and what concerns will really move them to act with you to win back those priorities from the boss’s pocket.

2) Share a Vision of the Union

Once you’ve identified some troublesome issues, it’s time to inspire them about the possibilities ahead. Give hope on how the particular problems might be addressed by organizing and fundamentally changing the power dynamics at work. Tell them: “If we join forces in a union, we could enforce safety standards in the pit and argue for the reinstatement of a guy who makes sure nothing’s dangling above us.” Discuss a viable plan to win.

3) Prepare for the Fight Ahead

Management, whose existence relies on turning a profit from their workers, will frequently oppose workers trying to improve their working conditions. Emphasize “urgency” and the unique value of a union to incite change. For example, “We’ve needed a safer stage for ages. Why do you think they changed the lights now?” Let people know ahead of time what tactics to anticipate so that they’re prepared to combat them. For example, they may face mandatory meetings where management insists that the business will collapse if you come together for safer working conditions, or pizza parties to show off quick fixes that don’t address the underlying asymmetry in decision-making power.

4) Assess and Move to Action

Close the conversation, at least for the purposes of organizing, with a clear goal and date for action. Ask them, “Are you ready to stand with me and the group to form a union?” You might ask if they can have similar conversations to help spread the word about the organizing effort and inspire all fellow musicians to act together. If interest and conviction waver, return to the issues: “Has complaining by yourself about workplace safety brought any change? Who decides on safety measures right now?” Be realistic and identify and highlight the roles your colleagues are willing and able to play, helping them find the “you” in union.

Individual conversations will differ, but if you get lost in the conversation, a helpful mnemonic to keep your conversation focused and effective is AHUY: Anger, Hope, Union, You. One-on-one conversations are not sales calls or speeches, or even gossip, but genuine opportunities for people to get to know each other to create a solid base of support for each other. Only then can we accomplish together what can’t be done alone.

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