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Home » Organizing » The Recipe for Successful Organizing Campaigns

The Recipe for Successful Organizing Campaigns

  -  AFM Organizing and Education Division Director

From Starbucks to Amazon to musical workplaces, the ingredients of a labor campaign are universal—and like any great recipe, there are no shortcuts.

This year saw inspiring worker wins at two major—and notoriously anti-union—corporations: Amazon and Starbucks. And these workers did it themselves, outside the framework of existing unions, forming the Amazon Labor Union and Starbucks Workers United. While they had a lot of help from professional union organizers, they knew what every good organizer knows: unions don’t organize, workers do.

How do successful campaigns begin? First, a small group of workers meet and discuss their problems. Realizing that complaining isn’t going to solve anything, they reach out to their union or a professional organizer for guidance on forming an organizing committee. They receive training on how to have effective one-on-one conversations to identify issues that each worker wants to change and that move them to take action. The committee grows, and new members are trained in the one-on-one conversation, sometimes called the “organizing conversation.”

Eventually, the growing committee has the organizing conversation with every employee in the workplace. Along the way, they test the commitment of the pro-union workers by taking small actions together—having everyone wear a union button at work, for example, or put their name and photo on a petition.

When they have reached a point where 80% or more of the workforce is pro-union and taking progressively escalating actions together, it’s time to go public with the campaign. With a super-majority of union support among the workers, the committee may ask the employer to voluntarily recognize a union for the workers in the workplace. If the employer does not voluntarily recognize the union—which is frequently the case—the workers will take a vote but not right away.

The reason employers rarely recognize a union, even when they know a majority of workers support one, is because forcing workers to take a vote buys the employer time, which they desperately need to launch their aggressive, long, and often expensive anti-union campaign.

The one advantage that workers have in facing an employer’s anti-union campaign is: each and every anti-union campaign is exactly the same. Sure, the boss may not use every ingredient, but the recipe is the same no matter what. Because they are entirely predictable, organizers and worker leaders can “inoculate” their colleagues against these campaigns, telling them each anti-union tactic they will encounter from their employer.

Because they and their colleagues are inoculated against the anti-union campaign, they have taken two crucial ingredients—yeast (fear) and baking powder (hopelessness)—out of the boss’s anti-union dough, which never rises. Is it any wonder that when workers know the ingredients, they don’t want to eat the cake, or more accurately, mud pie?

So, what is the recipe for organizing musicians? It’s exactly the same, as much as it would make our lives easier to take shortcuts. Still, I encounter skeptics who argue otherwise. Here are a few assertions I’ve heard with my replies:

“That’s fine that Starbucks workers organized, but musicians are scared.”

Newsflash: All workers are scared. Fear is one of the most powerful anti-organizing tools an employer has. The point of organizing is to acknowledge that fear, dispel its power, and motivate workers to take action in spite of fear. We do this through one-on-one conversations and escalating collective action.

“The executive director of our local symphony is a friend of mine. As a local officer of union X, I can just pick up the phone and see if we can get a contract.”

Never go directly to management before building a campaign. First, you have told the employer that there is an effort to unionize, giving them months or years, and not weeks, to conduct their anti-union campaign. And even if successful, what would you ask for in the contract? What do the musicians want? You can’t skip one-on-one organizing conversations.

“That theater pays well and has never been union. There’s no way we will get a contract because everyone makes more than our scale. If there were problems, I would have gotten calls.”

It is rare to find workers who have no issues—don’t assume that everyone is happy simply because their rate of pay or other conditions are favorable. And don’t expect them to come to you. Have a one-on-one conversation with those you know to see how things are going for them at the workplace. You’ll be surprised at what you learn!

“We can’t get a contract with the local clubs, so we can’t organize those musicians.”

The essence of organizing is workers’ winning the things they need through taking powerful collective action. This can be done both within and outside of the collective bargaining framework. The ingredients remain the same.

In the AFM local officer training I’ve designed, I focus heavily on one-on-one organizing conversations. If the boss’s yeast and baking powder are fear and hopelessness, labor’s are one-on-one conversations and collective action. There may be rare times when telling musicians not to work for non-union employers, charging members for violating AFM bylaws, or approaching employers directly for a contract will work. However, my sense is that, if they worked well, we’d have much more unionized musical work.

There’s no substitute for the hard work of organizing—having one-on-one conversations in order to get workers past their fear to take escalating collective actions. This is the power of labor organizing, whether it is at a Starbucks, Amazon fulfillment center, or a club, stage, or theater pit.