Have you ever tried engaging your co-workers in a conversation about building a union? It's not easy. Your co-workers might be enthusiastic, but they might also respond with fear, anger, paranoia, apathy, or bravado. Inexperienced worker organizers often meet their co-workers’ fear and uncertainty with facts and statistics. This is a flawed approach — especially in an initial union conversation — because it overlooks the most common reasons for objections to the union: fear and third-partying. 

While building relationships with your colleagues around the union is critical to overcoming these concerns, effective early union conversations follow a methodical structure for moving workers to action. In this article, I lay out my approach to one-on-one conversations, which I learned from an organizing mentor early in my career. As an external organizer, I rarely know the worker I'm going to talk to in advance, but by adhering to the following steps, I’ve been able to move many workers to action. If you’re a rank-and-file worker, you’ve already got an advantage because you work alongside the people you’ll be talking to, but even for those inside the workplace, this structured approach can be effective. 


Step One: Discover the issues 

Discovering the issues your co-workers care about is the foundation for an effective conversation, and the bulk of your first conversation should be spent on this step. 

How do you get workers to talk about the issues that matter to them? By asking open-ended questions. Keep it simple and focused on the work they do. Start with a question like, "How many hours did you work last week?" and build from there. 

A rookie mistake is beginning with a leading question such as, "How happy are you at work?" The problem with this question is that it can quickly lead to dead ends. What if your co-worker responds that they’re happy? Fact-based, open-ended questions — such as the length of time they’ve been at the job, the hours they work, the type of training they’ve received — will allow you to build into subjective questions like how angry they feel. If I feel stuck, I’ve often just asked, "What's the first thing you'd change about your work if you could?" No one believes everything is perfect about their job.

While you’re discovering your co-workers’ issues, keep in mind the rule of thumb called 70/30, meaning they should be speaking 70 percent of the time while you speak 30 percent of the time. Don’t try to do the math in your head. Just pay attention to who is speaking the most, and, if you find that you’re talking too much, ask an open-ended question to put the focus back on them. You can’t learn about the issues that motivate your co-workers if you’re the one doing the talking, and you want them to know they are being heard.


Step Two: Agitate

Workers accept the status quo when they feel powerless. Ever hear someone say about their job, "It could be worse?” Workers often feel they have little recourse other than to adjust to their exploitation so that they can function day to day. Agitating your co-workers means you are giving them permission to be angry about their issues. It can be as simple as conveying empathy through your body language or saying, "That must be frustrating." My organizing mentor would regularly repeat back to someone what they had just said, as in, “Wait, did you just tell me you don’t know when you’re working mandatory overtime until the day you clock in at work?” The response would usually be an emphatic “yes!” followed by more venting. You need to agitate while discovering the issues.


Step Three: Educate 

Now, you have to provide your co-workers with alternatives. This is where you educate them about the union difference and explain how it is possible for workers to come together to take power and address common issues in the workplace. 

Again, keep it simple. This is not the time to go into the cumbersome details about the Russian revolution and historic betrayal against syndicalists. Once you’ve built trust and rapport in your work relationships, these types of conversations may happen, but, for now, all you’re trying to do is communicate that unions are about building power in numbers. The boss needs us; we don't need the boss. 

My mentor used to convey the power of a union by joining her hands together while saying, “When we join together, we can win.” As individuals, we have little chance of improving our workplaces, but when we unify under shared demands and common goals, we have a lot of leverage that we can use to win.  


Step Four: Make an "ask" 

So many new organizers shy away from asking their co-workers to build power by pitching in on union activities, but you need to know whether your colleagues actually support union efforts and are willing to take public action to win. That's why you ask them a yes or no question on whether they will participate in a given action to support the union. The content of the ask will be based on what you're trying to accomplish in that phase of your organizing, whether it’s a petition, march, or organizing committee drive. 

Do not project. Even if the conversation doesn't feel like it's going well, you still need to make an ask for two reasons. Issuing an ask gives your co-workers the opportunity to exercise their agency by making their own choices about their involvement in the campaign. Many times, I’ve been told by inexperienced organizers that they didn’t issue an ask in an otherwise good conversation because they felt their co-worker “wasn’t ready for it.” But this is not a decision we should be making on behalf of our co-workers without allowing them the opportunity to either surprise us or clarify why they are on the fence. 

My organizing mentor always said, “We don’t give objections they haven’t given us.” What she meant was that if I decide that the worker I’m talking to isn’t ready to participate in the union — and therefore don’t make the ask — then I’ve created the objection for them and stripped away their agency in the process. 

The other reason you need to issue an ask is so you have a concrete assessment of where the worker stands on the union. An organizing conversation should try to move a worker from point A to point B; by asking a yes or no question, you can accurately assess if you’ve succeeded in moving them and suss out how solid their support for the union actually is.

A common mistake is accepting any initial doubts or fears as a solid “no” to the ask (or, on the flip side, accepting a shaky yes as a solid one). You need to anticipate, since this is your first one-on-one, that your co-worker will be uncertain and afraid. Pushing your co-workers past these fears will be uncomfortable, for them and for you, and it’s a tricky balancing act to figure out just how much pressure you should apply. But it’s critical to push your colleagues past their fears without invalidating them.   

When objections or shaky commitments arise, you can use a structure called AARF: acknowledge, answer, redirect to the issues, and frame a choice with consequences. Fortunately, this acronym is just a restatement of the steps already listed. You want to acknowledge their fears without dismissing them outright, refocus on their issues, and illustrate how the only solution to these issues is through the vehicle of a union. 


Step Five: Inoculate 

Once you've moved your co-worker to action, you have to prepare them for management’s toxic messages and potential retaliation. We always know what the boss's playbook will be (threats, lies, intimidation, retaliation), and we have to be honest with our co-workers about these possibilities. If we predict the boss’s lies or tactics, they will be less effective. 

An analogy I’ve used, inherited from my organizing mentor, is to imagine I’m walking down the road and there’s a person crouching behind a corner waiting to jump out and sock me in the face. It’s going to hurt, right? Imagine that scenario again, but this time a good samaritan informs me that there’s someone waiting to punch me. Now I’m prepared for what’s to come and (hopefully) will dodge that punch when thrown. Inoculation means preparing our co-workers for the boss’s attacks in order to lessen the impact of those attacks.  


Step Six: Follow up 

Union conversations are not sales pitches or debates. They are the building blocks of the relationships that will allow us to successfully organize the workplace. 

Not every union member has to like each other initially, but we do need to know the issues we’re all experiencing and organize together to solve our collective problems. Struggling together changes our relationships with our co-workers, helping us move past our differences to find the common ground that builds bonds of solidarity. Such transformation doesn’t happen overnight, and it often requires us, as worker organizers, to move past our initial dislike for some of our co-workers. 

One of the ways we do this work is through structured conversations, which means it’s critical that you plan for follow-ups with your co-workers to check back in, plug them in to the next steps of the campaign, and keep encouraging them to take more leadership. 

A follow-up conversation also illustrates the importance of your co-workers’ involvement in the union — a union can only be built together. Try to establish an agreed upon time and place for your next conversation before you end the one-on-one; this will make clear to your colleagues that these conversations will be ongoing and regular, and save you a lot of time and hassle down the line. 


No conversation structure is capable of moving every single co-worker to action. But, by following these steps, you will, at a minimum, gain clarity on the most pressing issues your co-workers are experiencing and what they currently think about the union as the vehicle for fighting back. You will also find that some of the steps collapse on each other, or someone might raise an objection before you’ve even issued the ask. Think of these steps as methods and try to remember the methods rather than memorizing any scripts or canned talking points. 

You should also practice each conversation with a friend before approaching a co-worker so you can feel more prepared for the real thing. It’s a lot like learning a new language; you can read it just fine but once you go to speak to an actual human, you might freeze up before you can even say hello. 

Organizing is a skill, and it’s one you can acquire and refine by practicing your craft. You’re capable of moving your co-workers to action, and these conversation methods will help you along the way.


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