“Uniquely Bad”- A kind of disordered thinking that every organiser will encounter
Every workplace is different, but that does not mean you cannot form a union there. Fellow Worker Matilda explains that many of us avoid organising in our workplaces by rationalising that our workplace is “uniquely bad” to organise in. But this is a product of fear and helplessness. When we recognise this and get support from other organisers, each of can break through the wall, no matter where we work.
One of the things I have often contended with when reaching out to other members of the IWW, or other workers, friends or acquaintances to encourage workplace organising is a sort of ‘exceptionalisation’ of their own workplace.
“My workplace” people often say, “is uniquely impossible to organise.” Folks will then point to several features of the workplace, such as conservative co-workers, temporary contracts, high turnover, or a ‘lack of interest’ from colleagues as evidence. These features, the logic goes, make this workplace fundamentally unlike any other more organisable workplace where there is the potential for a campaign.
“There is just no hope here!“
But of course anyone in any workplace can find reasons why their particular job is ‘uniquely bad.’ Sometimes, different people’s reasons may contradict one another. For instance, in a conversation I had with two friends in different workplaces, one said:
“There’s no hope in my place. Turnover is too high, and no one wants to stay on for a career.“
However, another said:
“There’s no place for a union in my workplace. Staff have been there for years and accept the status quo.“
What would be the hypothetical ideal for these workers to organise? A workplace with turnover, but not too much turnover? Well, the fact is that there is no ideal workplace that does not have something making it “uniquely bad” because this is not a rational argument. It is a fear and trauma response. These workers are identifying uniquenesses and challenges in their workplace, but this is paralysing information as they already do not think that a union campaign is possible.
It reminds me of my own history of depression. When I was depressed, friends would offer me advice and I found that I would systematically conjure reasons why the advice would not work as a kind of self-harming learned helplessness.
One technique I have used in an attempt to overcome this is to reframe a workplace’s idiosyncrasies as factors that could also help a campaign. Recently, I was talking to an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) who was bemoaning the conditions at work. They brought up, almost word for word, both of the reasonings above. This worker’s assessment was that staff at their workplace were either upstart university graduates eager to move on and start a career and only likely to stay for enough experience to go into the private health services, or older and more seasoned EMTs who fundamentally didn’t want to shake the boat.
Organising in this workplace was “uniquely impossible!”
My response to this was to try to show the ways that these two groups in fact complimented one another and both could be good organisers. Medical graduates may have contacts in local activist scenes. They may be interested in creating a career for themselves and have a fire and energy that older staff may need more effort to ignite. Conversely, the more experienced staff have a very good reason to want to improve the workplace and have a continuity and history that makes them extremely suited for training new members. Plus, they remember ‘before it got shit.’
This form of reframing is quite similar to psychological techniques for dealing with depression and other forms of disordered thinking. That is no coincidence! The workplace, via its structures and bosses, intentionally seeks to instil compliance via a sense of fear and an illusion of powerlessness. It is structured like a dictatorial hierarchy where the boss has an enormous control over your life and exerts that control via your direct manager. You are always watched via CCTV. Your efficiency is monitored via performance goals. You are timed by a punch clock. You are constantly surrounded by the workplace’s marketing and brand. You may wear a uniform.
All of this instils a sense that the company has power and that you do not. Other workplaces are more distant, and this form of psychological propaganda does not register as much when you are not spending a large portion of your waking life under someone’s command in that place. So when another workplace organises, it may be quite easy to write it off as a situation where they obviously had it much easier than you. They did not have to deal with the same unique challenges that you would have to if you tried to start a union. This emotional distance mystifies other workplaces and creates the impression that union campaigns or organisers are ‘special.’ It is not something anyone can do. Or, it is something that can only be done in a mythologised ‘easy’ workplace or perfect circumstance.
To overcome this terror, we have to compare the material reality of the workplace with our ideas about it and confront the way it has trained us to perceive it differently. Perhaps this can be done with conversations with an external friend as above, or a discussion with another worker in the workplace. Perhaps it can be done on your own. This re-framing does not necessarily mean turning negatives into positives, but rather, thinking about how a workplace’s unique traits change how you can operate. What methods will be effective, what might not be. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ to a union campaign.
Either way, though, every workplace will have its challenges. Those will be unlike those of other workplaces. That is not something to be afraid of; it just forces you to be inventive.
Below is a list of some clichéd reasons why workplaces are ‘uniquely bad’. They do not represent any specific workplaces, but they serve as examples of how organising tactics may change depending on the material conditions of the place.
“My coworkers are conservative and will not want to organise.”
Often, even people who identify as conservative politically can and will still be interested in organising – as long as you do not use too many anarchist buzzwords! Organising with these people may encourage you to form close relationships in order to slowly challenge their preconceptions rather than outright dismiss them due to them. When the campaign gets going, you may find yourself significantly improving people’s opinion on collective action. The Daily Mail isn’t going to show up and debate you, so if you have several people on board, you can often get past propaganda. Check the Suggested Reading at the end for some good articles on how to do this by Fellow Worker Colt Thundercat from the USA.
“My workplace has a very high turnover. People do not stay long enough to organise.”
Often high turnover can be a result of a feeling of disempowerment, a primarily younger workforce or a workplace which simply chews people up and spits them out. If you want to avoid setbacks to an organising campaign, really hammer into organisers and other workers to dig their heels into the workplace. High turnover means a loss of continuity and history in the workplace, so workers who have stayed in the same one for some time (or in the case of temporary workplaces such as festival jobs, worked for the company multiple times) have a large advantage to organising: They are the ones who can train other workers and tell them how things used to be better. High turnover also facilitates dirty tactics. If you are always on the razor’s edge, well, any action is as dangerous as any other, so you might as well not pull punches.
“My workplace has many immigrant workers. There are language barriers and the boss may pull visas.”
Workers are made of clay, not glass, and assuming that immigrant workers will not organise because they may get their visa pulled is a fallacy. Time and time again, we’ve seen that vulnerable people like these are often the most willing to organise, because their visa could be pulled for any reason anyway. An example of this is the Pan-African Workers Association in the care industry, who organise African immigrant workers. They will often use a good union rep is necessary in these cases, as someone with a good handle on the law can help spot modern slavery and discrimination cases that can be used to threaten the boss. Immigrant workers are vulnerable to exploitation, and should always be reached out to early in an organising campaign to ensure their grievances are heard.
It is important to bridge language barriers when they happen, because they prevent the union from becoming democratic. If there are no bilingual workers in a workplace who can communicate between different cadres of workers, you may have to learn or reach out to the wider union to try to ‘salt’ the workplace with a member who speaks both languages. One benefit of this is that you may find you have a ‘secret language.’ If the managers do not speak the same language as many staff, you can organise in plain sight without them knowing!
“We are working in a separate location to my Fellow Workers. It’s hard to even meet them.”
Are you sure that they aren’t already meeting? Distant workers such as couriers, truckers and remote TEFL teachers very often set up self-organised and non-company-approved forms of communication outwith the boss’ control, as a practical necessity of the job. These can be a good way to get in contact outside of the workplace. You can also do some sleuthing to find folks contact details or get a chance to chat in private. If you never meet them, keep an eye out for forums, chatrooms or mailing lists online where workers may chat. You may even think about starting your own: A ‘Deliveroo Drivers Edinburgh’ Facebook group or subreddit may attract some of your colleagues and give you a chance to privately talk to them.
“My co-workers don’t like me.”
Getting your co-workers to like you may be tough, especially if you are marginalised. Some tips are to make sure to arrive on time and help out when they need it, proactively ask questions and get to know them, listen to their problems. You know, friend shit. Try to make at least ONE friend in the workplace and get them on board in the organising campaign – once there is two of you, you can co-ordinate to work on getting to know people one at a time, until you have built a strong social structure in the workplace and made friends. Having an ally is one of the best things you can do.
“I’m reliant on my boss” e.g. as an intern, a student, or employed by relatives.
Make damn sure you have a union rep on call, or ideally, one in the workplace to protect you from retaliation. ‘Dig in’ by collecting massive amounts of evidence of health and safety and discrimination in the workplace. If you get fired, you can use this as a threat to keep your job, especially in a precarious or high-turnover workplace. Vulnerable workers often fight back harder. If you’re an African worker in the UK, get in touch with the Pan African Workers Association for help and advice as well as the IWW.
“My shifts are very long and I don’t have much energy left, or I am working multiple jobs, I am disabled.”
Try to do as much union work as you can “on the clock” rather than at home. Make sure to do it privately, of course, and do not let your boss get any of your notebooks, but if you can use that dead time for something you might as well. Be smart about how you use your energy. Take care of yourself first, and slowly make progress on organising. Remember, no one person should be the leader of a union – it MUST be democratic and decentralised. If you are doing all the work, then it’s not a union, it is just you. Delegate some of that workload.
Articles on how to confront and gradually organise with homophobic coworkers.
The Stopwatch And The Wooden Shoe by Mike Davis
An article about the invention of ‘scientific management’ and how, no shit, the bosses intentionally designed workplaces to break your spirit in this way.
Written by FW Matilda Dow, IWW organiser in Edinburgh.
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