Part 1 and Part 2 originally published by The Industrial Worker, found online in the Southern Maine IWW Library: Weakening the Dam
Know the Union, Hear the Union, See the Union
On a 100 degree summer day I was in Stockton, at the Sikh temple meeting room. A middle aged trucker with a long, flowy beard asked me “How do we show the other drivers who weren’t at our meeting today what the union is and why they should join?” I struggled to give him a good, clear answer on this one. I improvised an analogy on the spot. I think it paints a picture of our Solidarity Unionism organizing model in practice: “Know the Union, Hear the Union, See the Union.” Let me break it down.
First you give the whole saying: “Here’s how our organizing works. Some workers will know the union, some will hear the union, but others have to see the union.” If you have a marker and paper, draw three circles around each other (like a bulls eye target). In the middle one write “know,” the next “hear,” and the outer most circle “see.”
You’ll get a raised eye brow or maybe a “huh?” look on the faces of folks, which usually translates to “What the hell is this crazy IWW organizer trying to tell me now?” Don’t worry, this is actually good. If you get this reaction it means people will be interested to hear the explanation. Point to everyone in the room. Tell them that they are the workers who know the union. Point out that they are the workers that have attended meetings, are initiating the organizing and maybe have already taken out a red card. From experience or being fed up, they already know collective action is needed to fight for change on the job and that this is the definition of a union. Usually this group is small, but it’s the starting point for every campaign.
The people who know the union talk to other folks. Some of the people they talk to will be quickly convinced. They’re the ones who hear the union. Maybe they won’t come to the first meeting or they might want to know that it’s a legit effort and not the malcontents of the month, but once they are asked they will participate. This is usually the first layer of workplace leaders that are brought into an organizing committee.
Most workers are in the third camp, ones who need to see the union. They won’t be meaningfully won over to the organizing effort simply by telling them something. These folks are skeptical that collective action by workers can win. They’re probably scared of losing their jobs or maybe had a bad experience with another union.
Here’s how we move the workers who need to see the union in action. The workers who know the union organize and build relationships and leadership among the folks who hear about the union. Together both groups take action to change small issues. This demonstrates in practice what a union is. Other workers see the union in action and start to understand that change is really possible.
For myself this is one of the most useful concepts when beginning to organize. Organizing starts with those who “know” the union, they bring in the folks who “hear” about the union and together they take action to move the workers who need to “see” the union. How this plays out in the long run is that workers move from “seeing” to “knowing” the union through becoming involved in the organizing and action. This process builds the IWW and builds a conscious and militant working class.
Know the Union, Hear the Union, See the Union: Still Good Advice
Some time ago Workers Power ran a column in which a Fellow Worker promoted the idea of “Know the Union, Hear the Union, See the Union” as way of explaining how a healthy campaign sustains itself and grows. Having participated in some organizing, I found myself often re-reading that piece as a source of inspiration and advice. I hope to expand the “Know the Union…” organizing approach by offering my thoughts on how to put it into practice.
In any workplace there are going to be some workers who will quickly be attracted to an organizing drive. Perhaps they’ve been involved in organizing before; perhaps they have some level of ideological agreement; or perhaps they simply have a high level of grievances. In any case, these workers “know the union” and typically come together to form the initial organizing committee.
For other co-workers, they’ll have to be persuaded to join the campaign through a series of one-on-one conversations. They need to “Hear the Union” to get agitated about workplace issues and realize they don’t have to face them alone.
Most workers, however, fall into the third camp: “See the Union”. They’ll have to see the power of collective action before they get involved. As our Fellow Worker summed up in the previous column:
“Here’s how we move the workers who need to see the union in action. The workers who know the union organize and build relationships and leadership among the folks who hear about the union. Together both groups take action to change small issues. This demonstrates in practice what a union is. Other workers see the union in action and start to understand that change is really possible.”
For our friend, “Know the Union…” proved helpful when organizing slowed and workplace militants got frustrated at the pace of growth. “Know the Union…” encouraged workers to get ‘back to the basics’ of successful organizing: one-on-one conversations and group meetings to plan and undertake winnable direct action grievances. It also demonstrated the role the existing leadership should play in instituting a continual process by which co-workers are led up the “hear, see, know” ladder until a culture of solidarity and collective activity is instituted in a workplace.
There’s another important lesson to take away from this: many self-identified radicals have little real-world organizing experience. This is okay. Like anything else, organizing takes practice. What we do have, however, is a wealth of grand arguments supporting class struggle and a vision for a post-capitalist future. Because of this there’s a temptation to ‘intellectualize’ the organizing process. Speaking from personal experience, I know what it’s like to feel unsure about doing something new, especially when it comes to organizing. It’s tempting to fall back on something we’re more comfortable with—like making the argument for why we need a revolutionary union.
Reality, however, is much more complicated than a well-phrased argument. Instead of trying to ‘win the organizing argument’ we’re much better off building relationships of trust with our co-workers. Through this relationship, we engage our co-workers in small scale winnable actions. These actions, in turn, lay the groundwork for larger struggles and deeper conversations.
To put it another way, workers—conscious of it or not—undertake individual anti-capitalist acts all the time. Workmates, however, often need to see collective activity in action before they’re willing to join a union. From there, it’s involvement in collective struggle that opens a space for us, as radicals, to begin having discussion about class, capitalism, and the labor movement.
As organizers, “Know the Union” not only helps us not only to remember that organizing is a process, but forces us to recognize that many times “action precedes consciousness”. The most important thing organizers do is not winning arguments or making rousing speeches, but actually building the relationships that form the basis of any successful campaign.