Finding Their Voice
Kris Rondeau Discusses Organizing with Richard Balzer
Richard Balzer: Kris, I am glad to have the chance to talk to you about organizing. Almost everything you read or hear about unions has to do either with declining membership or about how hard it is for unions to win elections. Given AFSCME's recent success at organizing -- Harvard, the University of Minnesota, the University of Illinois, and 1200 nurses in Connecticut -- I wonder what you think about this situation and the prospects for successful organizing in the future. [AFSCME is the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees -- ED.]
Kris Rondeau: Organizing is really hard. It goes without saying that under Reagan and Bush the rules of the game were altered. The National Labor Relations Board's decisions definitely hurt. Worse still is the increasingly smug attitude of employers. Over the last five or ten years employers have been given carte-blanche to conduct any kind of vicious anti-union campaign they want and, disturbingly, they do it with great gusto. They seem willing to use any tactic to mislead, scare, and intimidate workers not to join a union. They employ subtle psychological tricks, destroying workers' self-confidence and belief that they have the democratic right to decide whether to be represented or not. It's pretty frightening. As you can imagine, these campaigns are extremely hard to beat, especially if you use old fashioned organizing techniques. But there are new ways, effective ways, to organize. We've developed a model of how to organize.
Balzer: Could you say something about the model?
Rondeau: Sure. First, you have to ask what the union's advantages are -- because the employer has so many advantages of power, resources, influence, access. There is only one answer, and that is our ability to develop honest relationships with each other, where people are equal. All sorts of possibilities come out of building that kind of relationship.
Balzer: Where does this model come from?
Rondeau: It comes out of the experience of working women. This is not taking anything away from men. In fact, the labor movement was built by men mostly for male workers, and its traditions, its way of doing things, and its structures all come out of masculine culture. The model worked extremely well while unions were winning by organizing mostly men, working full time, supporting families. Now the workforce has changed; how and where people work has changed. So the task is different. I think if the labor movement would listen to what women organizers are saying we could be more successful in the years ahead.
Balzer: Will the model you have developed work at places other than Harvard?
Rondeau: I'm sure it will. It already has. But it does need time and support. In this connection, we are very fortunate to be part of AFSCME. Our international union supports the model we have developed and does not try to dilute it.
Rondeau: The key is organizing one-to-one, or one person at a time. It's a type of organizing based on building deep personal relationships by connecting workers to each other in important ways. It's not the kind of organizing that relies on market techniques or advertising. It's not about selling somebody something. You build a strong organization by connecting people to each other. The union grows out of this network of relationships. Without this all you ever have are superficial connections which will never withstand the hot breath of management's anti-unionism.
Balzer: How do you build these relationships?
Rondeau: It's really simple. Three ways: the most important is listening. When you listen you find out important things. The second is talking. I don't mean just talking about the union, but telling your story. You can't ask someone to tell their story without telling yours. Third, you need to make sure that the relationships are ongoing -- that they last. Organizing a union is not a one shot deal or even a one year deal.
Balzer: So listening sounds like it's pretty critical. Do you train people to listen? Do you just tell them to listen?
Rondeau: Some people are just good listeners. One of the reasons that women often make terrific organizers is that they're interested in other people and they know how to listen to them. Others struggle with listening and -- especially at first -- think that organizing is selling something, and it isn't. While the other person is talking the listener is composing his/her response in her head. That's not listening. Listening requires that you be interested in someone else's life, in their experience.
Also, employees are initially scared of going up to strangers, introducing themselves, and just talking about the union. It's a fear that almost all organizers have.
Balzer: What's the fear about?
Rondeau: It's a fear of talking to strangers. Also a fear of rejection, because you're asking someone else to care about something that you care about. But there's also just the fear that you would have walking up to anybody and talking to them. One of the first things that we teach people is that when they're going to talk to people about the union, they should not talk about the union; find other ways to get to know the person, to listen to their story.
Balzer: You have talked a lot about listening. What about telling stories?
Rondeau: One of the primary ways we communicate in the union is by telling stories -- real life stories. We do not rely on talking in abstractions, or about some great political vision. We talk about everyday life and how we'd like to change or improve it. Management talks in abstractions. Storytelling is the language of workers.
Stories have a feel to them; they're broader, deeper than facts. Sure, we have all kinds of facts at our fingertips, but we use stories to communicate important things. We use stories in one-to-one organizing, in meetings. It's part of our humor and our singing.
Balzer: What are you trying to do with this listening and storytelling?
Rondeau: They are our primary ways of getting people to make connections. We want workers to connect with each other and with us. People at work often feel isolated. You just can't say to someone, "you are not alone, the union is here." But the more we connect people the more they start feeling the union's support in their bones.
Also, as people talk and listen to each other about their own personal work situation, they start to see a larger context -- how their story fits with those of other workers. This is how you form a community of interests. A community of interests: that's what our community, our union is about. Building a community takes time and the basic element is people talking to other people. When that happens, we hope people come to see that the union is a good idea and that they want to be part of it.
Don't Use Literature to Do the Job of Organizing
Rondeau: We don't use any literature at all -- for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is developing our own leaders. Building leadership is an important job of the union and it isn't automatic that you find people who are skillful in this work. People have to grow and develop in their roles. When you depend on literature, you often reduce the role of the activist to little more than handing someone a leaflet or a piece of paper. That doesn't require very much from the activist, and it's even worse for the person receiving the paper. They also have a very passive experience. So literature is, in our opinion, not only unhelpful, it is destructive. It gives people the sense that they already know what the union is about and that's no way to learn about the union.
Balzer: How do people get the facts and information they need then?
Rondeau: First, let me say something about facts. There is this belief that decisions like whether I should be for the union or not can be reduced to a neat set of facts. They can't. If people join on a set of facts, they have little real relationship with the organization -- with the community. That doesn't mean we don't talk about facts. But these facts do not live on a piece of paper. They are just part of a conversation. We think you need to start with the discussion and the relationship before you deal with the facts.
Balzer: How did Harvard management react to your lack of literature?
Rondeau: I don't think they liked it. In fact, I know they didn't like it. It takes away one of their basic weapons. Without literature the employer has less to respond to. They can't take statements out of context, they can't pigeonhole us, try to refute what we believe. They're forced to base their anti-union campaign on some fantasy of what a union is and, frankly, that fantasy is always wrong.
Don't Organize Against the Boss
Rondeau: I think that Harvard management was disappointed that we didn't organize against them. Management always thinks that they are all there is, and that if a worker is going to do anything, have a thought, form an organization, it's got to be about the boss. But organizing isn't about the boss, it's about workers. It's about their need for some power or influence over their jobs and their lives. So it doesn't matter if the boss is kind or moderate, benevolent, or vicious. It just doesn't matter; workers need their own voice. The boss is irrelevant. It doesn't matter what they say or do; this isn't about them, it's about us.
Balzer: How do you find issues to organize around then if you're not organizing against the boss?
Rondeau: You may be surprised by this, but we don't organize around issues. Every American worker knows what the issues are -- wages, family issues, health and retirement benefits, training. Our point is that there is only one way to address them and that is by making sure workers have some power. If there is no union then the employer is the only party with real power, and over time that imbalance will always hurt workers.
A campaign built around bread and butter issues is too small. In a union campaign the only real issue is whether workers have voice, influence, and collective power. If they have a union they can use it to make progress on everything else that concerns them.
And something else: we don't organize against the institution. People who work at Harvard want to make it a better place, they don't want to tear it down. So one of our mottoes was "It's not anti-Harvard to be pro-union." For the union is about us, about our need in this community to have influence over our jobs and lives.
Beating Anti-Union Campaigns --
Rondeau: Yes, but it's a hell of a task. You have to have perseverance as well as courage. We know the employer will be willing to spend a lot of money (even an obscene amount of money, more than they spend on wage increases), time, and energy trying to convince workers that they are better off unorganized. We can expect meetings, letters, rumors, booklets -- all to get people to vote "no."
That would be tough enough, but we know that workers, and I mean virtually all workers, start out anti-union. If people don't have a negative view of unions they have a fear of unions. People aren't taught in school that they are better off being part of a union, not just in terms of being unionized, not just in terms of what they earn, or the benefits, but in terms of their job security and their ability to participate at work.
Balzer: So what do you do?
Rondeau: First, we abandon the traditional theory of organizing around the most oppressed worker. I was taught that "the boss organizes the workers." What this meant was that if wages and conditions were bad enough, and the boss mean enough, then workers would want to form a union.
We found the opposite to be true. The more oppressed individual workers are, the more fearful they are of the boss, and the less likely they are to participate in a union drive. Usually what happens is that the people who have the most freedom at work, good relations with their supervisors, and some independence are the ones that get active first. They create an atmosphere, an environment of safety, so that when more people get involved, it becomes safer. What you'll find is that the last people to become part of the union are the ones who have the most to lose, and by the time they become part of the union, the union is strong enough to protect them. So we start with the least oppressed workers.
Balzer: What else do you do that's different in organizing "big shops" employing anti-union campaigns?
Rondeau: A lot of people -- including some "friendly academics" -- have written off the possibility of organizing so called "big shops." Unfortunately, many people in the labor movement have accepted that. It's silly because if you can win little shops why not approach an employer of 7,000 workers as if there were 70 little shops? Organizing 70 little shops of about 100 people -- unions do that all over the country.
Balzer: How do you organize a lot of little shops at a place like Harvard?
Rondeau: At Harvard we had 3,600 employees to organize. We decided we'd have more success with 36 organizing committees rather than one organizing committee for the whole workplace.
It makes sense for a lot of reasons. First, we use the organizing committees to develop future leaders. A person will feel much more comfortable and self-confident with a group of 100 people than a group of 1,000. Second, even figuring out how to organize 3,600 people can be daunting. You can be overwhelmed by a sense of hugeness. Creating smaller areas makes the job more manageable. It's better for workers, too. Sure we want them to be part of something larger, a union for the entire organization, but we realize that they have deeper connections in smaller areas, and will feel more comfortable organizing in those areas.
During the anti-union campaign, workplace leaders have to stick close to their co-workers, close enough to hold hands. It may sound silly, but it's true: many hands make light work. Also, many hands make higher quality work.
Our Identity Is In Our Values
Rondeau: Well, we figure that a union is fundamentally an organization based on values. We start with some core values that the labor movement has always stood for -- people taking care of each other and realizing that what makes you stronger makes me stronger even if it doesn't affect me directly. In addition, we emphasize a few simple values -- treating each other with kindness and respect, having a sense of humor, being willing to sing.
Balzer: Can you say something about treating people with kindness and respect? What does it mean
Rondeau: It's about creating an atmosphere where people feel free and safe. It's not Ozzie and Harriet. We don't say, "well dear, that was wonderful." But we also don't cut each other down, and we don't set up discussions with one side opposing another side. We set up discussions where people build on what other people say, and introduce new ideas in a non-aggressive way. It's really important that the people experience the union as a safe place, a place where you can ask a dumb question, and try something new.
Part of this kindness and respect is to give people a chance to find their voice. This is particularly important to women. It's about having confidence. A lot of men will speak up at a meeting no matter what. With many of our members we have to work so that they feel comfortable at meetings, so they feel that the union is a place where they can say what's on their mind. We're there to help each other get stronger, and we do it in a direct but gentle way.
Balzer: Kris, you also mentioned the importance of humor and singing. Could you say something about each? What kind of jokes do you use?
Rondeau: You mean like "how many managers does it take to screw in a light bulb?" Okay, seriously, two reasons for humor. One is because these organizations take a long time to build, and you don't want to be constantly struggling and just working hard with your nose to the grindstone while you're doing it. We are up against powerful employers, strong opposition, and we ought to have fun while we are doing this.
Second, building a union is more than just winning or losing. It's about building a community that touches people's lives. It's just impossible to do that without humor because jokes are such a big part of life.
Balzer: Where does singing fit in?
Rondeau: Actually, Dick, we were just having a conversation about this very subject. I think a union that doesn't sing is a union that loses. I don't know what makes you sing. Whether you sing because you're winning or you win because you are singing -- no doubt in my mind that it works.
Balzer: Could you say something about the union singing group, the Pipets?
Rondeau: The group formed because while we were organizing the Harvard Medical School, management wouldn't let a group of us sing in their talent show. So we formed this group called the Pipets (which is a joke itself about working in science laboratories) and started in singing. Once we started we never stopped. We sing all the time. Everybody loves to sing. And for grownups there's not enough singing. Come to our rallies and you can see that people like to sing along. And something else Dick, songs have an amazing power. You can use your songs to express both your humor and your anger.
Balzer: Humor, singing, rallies, dances, events. What is this all about?
Rondeau: Unions are cultural organizations and we want the union to be connected to people's lives in a full way. The family is part of this. If you want to build a strong union you have to have room for the family. That means room for children and grandparents and retirees; it means room for spouses; and it means having lots of social events. These things make the union stronger, because whenever you have a party or a dance or a rally people talk to each other and every time they talk to each other the union gets stronger.
Balzer: So, Kris, what are you trying to build with these values?
Rondeau: We are building a strong union, a strong identity, and a supportive community. In the 1990s it's necessary for workplaces to provide people with a sense of community because the social structures that used to provide people with this sense of community are withering. Families, neighborhoods, churches, temples, and other social organizations are meeting less of this need. I don't believe employers are capable of providing people with this community. It is something the union can do and is doing.
People Change, So Take the Time You Need
Rondeau: I guess it's because too often we get fooled and believe events have more meaning than they do, and get distracted from the day to day work of building solid relationships and the foundation of a strong union. Let me give you an example. For a lot of traditional organizing drives the focus is on passing out cards. The focus is the event called the election and once you have enough cards signed you go to the election. We don't put cards out until very late in our drive. It is a big mistake to think that card signing has much real meaning. Most people are just signing a card to get an election, and they really haven't thought about whether they are going to vote "yes" or "no." So we focus less on the event of signing the card and more on developing a relationship where people feel connected to the union.
Balzer: The word relationship is a strong word. It suggests some duration of time to develop. Is that right?
Rondeau: It certainly does take time. In fact the hardest thing to teach somebody else about organizing is that people change. We've just been conditioned not to believe it. But people do change in the right conditions. Maybe the word "change" is not totally accurate. People grow in relationships. But it takes time.
I know this is a woman's way of looking at the world. Sometimes we talk about how men focus more on tasks or events and women more on relationships, but you can see it all the time in the organizing we do. Since a lot of what we are doing is trying to help people with their self-confidence and give them a place to find their own voice, we know it will take time. We have found that the more individuals are connected to each other the more daring they are. They take more chances. You can see this particularly with a lot of woman workers and the time it takes them to volunteer. Some women have to sit through 10, 20, even 30 meetings before they'll speak. Men are much more likely to speak in a meeting, to think that their opinion is very important. Women and shy men are much more likely to say something like "I know this sounds stupid but what if...." Over time they become more comfortable, start asking questions without making apologies, giving their opinions and eventually volunteering to take some responsibility for helping to build the union. I'm afraid there is no quick way to make this happen. Sure, if you want to get a small number of people involved you just take the people who step forward first or are most apt to open their mouths. If you want a broad-based union where lots of people are responsible for its growth and development you need time.
To be broad-based a union must make sure that nobody's left out. Every race, both sexes, every age group, every kind of job -- connecting these different groups takes time. But growth keeps going. Once all these people become part of the union they continue to grow, They learn new things. They find the courage to learn new skills. They get the pleasure of teaching someone else something they themselves just learned.
Balzer: So you don't see time as your enemy in an organizing drive?
Rondeau: No, we see time as something we need to respect, because all these relationships need time. Good organizing takes time. It's always been true, but the need for patience is even more important now. It used to be that an employer would bargain in good faith over a first contract after an election. Now they fight you during the election, and they continue the anti-union campaign while they're supposed to be bargaining. We used to be able to build a certain level of relationship before the election and then keep building it in a calm atmosphere after the election. But now the anti-union campaign is like a hurricane that passes through the workplace. Anything that isn't cemented down is going to blow away.
So now we must build the entire union right down to the last person well in advance of the election. Traditionally people have said "win the election then build the union." We say "no, build the union and then win the election.
Balzer: Is this model transferable? Will it help organizers win?
Rondeau: We've proven that it can work. But you know, people have to find what works for them. I hope organizers will find things here they are already doing, and will borrow any elements of our organizing that will help them. That's what we've done.
I think it will certainly help organizers succeed. Of course we all want to win. Winning is important but you know too much time and energy is invested in thinking about winning. We know how to win, we know what winning means, but we know that to sustain a long hard drive you have to focus on the everyday stuff day after day.
It all comes down to working on everyday things, on making connections, on building self-confidence, on building self-reliance. It comes down to building things slowly and quietly together. It comes from the fun and adventure of day-to-day challenges. When we do these things we shape labor's identity -- winning elections is great, but helping workers find their voice and sing their song is even better.
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