[This piece was originally written for and published on the blog organizing.work.]
In my first job after finishing college, I worked at a preppy private summer school in Los Angeles located two blocks from the mayor’s mansion. I was making barely above minimum wage while my student loan bills started to arrive, and I was given a full class of 6th graders despite having virtually no classroom teaching experience or training. My job entailed yelling at kids all day, not so harshly that I or the kids felt entirely miserable, but just harshly enough that they did their rote worksheets and my boss didn’t feel it necessary to come in and really humiliate the kids (and me). During the staff lunch break, which wasn’t really a break because we had to supervise the kids eating lunch, all the teachers complained to each other.
Looking back, I wish I had had basic organizing skills then because everything was out in the open and people wouldn’t have needed much persuasion to see what was wrong, or much nudging to do something about it.
However, since then I’ve personally felt stranded in my organizing at a string of after-school and education assistant jobs, because they didn’t match that image in my head of a shitty workplace. There are still plenty of problems, including chronic understaffing, lack of training, and falling wages. But between having nice bosses, working in an industry where we’re made to believe we “do it for the kids”, and pay and benefits being just good enough that few people are desperate, I have had a difficult time wrapping my head around organizing.
In workplaces like mine it can be easy to think “no around here cares”. It’s important to recognize that that’s not “just the way things are,” but that capitalism and bosses have shaped people and social environments to tolerate indignities and exploitation. People’s beliefs and social environments can be reshaped, which is what organizing is all about. If you give up before you even have the chance to organize, you’ve played right into the boss’s hands.
One-on-one conversations with coworkers outside of the workplace about grievances and solutions based in collective action are the bread and butter of labor organizing. If conditions at work are unbearable and people are up in arms, it can be relatively easy to ask someone to meet up after work to talk, because the problems are at the forefront of their minds. However, in workplaces where people are not openly agitated and where grievances lurk beneath the surface, asking to meet a relative stranger for coffee to talk about job issues can come off as forward and presumptuous.
Another factor is how naturally social the workplace is. If workers don’t spend time chatting on and off the job and there’s a not culture of openness and friendliness, asking someone to meet up to discuss problems in the workplace might feel forced.
How do you proceed in this situation?
Here are some strategies for relationship-building with coworkers, a crucial first step in workplaces where workers are not openly agitated and where they feel socially isolated from each other.
Getting good at your job
People are less likely to give you the time of day, especially as a new worker, if they don’t see you caring about and contributing to the job that all the workers have to do together. It can take a while to get good at a job if you’re new to it, but this is frankly as important a part of early organizing as any other. I work in schools, and those coworkers who gain a reputation for not trying very hard or not being good with kids don’t establish much respect with others. After sharpening your job skills, showing newcomers the ropes can also be a strategic way to establish relationships.
Break and meal times
In many workplaces, breaks are the best place to start informal conversations and small talk. Finding out what people care about and engaging them on those topics is the backbone of any relationship. For introverted people like myself, and because all I naturally want to do on my break is zone out on my phone or take a quick nap, it can take real effort to talk to people. I need to balance taking time to recharge when I need it on breaks with getting out of my comfort zone to chat up my coworkers.
One thing to remember is that people usually like having social relationships in the workplace. We spend so much time at work that often the relationships, little and big, that are formed keep people’s spirits up and help them get through the day. Even if people stick to themselves, in my experience, making the effort to start awkward small talk is often appreciated.
If people bring up grievances, that can be a great pretext to asking them to have a one-on-one, but having discussions about work problems at work can be dangerous because you might not know who’s listening and those conversations require more consideration than you’re likely to get on a break.
Spaces and times on the periphery of work
Especially for coworkers who you have no opportunity to talk with on the job, the moments before and after work as well as work-related events can all be used to have conversations. In my school district, we have professional development days where it’s much easier to go up to coworkers and talk than it is at work.
Social time outside of work
An intermediary step between conversations at work and asking someone to a one-on-one is inviting coworkers as a group to some casual social time outside of work. Going as a group feels more social and requires not as much closeness as meeting up with someone one-on-one. Maybe this means going together to happy hour after work, or just grabbing dinner together at the restaurant across the street after work. In this kind of setting, you shouldn’t launch into grievances and problems with the boss. When someone does bring up a serious grievance, take note and acknowledge that you hear them, but it’s usually best to be able to process serious problems with coworkers one-on-one rather than potentially have others respond in unexpected and potentially counterproductive ways. The goal of these social gatherings, at least early in organizing, is still to just to get to know your coworkers and have everyone be more comfortable around each other.
Building relationships at work takes even more effort with people who are not the same age, gender, race, job class, whose first language is not the same as your own, and whose interests appear very different from your own. But confining your workplace relationships to one social group can lead to fissures and divides later in your organizing that often mean the difference between a successful workplace committee and a boss who is able to turn workers against each other and deflate your campaign. In my workplace, people from a wide variety of national backgrounds like watching and playing soccer, so I’m talking with some coworkers to get an occasional pick-up game going after work.
Finally, the one-on-one
Most workers have never been asked to meet up for a one-on-one outside of work to discuss workplace issues. Posing the question is inevitably going to feel awkward and a little uncomfortable because it is outside of the bounds of normal behavior prescribed by capitalism. Building relationships with your coworkers helps mitigate some of that discomfort, because you are talking about workplace issues within the context of that budding relationship. But you still have to push yourself to overcome trepidation in asking coworkers to a one-on-one.
When you’ve built that trust with a coworker, then it is the time to ask them to a one-on-one. Whenever you can grab a minute or two with them, ask them if they would want to meet up to discuss how things are going at work. Be specific about the place and time to meet. If they give obstacles to meeting up, like being too busy, offer to work around the obstacle with them while not being pushy: “Yeah, the weekends lately have been buzzing at work. What if we met up after our lunch shift on Tuesday, as we rarely have to stay late after that?”
At the one-on-one you can start by talking about your own grievances. Instead of saying, “we don’t make enough money here” or “this job should start at $15 an hour”, talk about how lower wages actually affect your life. Perhaps: “I’m stressed out about having to find a second job because I can’t make rent again”, or “I don’t think I can go to my cousin’s wedding this summer because I can’t save up for a plane ticket”. This encourages others to be open with their own experiences and feelings about work.
Organizing is all about relationships, and getting to know your coworkers on a personal level can be an essential first step. As the relationships deepen and each person learns more about what the other cares about, our working lives inevitably become part of that conversation. Labor organizing exposes the connection between the personal experience of being a worker and the latent class politics of being a worker.
I felt compelled to write these ideas down because of the dejection that myself and so many new organizers experience when we try to organize in a workplace that doesn’t fit the stereotypical mold of the terrible workplace. If this feeling of failure isn’t identified and processed early on, people can give up on organizing after coming to one or more of the following conclusions: 1) “I’m not good enough to be an organizer,” 2) “my coworkers are unorganizable”, 3) “actually my workplace isn’t that bad.” These conclusions are usually expressions of social isolation, fear, and a lack of understanding of how to take the first steps in organizing. Building social and trusting relationships with coworkers empowers them (and you) to share the deeper grievances around which we organize to make our lives better.