I Is for Inoculate

[This post is part of a series on 1-on-1 organizing conversations. Check out the intro post here to see an overview of the whole framework.]

Introduction

It’s often said that union campaigns are won or lost on the strength of their inoculation. Like rough-housing children, organizing is all fun and games until someone gets hurt, and then shit gets serious real fast. 

When organizing workers are attacked by the boss and haven’t been prepared for it, the threat of the loss of a job can make even the most courageous worker fall into line. This should be expected and is why inoculation is so important.

As discussed briefly in my introduction to organizing conversations post, the inoculate part of AEIOU is about anticipating and preparing for the boss’s next move and dealing with people’s fears. In high-profile and more traditional unionization drives, professional union-busters are often used to supplement the boss’s aggression and to intimidate workers into voting no on union representation. For those who find yourselves facing union-busting consultants, knowing what to expect from them and how to fight them is critically important and has been discussed widely elsewhere

But the organizing approach advocated on this blog often takes other forms, such as organizing in a workplace already formally represented by a union or organizing in a non-unionized workplace without the goal of union representation. In these and other cases, boss aggression against workers often looks different than having big union-busters show up at work. In this post I’ll go deeper into inoculation as it occurs at the level of workers taking direct action themselves, irrespective of if it’s connected to a formal unionization drive.

Make Sure No One Suffers Alone

Often the scariest thing about retaliation or threats of retaliation is having to go through it alone. Bosses have a tremendous amount of power in the workplace, they know it, and they use that power to intimidate psychologically as often as they use it to make someone’s material conditions worse. The psychological intimidation goes down a lot if you can share what you’re going through with a coworker, or even better, if all your coworkers hear about it and give you sympathy and get mad at the boss. Whether workplace discipline is explicitly connected to retaliation for organizing or not, the best psychological shield against boss aggression is creating a community of care and mutual support among coworkers. 

One time I was called into the boss’s office and given a hard time. While it wasn’t formally connected to any discipline and was at most only loosely connected to my organizing, it was clear this boss was trying to push their weight around and make me feel insecure and establish their authority over me. It felt humiliating, but I realized that they were just trying to mess with me. I knew trying to argue or fight them in that moment would have been futile and would likely have backfired. Still, coming out of that meeting I felt pretty anxious but was immediately able to talk to some coworkers and process my experience. Due in part to a culture of care we had been building at the workplace for years, my coworkers were fully supportive of me and built me back up. Without my coworkers there to support me and validate my thoughts and feelings and tell me why the boss was wrong, I might have spent weeks or months feeling anxious at work and questioning my conduct.

When this ground layer of support exists among workers, it will be of extra importance when you do directly confront the boss and make demands about working conditions. While being caring with coworkers and building up layers of mutual support might not fit the popular image of what “real union organizing” looks like, it is *definitely* an essential part of real union organizing. Organizing is all about relationships, and since caring about each other is the fundamental basis of all healthy relationships, building a network of care is central to strong and effective organizing.

Inoculate as Political Education

Like with every section of AEIOU, we want to use open-ended questions as the main tool of inoculate. “How do you think the boss will react if we do this?” Walking through the possibilities, the good and the bad, and getting a sense of which possibilities are most likely better enables us to prepare for the boss’s next move.

Inoculate can also be an important place to tease out why the boss will react a certain way. “Why do you think the boss will do that?” A boss’s personality and leadership style always conditions their behavior, but it’s important to emphasize that the oppositional relationship between workers and bosses also conditions their behavior. Many bosses try to ingratiate themselves as the protector of their workers’ interests and as a kind of parental figure of the workplace, and only a class analysis can help penetrate that facade and empower workers to think more clearly about how to take action effectively.

While employers spend a lot of effort trying to obscure class tensions at work, a few well-placed questions are often all it takes to unmask the central dynamic of the capitalist workplace: The boss has power over you, and they want to keep it that way. “The boss said they want what’s best for us but they keep cutting our hours. Why do you think they do that?” “The boss says they are always open to talk about any issues people have at work, but why then do they keep yelling at people who raise issues?”

All of this might seem implied or intuitive when talking about grievances in the workplace, but making these connections explicit will help people internalize them and apply them to other grievances and circumstances.

Make No Promise You Can’t Keep

Never make promises you can’t keep during inoculation, as you don’t have total control over what the boss does or doesn’t do to either retaliate or concede to demands. Promises I hear organizers make that they shouldn’t include: “you can’t be fired for this” and “we’re gonna win this demand”. Rather, emphasize that you’re being honest with them, and organizing is about people being honest with each other. Only then can people feel they have the control over their information and actions that enables them to make a healthy choice for themselves.

A worker once told me a story about how she and a lot of her coworkers were agitated about being subcontracted out and getting worse perks and benefits than others who were not subcontracted out but did the same job for the company. They started talking about a union and reached out to one. A union staff organizer told them to hold a meeting with all their coworkers to talk about getting a union. 

The staff organizer said they couldn’t be retaliated against for putting together such a meeting because such retaliation for union organizing was illegal. When the meeting happened someone snitched to management and this worker was fired. It fundamentally broke the trust she had with the organizer and led them to be mad not only at the employer but at the staff organizer who was supposed to be there to help. The worker tried to keep building a union at her former workplace, but once she was not employed there it became a lot harder. The worker filed an unfair labor practice lawsuit against the employer, but last I heard that case was still going through the official channels and the worker herself had moved onto other work and wouldn’t retake her old job even if it was offered to her. 

Employers know that laws that protect workers from illegal firings are weak and slow, so they take advantage of this and fire workers anyway when they know it will weaken or kill a union campaign. This is so widely known in the labor movement that the staff organizer would have obviously known too. What would have happened instead if the staff organizer was more honest with the worker about the risks? What if the worker had been informed of the risks and been able to offset them by being more covert and/or waiting until later down the road when the campaign was stronger to do something so open that might risk retaliation? 

Also related to not making promises is not promising your coworkers that the boss will respond by giving in to your demands. I was on strike once and one of the constant refrains of union leadership was the claim that “we were winning”. I’m sure they wanted to keep morale high, and this certainly had that effect for some. But for me, I was much less certain whether the strike was gonna get us something to be satisfied with, and promising as much up front was a big red flag to me. When the resolution of the strike was unsatisfying to a lot of people, there was a sense of betrayal. People felt misled. Now certainly not every action will result in victory, and sometimes you just have to accept a loss and process it with others, but to be promised a win and still lose is a careless and unnecessary way to breach the trust of workers who made real sacrifices and took real risks. 

One alternative way to frame this is to say that by not doing anything, things will stay the same. Taking action together often gives us the chance of solving these problems but also has risks. As a thoughtful organizer, hopefully you can find ways of taking action where the benefits outweigh the risks for most people, but it’s not a foregone conclusion and being honest with yourselves and each other is the best way to think clearly and help everyone come to the best decision. 

Sometimes in discussing a potential action you and others will conclude that the risks outweigh the benefits in that moment, and that’s ok. Union organizing *isn’t* about taking action all the time, but rather is about taking action when it’s to your advantage to do so. If you feel like you’re not taking action often enough and are getting antsy (something I definitely feel when organizing seems slow-going), try channeling that energy into having more 1-on-1s with coworkers because it’s always strategic in the long term to keep building relationships. That way when an opportunity to take action does come along you’ll be in a better position to take advantage of it.

Inoculation Against Rash Action

Sometimes you have a few coworkers who are fired up and want to take a big action immediately. As an organizer, you know sometimes rushing into action can end badly, so sometimes in inoculate you want to help people think through how a big action can backfire. You never want to tell people what to do (that’s the boss’s job), but expressing your concerns and your reasons why you think an action could end poorly or result in negative consequences is also an important thing for an organizer to do to help people make as informed a decision as possible. 

At one workplace where workers were being ordered back to work in person during covid and before vaccines were widely available, a few of the workers were highly agitated and were pushing for everyone to not show up to work despite the order. Certainly, some kind of mass refusal could have been a highly effective tactic under the right circumstances, and many workplaces used tactics like these to good effect to extract demands from bosses or delay the return to in-person work. But in this case, only a few people out of dozens were resolved enough to want to try to refuse the work order. Some were afraid that if this tactic were attempted and only a few people participated, it wouldn’t be strong enough to successfully resist the order and those few who participated would be easy targets for retaliation. People’s fears about the return-to-work order were as serious and sincere as any grievance has ever been, and the intensity of feeling certainly was enough to motivate a few people to keep pushing for the idea despite a broad lack of support from others. 

After a series of difficult conversations among coworkers who were most involved in organizing at this workplace, it was decided that a collective work stoppage wouldn’t be effective here and the idea was let go. Leaving the meeting where this decision was reached was depressing and discouraging to all involved, as it felt like the workers had lost, that despite months of organizing against inadequate covid policy, in the end it wasn’t enough to stop the biggest threat the workers faced, that of returning to work in person. 

Nonetheless, those involved in the discussion did think it was the best decision. And in follow-up discussions in the following weeks, some organizers circled back and had conversations with people involved in those discussions. Without the follow-up discussions, it’s easier for tensions to fester and cleavages between staff to widen, but with empathy and a desire for connection, things can heal and people can feel good enough about their coworkers to want to get involved in the next fight that comes along.

Inoculation Against Lone Ranger Actions

Another variant of the inoculate conversation is one where someone wants to go it alone and you want to help them understand the dangers and ineffectiveness of such an approach. The most common version of this is where a worker is pissed off about something and wants to march into the boss’s office to tell them about it. Many bosses cultivate an open-door policy and for many workers this seems like the only option available. Sometimes a worker wants to vent at the boss and pressure them with anger, sometimes they want to try to persuade the boss and get them to be more reasonable, and sometimes they want to try to guilt the boss into doing the right thing. In my experience, none of those approaches are effective. 

As an organizer, you can share a story or two about what has happened when others have tried this tactic, as well as a story or two illustrating alternatives that have more to do with talking with their coworkers about it and finding more collective solutions. As ill-advised as it may seem to you, most of the time and for most issues, the boss will just kindly ignore individual pleas, and if you think there’s no real danger in a coworker going to the boss about an issue, then just sharing your reservations but then wishing them good luck can be a learning experience in itself. In such cases you’ll want to follow up with the coworker in the days after their conversation with the boss and ask them how it went. “Why didn’t anything change?” is a good way to circle back from inoculate through to agitate and educate. 

Don’t Let Fear Warp Your Own Thinking

Another thing organizers should be careful about is to not get paranoid or overly-alarmed about the dangers of an action. Bosses know that they have power over their employees, and often they will do what they can to play on people’s fears psychologically even if they can’t realistically retaliate against someone with formal discipline. As an organizer, you likely care a tremendous amount for your coworkers and want them to be safe, but you’ll do best with inoculation if you’re not letting your own personal fears and worst-case-scenarios color what you tell others. 

In the aftermath of one work stoppage where more than a dozen workers participated, a couple workers were misled to believe that they were all going to be fired, and they started telling everyone how much immediate danger they were all in. Given employer policy and past practice, that almost surely wasn’t the case, but in convincing a couple of the workers who participated to believe this, the boss was able to instill a tremendous amount of fear in everyone who participated and prospects for future actions were diminished by everyone being scared stiff about intense retaliation. 

In the end, some workers were given a warning and one worker received a heavier formal discipline but no one was fired, and while it was shitty for them to go through that and certainly was not to be taken lightly, it was a far cry from the fears that the boss had instilled that lead to an atmosphere of paranoia and paralysis. In situations like this, it’s best to reach out to trusted organizers outside of your own circle and get their feedback. Hopefully, when armed with a more accurate picture of the situation you can talk with your coworkers about dangers and fears without inflating them in a way that unnecessarily discourages organizing or strains relationships.

An Organizer’s Guilt

Taking action against the boss nearly always entails some risk, and you and your coworkers will feel like superheroes when actions go well and you all get what you want. But when actions fail or fall apart or lead to retaliation, the feelings of defeat and regret can be overwhelming. If things don’t go well, the first thing organizers do is look back at their inoculation and see if they really did their best to prepare and inform everyone of the risks. If you feel that everyone knew the risks and took action anyway and it still failed, debrief with people about it and process the emotions and consequences together.

If in looking back you find fault with your inoculation, it’s common for organizers to feel guilty and ashamed. This is honestly something every organizer will experience at some point, and there’s no magic potion to make it go away other than to recognize that missteps are human and fighting bosses isn’t easy. As with most things in life, the best thing an organizer can do when things go wrong is admit mistakes, draw lessons in order to not repeat those mistakes, seek outside support and counsel, and repair any relationships that were damaged. 

I’ve been fortunate enough to not have any high-stakes actions blow up in my face, but in a couple cases where things didn’t go as planned I’ve felt bad about not having inoculated people better. Organizers are usually motivated by a desire to make things better for themselves and their coworkers, and when it feels like they inadvertently made things worse, it can lead them to question everything. 

The best way to avoid a catastrophic mistake as an organizer is to never, ever, never, ever pressure someone to take a risk. Talk with your coworkers about how to fix problems, how to take action, and what the risks are, but make sure they feel totally aware of the possibilities and in total control of the decision to take a risk when the moment arrives. If someone feels like they just went along with an action that later turned sour and that they weren’t given the opportunity to stop and think for themselves, they might resent the organizer for what happened or never want to be involved in organizing again. 

Especially for higher risk actions it is helpful to explicitly pose the question of participation to everyone involved at some point leading up to the action, to give everyone the opportunity to raise questions, have time to think it through, and then verbally declare themselves in or out. Validate whatever answer they give. If they say no, tell them you understand, you respect their decision, and you will keep them updated on what happens. If they say yes, bolster their confidence with “I feel the same way, let’s do this.” 

How to Design Actions that Limit Potential Retaliation

On the other side of the spectrum from open, high-stakes confrontations with the boss are actions that are covert. Sometimes power in the workplace is exercised in plain sight and sometimes it’s exercised beneath the surface. Bosses are often experts at manipulating things in ways workers have no way of knowing about. Exercising power beneath the surface is something workers can use to good effect as well. In going through inoculation with coworkers who are planning an action and trying to anticipate the boss’s reaction, you might discover it’s possible to rethink your action in such a way as to be more covert and make retaliation much less likely.

Covert actions are especially useful in cases where workers don’t feel strong enough to stand up to the boss openly. The prototypical workplace action is the “March on the Boss”, where a group of coworkers march into the boss’s office and make a specific demand. This can be an effective and empowering tactic. However, one of the downsides of such a tactic is that the boss immediately knows who was involved in the action.

There are alternative ways to apply pressure to the boss using direct action but that also can conceal organizing and protect people from potential retaliation. One organizer friend of mine was at a workplace where they were given a new work calendar where a few days were being added to their annual work schedule but without any change in their salaries. The boss asked for “feedback” on the new schedule first in the form of comments on a google doc and then later at a staff meeting. But the solicitation of feedback was just a formality and the boss frankly expected no one to notice the change in workdays buried in the spreadsheet. But once workers caught wind of the meaning of the change, they started discussing what they could do to push back.

The plan they came up with was that a bunch of them would give feedback on the google doc pointing out the change and how they thought it didn’t seem fair. The first person to leave a google doc comment was someone universally seen as a rule-follower so as to throw off any hint of organized trouble-making. Then a deluge of comments from other staff would create the effect of showing the boss that the new schedule was deeply unpopular and that trying to force it through would damage the boss’s relationships with her staff. Most importantly, the whole action was conceived so that this outpouring of dissent would appear spontaneous. Instead of loudly announcing that this was a direct action in the way a march on the boss does, this action gave the boss the impression that people were just speaking their minds.

The action was largely successful in that most, but not all, of the extra days were shaved off of next year’s schedule. The boss threw a fit at the staff meeting where the calendar was discussed (the organizer inoculated coworkers against this in advance), but no one was specifically retaliated against and the boss never learned what had actually happened. Organizers in my orbit have used variations on this kind of action numerous times to good effect and I’m convinced this can be a regular tool in the organizer’s action toolbox.

Conclusion

Inoculation is about taking action with eyes wide open. As with any contest of strategy, thinking through your opponent’s next moves will help you make better moves yourself.

If people were properly inoculated before taking an action that wasn’t successful, people will be more likely to be proud of their actions anyway, to have stood up for what they believed in and taken their best shot. Inoculation will help us avoid bad losses and will make the unavoidable losses not as bad. Whether a particular action succeeds or fails, capitalism will probably still be there to fight again tomorrow. What our labor organizing needs more than anything is people who are able to stick it out over the long term, and inoculation is the most important tool we have for sustaining our fight.

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