Relationship-Based Organizing: An Introduction

[This post is part of a series on relationship-based organizing.]

The most common refrain in organizing is that “it’s all about relationships.” It rings true enough that everyone accepts it on the surface but is vague enough that each person interprets it according to their own beliefs and the needs of the moment. 

Concealed underneath the words of that phrase are distant and often warring conceptions of what organizing actually is. What role do relationships play in organizing? What kind of relationships do we want as we fight alongside each other for a better world? 

Through my own organizing experience in the workplace and developing ideas with fellow organizers, I’ve realized that relationships play a much different role in organizing than is commonly thought, than is discussed in organizing books and articles, and than is taught in organizing trainings. The role of relationships in most organizing approaches is often instrumentalized in a way that contrasts sharply with what I now see as strong grassroots organizing.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the power to organize and take collective action emerges from relationships between people in their workplaces and communities. The relationship is itself the primordial substance from which power and action emerge. It’s not the idea, not the feeling, not the level of formal organization, not the material conditions. Or rather, ideas, feelings, organization, and material conditions take on meaning and a role in building and exercising worker power insofar as they become part of human social relationships. The relationship is primary.

“Relationship-based organizing” is the term I’ve come to use to encapsulate all of these ideas. Relationship-based organizing isn’t a specific set of techniques, strategies, goals, power analyses, or political programs. It’s a lens through which to see and relate to all of these things.

To distill this idea down to its essence: instead of artificially imposing organizing principles on your relationships with your coworkers, every aspect of your organizing should be implemented in such a way that it strengthens those relationships. I suppose this is as vague as any other organizing truism, so below I’ll sketch out the meaning of this framing and color in what this kind of organizing looks like.

Relationship-First vs. Issue-First Organizing

I’ll start with discussing one aspect of organizing technique that is central to many organizing traditions, specifically the agitation part of 1-on-1 conversations.

One of the first steps taught in organizing trainings and manuals is “finding the issue”, i.e. finding what grievances a coworker has about their job. There’s a lot of reasonable advice in this literature about what kinds of issues are strategic for organizing–for example, a grievance that is widely felt, deeply felt, and winnable.

However, I find that this approach leads people to try to impose their organizing idea of “finding the issue” onto those around them in an artificial way. In my own organizing early on, I would think back to my union trainings and constantly try to hunt down the issue that my coworkers could be organized around. I was repeatedly faced with the dilemma of either trying to force conversations that weren’t coming naturally (“yea, yea, yea, but what really agitates you about work?”) or feel bad for somehow failing as an organizer when coworkers never seemed to want to talk about workplace issues.

In retrospect, I should have taken a chill pill. I honestly didn’t know my coworkers that well. Why would anyone pour out their feelings about work, something which can be personal or which they don’t want the boss to know about, to someone they just met?

Instead, if you spend time just getting to know people, supporting each other on the job, being able to have fun, then people will bring up their grievances when they feel comfortable doing so and you won’t have to go around aggressively prodding them. There’s no cookie cutter way to build relationships, but some ways to do so include creating space on the job in the break room or on the shop floor to chat, getting drinks or a meal with coworkers after work, inviting people to a birthday party, and meeting up with people 1-on-1 for a walk or coffee. 

The idea is to put your relationships first and let the grievances emerge from that base, instead of putting your goal of finding the issue first and trying to base your relationships with coworkers on that. 

This isn’t to say you should be passive as an organizer and just wait for the organizing opportunities to come to you. Rather, you should see the people around you as their own persons and recognize that they’ll be ready to move together towards action only when they see the social relationships with those around them as strong enough to carry the weight of their political desires and offset the fears of failure or retaliation. 

Often you have to put effort into building the relationship first before the rest of organizing starts to flow. Forgoing this crucial step is perhaps the stumbling block that I most commonly see people run into after taking an organizing training because every organizing training I’ve seen glosses over this if it is discussed at all.

My first year at one workplace was characterized by an almost total lack of traction in my attempts to “find the issue” or move even an inch towards collective action. The social atmosphere on the job was very isolating and people kept to themselves. Even those I worked directly with I had a difficult time engaging with on anything beyond small talk. Being new to the job, I had my own personal struggles at work but couldn’t on my own distinguish what grievances were a “natural” part of being new to the job, which were grievances that only I felt, and what grievances, if any, my coworkers shared. I felt like I was failing as an organizer because I couldn’t “find the issue” and thus couldn’t accomplish even the first step of organizing. 

But rather than seeing the slower periods of your organizing as a failure for not successfully identifying the issues, you can use that time productively by building your relationships with people. Conversely, when grievances are hot at work but you don’t have the strength of relationships with coworkers to be able to organize effectively around those grievances, that can make you feel inadequate as an organizer for other reasons. 

My second year at that workplace was the total opposite, where there were problems everywhere that everyone was agitated about all the time, but sadly we weren’t organized enough to push back with much success. I was able to meet up with coworkers individually after work and talk about the problems, but we never trusted each other far enough or had the confidence in ourselves to get things together well enough to take any collective action. In retrospect, it was a big advance in our organizing that our relationships became solid enough that we were able to talk openly and honestly about the grievances, but at the time it felt discouraging to be so powerless to resolve them. I then felt like I was failing as an organizer for a different reason. 

In my third year at that job I had a base of relationships with a broader set of coworkers in my and other departments, I had found another couple of committed people who I could organize with more closely, and I was much more familiar with the intricacies of the job and the workplace environment. I wasn’t just talking to an individual coworker here or there, but those individual conversations sometimes sprouted into group conversations and bloomed into ad hoc committees of workers forming to talk about grievances and taking action together to fix them. Organizing started to really click as now it was based in stronger relationships and wasn’t contingent on my applying a bunch of abstract union ideas to an unfamiliar workplace with a bunch of strangers. 

Certainly, it doesn’t need to take that long for everyone, and plenty of factors, from workplace culture, to turnover rate, to management style, to the normal cycles of grievances being cool and hot, can set the pace for how long it takes for your organizing to catch on. Whether it takes you a few months or a few years to go from getting to know people to identifying grievances to successfully taking action to resolve them, grounding yourself in your relationships with your coworkers will make you a better organizer, will save you the trouble of feeling that you have to pressure your coworkers to do things, and will prevent you from setting unreasonable expectations that invariably lead to failure and disappointment. 

I’ve encapsulated this lesson for myself as “relationship-first” organizing over “issue-first” organizing. This lesson isn’t just one that’s useful for people new to organizing or new to their workplace. Rather, this is central for relating to workplace grievances at any stage of organizing.

Big Messaging-Style Organizing vs. Local Relationship-Based Organizing

Sometimes when organizing is happening across a larger scale, there’s a desire to intervene at that larger scale directly and bypass the work of building relationships locally. One common way to do this is as a kind of “macro” version of “finding the issue”, where you feel around beyond just your workplace for the really big issue and once you think you’ve found it you turn it into a demand and broadcast it to the masses. Unfortunately, I think doing this often results in many of the same problems that “finding the issue” creates when trying to do it at the micro level of talking with a single other coworker.

If people are pissed off at a large employer or across a whole industry, organizers will often try to capture the moment by posing the issue in a poignant way to unify everyone and blasting that message out via social media, large email lists, or at large union meetings. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but most of the time it is applied as a shortcut because people try to intervene on the larger level *in place of* operating on the local level through their relationships with their own immediate coworkers. In the long-term, this leads to a style of organizing, I’ll call it “big messaging-style organizing,” where a small group of activists is constantly chasing after big moments by trying to frame the big issue in just the right way to stage the grand drama of everyone coming together and acting in unity.

But what gets lost is that none of these organizers really have much connection with their immediate coworkers. The actual workplace, as the basis for our organic relationships with our coworkers, gets neglected. Then organizing becomes more of a fight about public relations and media messaging instead of a fight of workers coming together on the basis of their relationships with each other and leveraging that cohesion to control production processes or press for demands by withholding their labor. On the rare occasion when big messaging-style organizing does coalesce a large group of people around a specific issue or demand and result in some large-scale action, its power is usually fleeting and whatever concessions are won are easily reversed or watered down.

When other organizers say we have to go big if we want to have big wins, what I usually interpret them to be saying is that we should organize not on the basis of organic relationships but rather on the basis of broad appeals in messaging and political framing with the mostly anonymous masses who we have no real relationships with. I hear them saying that organizing is really about big numbers and is not about relationships at all and that it’s more efficient to ignore the coworkers around you and instead build up a broader base of anonymous supporters who subscribe to your email list or follow you on social media or nod in agreement at your speeches at big rallies or vote for your proposals at big meetings. The goal of building up such an anonymous mass following is building a critical mass of people who will heed your call for action when the big moment comes. In this approach I see a willful neglect of the human relationships in the workplace as the underlying source of worker power.

To be fair, this big messaging-style of organizing is often what’s reported on in the newspapers and is what’s depicted in popular accounts of labor history. It’s also appealing because that’s what we’re told leads to all of the big wins and thus is how the “real” organizing happens. I’m just afraid that when we focus on this style of organizing we end up losing sight of what makes us strong in the first place, which is our ability to relate to those around us and take collective action on the basis of relationships of trust and solidarity.

Furthermore, what appears as the successes of big messaging-style organizing, like large mobilizations or big strikes, is more often a result of the success of the small but hidden stuff done right and linked together, and more often than not big messaging-style organizing takes all the credit for the actual effort expended doing local relationship-style organizing. When big messaging-style organizing fails, it’s not because of strategic errors of this or that tweet or speech, but rather because it wasn’t actually based in the power of local relationships. When big messaging-style organizing appears to succeed, more often than not it’s actually because organizers had spent years creating the relationships on the ground that gave workers real power and the skills to exercise it.

I don’t want to be mistaken for saying organizing should never go big or that actions should never be taken at a large scale, as I only mean to say that such large-scale organizing is only destined to succeed when it’s built on the strong foundations at the level of worker-to-worker relationships and solidarity in the workplace. Ultimately, I want to go big too, but I want to do so from a position of strength and not rely on the fleeting power of a temporary and shallow unity imposed through a catchy slogan or riveting speech or charismatic social media presence. In building worker power, we can make our castles out of beach sand or chiseled granite.

The Social Relationship vs. The Political Relationship

In any number of ways one might think that the social side of relationships and the political side of relationships in the workplace repel each other and that these things conflict and you can’t have both. This is a result of defining the social and political in opposing terms, where the social part of life is where the non-political happens, where you just have fun with and enjoy people’s company, where leisure and hobbies and non-political ways of relating exist, where we interact as equals, and so on. In contrast, the political is supposedly where you engage in conflict with others over different ideas, where right and wrong and good and bad are fought over, where people are for us or against us. 

Unfortunately, this kind of dichotomy tries to separate out parts of ourselves and parts of our communities that are organically tied together. Because we spend so much time in the workplace and often interact with a larger number of people on a regular basis than we do in any other part of our lives, these are inherently social spaces. But these are also political spaces, where hierarchies of authority, income, race, gender are imposed on us, where workers contest these hierarchies and struggle to get their own needs met. The social and political inhabit every crevice of the workplace, and as organizers we should engage with others in the workplace in all of the social and political ways we need to be fulfilled and have agency.

You don’t have to separate out your relationships with friends and coworkers into a box labeled either “social” or “political”, but rather you can form your relationships with others in the complex of ways that meet the needs you both have. Every relationship mixes these things in different proportions and relates the political and social in different ways, and your relationships will be healthier when they can be expressions of many parts of each person.

This may seem obvious, but I think a lot of organizing theory and practice is applied so as to instrumentalize relationships as a political means to a political end, rather than also seeing relationships as social ends in themselves. We’re told to get someone’s contact info so we can talk with them after work so that they can get them to join the union or do the action. This is all well and good, but if you’re going through all of the political motions of organizing without also building social bonds of trust and mutual affinity, then people will feel used and you will feel alienated from the people you’re supposedly trying to make a better world with. Rather, healthy relationships are both the means and the ends, and insofar as relationships are also a means to changing our conditions of work and life, it’s a means that everyone should have shared agency over. 

Perhaps the main overarching reason that relationships get instrumentalized in organizing is that building and maintaining relationships takes a lot of work. For those who are in a rush to reach benchmarks and win demands, it feels much easier and faster to ignore the social aspects of workplace relationships and to focus only on the political aspects. If you see your coworkers merely as a means to building a big union presence and don’t value your relationships with them as whole people, you’ll skip over getting to know them and you’ll just try to bring them along for your own political goals. There’s no union training or organizing guide that explicitly tells you to treat people this way, but I think this is often implied in union spaces.

Another factor that bends the stick in this direction is the professionalization of organizing. Full-time organizing staff aren’t paid to get to know people for their own sake, but rather are paid to organize people for certain political goals. 

An organizer friend recounted to me a story of when she was first trying her hand at union organizing at her workplace. She and a couple coworkers had been talking about getting a union and got connected to a staffer from a local union. My friend had a coworker, Ava, who was very agitated about recently having her break time cut in half and was a potential social leader but also had expressed criticisms of unions. The staffer told my friend to get Ava to talk to him, even though my friend knew Ava wouldn’t be comfortable with it. When asked if she’d talk to the staffer, Ava said yes, but she never followed through. 

My friend reflected, “I just thought I had to be uncomfortable, and make her uncomfortable, and that was somehow gonna be good for the union.” I had had many experiences like that before too, as we both had been taught that being uncomfortable is something you just have to blindly push through in organizing. But there’s a difference between discomfort stemming from supporting people in overcoming internal fears and discomfort stemming from externally pressuring coworkers to do things they don’t want to do (I discuss this distinction more here). Despite the latter kind of discomfort being very detrimental to organizing, it’s how new organizers are typically trained to approach their coworkers. And this was a double-layered instance of instrumentalization, where the staffer was pressuring my friend to do something she felt uncomfortable with, which was in turn to pressure Ava to do something she was uncomfortable with. Instead, if my friend had been encouraged to get to know Ava better and open up space to talk about her thoughts on unions and workplace grievances, maybe a path forward could have been found that made respect and trust part of the relationship instead of just using the relationship to get Ava to talk to the staffer even though Ava clearly didn’t want to.

It’s not that staff intentionally devalue actual relationships between workers in the workplace (though I think some of them do this too), but the very nature their job, with which they have limited time and energy to organize large groups of people, are forced to relate to people in such a way that the social aspect of relationships are de-emphasized and instrumentalized. Insofar as most trainings and organizing guides are written and facilitated by professional organizers, the methods being taught often reflect this bias as well.

Conclusion

This lens of organizing being based in relationships refracts across every aspect of organizing. Even though I frame this piece in more theoretical terms, it feels like one of the most personal things I’ve written because of how hard won its insights have been and how it has necessitated a gradual but fundamental shift in my organizing worldview.

Much of my own recent growth as an organizer has come from taking union organizing concepts and theories, criticizing those aspects that devalue relationships, and then re-interpreting and re-appropriating them within a relationship-based theory of organizing. With every union idea or practice I come across, I can ask, “Does this strengthen my relationships with my coworkers or not? If not, can it be re-engineered to do so?” I find these questions applying equally to big-picture ideas like how to interface with national organizations or organizational bylaws as well as the finer details of how to have 1-on-1 conversations and facilitate union meetings.

I plan to elaborate these ideas in a series of follow-up posts, and in doing so pose the challenge of relationship-based organizing to the broader world of left unionism. Is the relationship the cornerstone of organizing theory and practice, from which all other organizing concepts acquire meaning and potency? If so, how deep into the heart of organizing as we know it does this critique go? Which organizing orthodoxies need to be cast off and which ones re-imagined?

4 thoughts on “Relationship-Based Organizing: An Introduction

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