Notes on Social Relationships in Workplace Organizing

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

Everyone can organize, and everyone’s organizing will be stronger if they drop some popular images of organizing they have in their head. This image often singles one person out as separate from the community they belong to, which already is a mistake. The prototypical organizer in the activist imagination is a charismatic personality, a forceful public speaker, overflowing with confidence, capable of acts of bravery and intensity, spends all of their time glued to pursuing their political vision, and who we all look at with awe. If you have some of these traits, maybe they’ll be helpful for you. At the same time, I think the polar opposite traits are equally effective at organizing if we properly understand what organizing is about.

Union organizing is often portrayed, in popular media as well as union training materials, as really flashy. It occasionally is, but when it’s not flashy newer organizers often feel confused or get stuck trying to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing. Parts of this post are really basic, but in being clear with the simple and basic stuff hopefully we can find better ways to talk to new organizers about what organizing is all about.

I hope to show that the things that make a workplace organizer good are things that everyone already has inside them, which is the ability to relate to others. Sure, it’s something everyone can get better at and do with a certain kind of intention, but the most fundamental and important skill of organizing is just building relationships with those around you.

In my own development as an organizer and in talking with others, I’ve come to realize that the role relationships play in organizing is often different than how that role is talked about. In the intro post on relationship-based organizing, I criticized how relationships are so often instrumentalized in organizing, with the organizer using others for political goals. In this post I want to discuss more broadly the many ways that building relationships is the foundation of strong organizing. 

A War for the Normal

The effectiveness of strategies and tactics varies widely depending on local conditions and institutional structures. On the left, often what gets the most air-time are those strategies and tactics that are the most intense and extreme, and in some situations those intense and extreme methods are the most appropriate. If an oil pipeline was approved by politicians using anti-democratic procedures and the only hope of stopping it is through disruption that increases the cost of building and operating the pipeline above what politicians and investors can bear, then extreme tactics can sometimes get the job done.

Pipeline construction infrastructure and investment is particularly vulnerable to a small number of individuals committing extreme acts. Because pipeline construction happens at very specific routes that can’t be easily re-routed, capital in the form of a pipeline is immobile and vulnerable to disruption along those routes. Anti-pipeline activists will chain themselves to heavy machinery or set up encampments along construction sites or even sabotage construction equipment. Of course, these tactics aren’t executed in a vacuum but are connected to much wider networks of organizing and mobilization. But the extreme tactics are themselves often the actions that have the power to directly stop the pipeline.

By contrast, in most workplace organizing the system is not weak to a few individuals committing extreme acts. Any few individuals who perform acts of extreme disruption are easily fired and the system continues as if it rolled over the smallest bump. Or if a few individuals are successful in disrupting or gaining control over key workplace structures, capital is often easily rerouted into adjacent outlets or industry competitors in a way that undercuts the effectiveness of such extreme actions.

In workplace organizing, control over the shop floor is crucial and is usually only possible when some majority of the workers get on the same page about an issue and a plan of action. It’s not that all workers have to have the same beliefs, or join the same union or political org, or subscribe to the same newsletter or newspaper. But a majority of workers in a particular office, department, building, or company have to agree that X is a problem and Y is the solution. The logic of workplace power is bound by the fact that the bosses are dependent on their workers doing work, and that the bosses can’t dispose of a majority of workers without sacrificing their own purpose of economic production and profit. In short, they can’t fire everybody.

Rather than trying to convince the majority of workers in a workplace that they have to each as individuals adopt stances and endorse actions that are considered extreme in relation to the norm, it’s usually much more effective to shift what is considered normal itself. Going on strike might seem like an extreme action when the established norm is that workers are obedient to their boss’s authority, but going on strike can also be redefined as a meaningful but also entirely normal action when norms are redefined.

The most powerful ways that norms are defined is through all the 1-to-1 relationships that together make up the community structure of the workplace. Relationships determine the social texture of a workplace, its softness or thorniness, as well as the political valence, the direction of its pressures and tensions. Bosses and worker organizers compete for influence over these relationships.

Bosses Aim to Depoliticize Work

In my introductory post to relationship-based organizing, I note how we’re often conditioned to think about our relationships with others by labeling them clearly and exclusively as “political” or “social”. In this context, by “political” I mean related to workplace politics such as what people think about workplace conditions, the power dynamics between workers and bosses, and so on. By “social” I mean those ways people relate to each other in non-political ways, such as having similar interests, enjoying a similar sense of humor, and so on. There’s many reasons we separate out our political and social relationships in the workplace, such as to maintain boundaries between personal and professional life, to avoid conflict over political disagreements, and just to simplify how we relate to people in an otherwise overwhelming social universe.

However, the bosses will try to shape the political and social dimensions of our workplace relationships in their favor and to maintain control. A primary way the boss does this is by depoliticizing the workplace. Every aspect of work is presented by the boss as a kind of economic necessity or logical imperative instead of a political decision. If one group of workers makes less money or has to do double-duty after someone quits while another group of workers makes more money and gets all sorts of perks and privileges, the boss will defend these decisions as necessary and that try to mask all of the inequalities and unfairness that permeates the capitalist workplace. Rarely will the boss try to justify the inequality and unfairness openly and explicitly by saying poor workers deserve to make less money and that favoritism is used to pit workers against each other. More technical reasons are invoked, such as budgetary requirements, and appeals to supposedly politically neutral ideas like meritocracy, such as so-and-so gets special perks because they work so hard.

Problems at work may seem obviously unjust to some, but for others, the boss’s control over hiring, discipline, and firing, setting workplace policy, and daily workflow gives them a big advantage in cajoling, persuading, rationalizing, and pressuring workers to see things their way. Relationships between workers and bosses are undergirded by vastly unequal power dynamics.

While bosses universally relate to the politics of the workplace in this way, there’s a wider variety of ways that bosses relate socially to the workplace. Some bosses try to ingratiate themselves and be friendly with everyone, while other bosses maintain a more detached demeanor. But whatever social strategy the boss uses, it is wielded in the context of the political structure of the workplace.

How Organizers Relate to the Political and Social

The key to changing the balance of power in the workplace is to re-politicize it. At an abstract level, this comes down to making clear the class divisions at work, between those who give orders and those who take orders, between those who do the work that produces profit and those who capture that profit, between those who have it good at work and those who have it bad.

Most often, though, articulating abstract principles to coworkers will not have the intended effect because there’s a gulf between abstract principles and workers’ concrete experiences. In politicizing the workplace, we’ll be most effective if we find ways to talk about what’s happening specifically at work and the concrete effect that’s having on you and your coworkers.

There’s numerous ways to do this. More directly, you can ask people about workplace issues as described in the agitate part of organizing conversations. But often less direct methods can be just as effective. 

One organizer friend of mine has this way of making offhand comments in a matter-of-fact way that make workplace politicization feel totally normal. If he and his coworkers are told to do some perfunctory or meaningless task, he’ll say to his coworkers, “I’m not doing that.” His tone of voice isn’t defiant or indignant, but uses an intonation more associated with phrases like “pass the salt.” Or if the boss says something manipulative or minimizing, he’ll later say, “that was trash” in the same way you say “nice weather today.” 

He’s not telling someone how to feel, he’s not using a tone of voice that makes you feel pressure to agree with him, he’s not reciting his life story.  He’s not making a big deal out of it in a way that would expose him more easily to being snitched on. In the most concise and approachable way possible he’s redefining politics as normal in the workplace in a way that undermines the boss’s ability to depoliticize the job.

This organizer friend isn’t a lone-wolf type but is a social leader, someone respected in the workplace for the work he does and for the support he gives his coworkers. So when he makes these little comments about workplace politics, they don’t fall on deaf ears, but others start to accept this politicization of the normal themselves and replicate it in their speech and behavior. A culture is built up of questioning the boss.

Whether you’re using more direct methods of asking coworkers how they feel about their jobs or more indirect methods of subtly building out a subculture of pro-worker politicization, these are just different ways of developing the political side of your relationships with your coworkers. 

Each Relationship Is Different

Within the workplace culture of care and questioning that you’re building, each actual relationship with each coworker will look different. The important point is to try to bring your genuine self to the relationship and enable the other person to do the same, and to build the relationship based on those things that connect you. Sometimes the connection comes from similarities, like having similar interests. Sometimes the connection comes from difference, like one person being good at something that the other person needs help with, or where different personality traits play off each other really well. 

By the same token, each relationship doesn’t include every part of each person, and there will be many things that two people don’t relate to each other on, and that’s normal. Building relationships doesn’t mean connecting with every part of another person, but in finding those parts where connection is possible and exploring them together. 

Some coworkers will, once they realize it’s an acceptable and normal and even encouraged thing to do, want to talk about workplace dynamics and organizing all of the time. Some coworkers will barely want to talk about it at all. The objective isn’t to turn all of your coworkers into raging union agitators, but neither is it to disengage from politics altogether the first time a coworker changes the topic away from workplace politics. Building relationships is a constant navigation and negotiation as each person brings different parts of themselves and reveals different sides of themselves in different moments, together exploring what kinds of connection meets their mutual needs. Moreover, organizing at its best has a transformative power, where one or both sides of a relationship come to find and create new parts of themselves as they explore new ways to relate to their working conditions and the people around them.

Some of my coworker relationships are naturally more political, some are less so. To put some crude numbers on it, some might skew as far as 70% political/30% social, while others skew 5% political/95% social. As long as the relationship is grounded in what you both bring to it and finding the organic balance, then you’re being a good organizer (and are probably making healthy connections in general). Over time, as you shift the broader culture at work and normalize its politicization, you’ll see the relationships you have can become more political as people start to feel free to discuss these things.

It’s not only the political side of the relationship that matters here. The social feeds into the political. Every coworker doesn’t have to be your favorite person, but if you make an effort to connect with people in various social ways it will make the political connection that much smoother. Mutual respect and care on social and workplace matters will make any political solidarity that much more robust. And likewise, the political feeds back into the social too. When you are organizing to not be coerced into working overtime on weekends, this is a political goal but the benefit of such a win is felt in non-political terms, such as being able to spend more time with family and friends. Organizing is strongest when people treat and relate to each other as interconnected wholes and not just disparate parts.

Just as the balance of political and social will vary with each coworker, so will your closeness with each coworker. If a coworker works in a totally different department, has a different personality and different interests, then it’s not worth trying to force that coworker to be close to you. But even for those you’re not close with and never will be close with, it will go a long way to make little efforts here and there to get to know more about them, to listen to them, to signal your appreciation and respect for what they bring to the workplace. This represents a base minimum level of relationship that I think it’s worth trying to build with coworkers as you let each relationship find a balance that feels natural. Moreover, just spending hours a day, year after year around a person at a job will sometimes build more natural closeness between even the most different coworkers than you expect it to.

Oftentimes your organizing will gear more towards those who like to explore more deeply the political side of workplace relationships. That’s normal, but your strength as workers able to take collective action relies on the connections all the coworkers have with each other. Even the least political coworker, when the workplace gets polarized around an issue that no one can ignore, will find themselves wanting to relate to workplace politics in some way. Being in relationship with even your most apolitical coworkers will help them feel comfortable navigating workplace politics in those decisive moments when they become unavoidable. Whether the otherwise apolitical people at work get on board with seeing an issue a certain way and supporting its change can often mean the difference between a successful action and a failed action.

If you find yourself having to force the politics into a workplace relationship, you’re probably better off just backing off and finding other ways to connect. Organizing is rarely about forcing anything on your coworkers, and rather, it’s most often capitalism that will do the forcing. When capitalism makes things real bad, even the most apolitical coworkers will start to seek ways of relating to the things around them that affect them.

One way to sum this all up is to re-state the phrase, “Just be yourself.” As an organizer, that means your role is not to force anything, but just to bring all the parts of yourself, social and political and everything in between and beyond. Against the boss’s notion that politics don’t belong in the workplace, as an organizer it’s often our job to insist that they do, but not because we have to force them on people. Rather as organizers it’s our job to create space for everyone to be themselves, which naturally includes expressing how they feel about work, what they think work should be like, and how to make work like that.

Don’t Play into the Boss’s Blame Game

Work under capitalism is full of inconveniences, stressors, and irrationality. Many of these are things that directly or indirectly benefit the boss’s control of the workplace. In depoliticizing the workplace, the boss will find ways to rationalize problems and deflect blame or responsibility.

The most toxic way this happens is in turning workers’ ire and frustration against each other. One veteran organizer friend of mine is insistent on putting the frustration back on the boss and refusing to dump it onto coworkers. This isn’t to say that coworkers are perfect, but just to recognize that the structure of the workplace with formal authority monopolized in the position of the boss is the deeper cause of the vast majority of workplace problems, especially those that appear on the surface to be problems between coworkers.

Rather than blame a coworker for being bad at her job, my organizing friend will always ask if that person got the proper training, equipment, or staffing support to do her job well. Isn’t it the boss’s job to make sure workers can do their job like they are supposed to? Rather than blame customers or clients or the weather for continually messing things up at work, why didn’t the boss actually fix the issue after the first time?

While this might seem rather simple, when I listen to this friend talk about her organizing and hear her apply this frame to countless situations in ways that I had not considered before, it totally re-colors how I see the workplace.

Workplace gossip can be particularly dangerous when it descends into factional tensions between workers. As an organizer, you’ll be much more able to build relationships and foster community with a majority of coworkers if you’re able to re-direct negative attention away from coworkers whispering and bickering against each other and instead find ways to focus that negative attention upwards. Always put responsibility for problems back on the boss.

Relationship-Building in Practice

In those workplaces where bosses have firmly established the norms of casual workplace conversation in their favor, it can be hard to “be yourself” and be open about your more political side. Maybe coworkers will get anxious when talking about working conditions because they know they might get judged as weak or even snitched on. Maybe some coworkers rationalize bad working conditions as a form of mental survival and introducing criticisms of those working conditions will force them to confront uncomfortable truths and emotions about how they are treated and what they do all day at work.

It sucks to not be able to be yourself and be open about what you think and feel at work. This is the reality of capitalism for literally billions of people on the planet. So in workplaces where expressing yourself can be dangerous, you’ll often have to balance your need for safety with your need for self-expression. As an organizer, you’ll have to find creative ways and seek out little opportunities to pry open space for political self-expression for yourself and others. 

There’s a million ways this can play out. For people who are new to workplace organizing, where and how to start is often the most confusing and difficult part of organizing, especially when your workplace looks apolitical and your coworkers seemingly never want to talk about issues that affect their job. New organizers I talk with often then get stuck trying to apply their image of what union organizing is supposed to look like to a workplace that doesn’t look like that at all.

For the sake of visualizing and applying some ideas to your own workplace, I elaborate below a schematic and detailed progression for how this kind of change in workplace culture might take place over a period of months or years. If your workplace feels especially stilted, starting at step 1 might be best. Or maybe your workplace is not so bad and thinking about a later step feels more relatable and practical to your workplace.

Step 1: Getting to know your job and your coworkers. If you’re not respected for the work you do and people don’t feel like they know you, you’ll never be able to contest the boss’s influence. At one job I had it took me about 6 months before I could pull my weight and before anyone really had a base-level of respect for me as a coworker. In a job that weeded out newbies through sink-or-swim methods, my coworkers naturally didn’t want to invest much time getting to know me if they weren’t sure I was even gonna be there in a day or a week. So the first prerequisite for organizing in most workplaces is just learning how to do the job and getting to know the people you work with. 

Step 2: Make workplace socializing and mutual support normal. The most common intro to small talk at work is some variation of “How’s it going?” In workplaces that are particularly asocial, people might just say “fine” and walk away. To try to build a more social atmosphere at work, when people ask you how you’re doing you can share more at length and more personally what’s going on. You can try to ask more specific and more follow-up questions of others when they talk about how they’re doing.

While bosses often try to focus workplace culture around productivity and working hard and having everyone mind their own business, a small but very effective way to build rapport is to just offer and give support to coworkers when problems arise. If a coworker’s car breaks down, maybe you offer to give them a ride to work until they get their car gets fixed. In workplaces where new workers are given the sink-or-swim treatment, they will often be stressed out and incredibly interested in and grateful for any support and connection you can offer them. Little things like this add up and people notice.

One workplace that I organized at was extremely asocial when I first got there, but partly through my own efforts and those of others, the tedious work of building a more social and supportive workplace culture made organizing a lot smoother. Being able to talk in a friendly way about non-political things helps grease the gears for being able to talk about political things.

Step 3: Introduce workplace politics into casual and low-stakes conversation. As noted above, you’ll have more success here if you initially keep the politics immediate to your working conditions. You might note how you don’t like that so-and-so who’s friends with the boss shows up to work late every day but when you or another coworker are late you get written up. Or maybe a new training around anti-racism seems like a self-serving way for a very white company to respond to criticisms in the industry about discriminatory hiring and retention practices.

If you’re talking with someone about these things for the first time, don’t belabor the point and don’t put any pressure on them to agree or respond a certain way. You want to model what it looks like to express how you feel about working conditions in a non-confrontational way. At its best, this gives coworkers the license to express themselves openly without fear of judgment.

You can start asking coworkers how they feel about this or that thing at work. If these kinds of conversations still feel kind of taboo at your workplace, keep it as low-key as you can to start and be strategic about who you do and don’t talk to about these things. But you’ve got to break through the fear of talking openly about this stuff at some point, and doing so slowly can be a safe way to introduce coworkers to another way of relating to the job.

Try not to be surprised or disappointed if some people respond at first in ways that defend or justify the status quo. That’s how people naturally respond after spending years in a workplace where this stuff is normalized. Rather than criticize them or tell them their wrong, you can find respectful and low-key ways to introduce alternative ways of looking at workplace issues. “Are you sure it has to be like that? My friend at another company said they do it this other way.” “Well all I know is that that part of the job stresses me out.” Over time, these things can start to sink in for people.

Step 4: Explicit organizing conversations about grievances. If people start to be more open about talking about working conditions, as an organizer you can make more space for this to develop. You can find ways to have organizing conversations, oftentimes outside of work, using the framework of Agitate-Educate-Inoculate-Organize-Uplift (AEIOU). Rather than focusing all of your energy and attention on the workplace problem, remember that the most important part of every step of organizing is continuing to build relationships of trust, care, and solidarity with coworkers. Whether you go through every step of AEIOU in a sitting is, over the long haul, much less important than whether you feel like your relationship with your coworker is getting stronger. Worker power and direct actions are rooted in strong relationships, so if you nurture the latter then the former will come much more naturally.

If you have to go through all of these organizing steps by yourself it can be very laborious. However, as you go through these steps, you’ll probably find others who also have an interest in making things better at work, and they’ll share the load with you, multiply your capacity, and make you feel less isolated. It might only be one out of a hundred coworkers who take an interest in this with you early on, and even then it might take a while for that one person to really take an interest, but that first other person is the most important person to find. Try to keep your eyes open to putting extra time and care into any relationship with a coworker who might end up becoming your organizing buddy.

Of course, having deeper conversations with just one other coworker isn’t the end goal, as two people by themselves have limited influence over workplace policy and larger changes. One aim of AEIOU is to open outwards to other coworkers, to talk about initiating conversations with others about a potential issue.

Step 5: Group meetings focused on addressing a workplace grievance. Calling all of the workers in a workplace to a meeting as a first step in organizing is often a grave mistake, as it makes everyone vulnerable to snitching and tries to juggle too many brand new dynamics at once. But in having 1-on-1 conversations with people, you can start to hone in on what issues people are agitated about, what the social dynamics are, including who is safe and who is not safe to talk to about issues, and start to get a sense of what kinds of direct actions people might be open to.

From there, the next step is often to call meet-ups of a few or handful of people who all are motivated to discuss and do something about a workplace problem. Perhaps there are a series of meetings that grow in number as new people are invited. Not every meeting or series of meetings like this necessarily leads to some direct action, which is okay. It can feel like a bummer to make it this far but then still not feel like you have the coordination or strength to really pull off an action that would be strong enough to force the change that you seek. New organizers often fixate so much on taking action that they force confrontations with bosses before people are ready or when the odds are still against you. It’s much more important to have a clear-eyed understanding of the balance of power in the workplace and know when to hit the gas or hit the breaks than it is to always rush headlong into fights.

Just the fact that workers are able to meet up in a group to discuss working conditions together is a huge step forward for developing trust and shared understanding of workplace dynamics. Like every step of organizing, the relationships built and nurtured in these spaces are often as or more important for organizing in the long-term as whether any specific meeting leads to a specific action. Normalizing the practices that coworkers will talk to each other and even meet up as a group to discuss workplace problems opens up the doors to direct action for when you are ready to walk through them.

Step 6: Take collective action with your coworkers to solve a workplace problem. Planning and executing actions is its own separate topic. Just make sure people feel good about the action before it happens and that people feel like they’re in it together. Talk about it afterward and always keep an eye on maintaining the relationship.

Step 7: Create more formal workplace organizing structures that can hold your organizing together. This can happen much earlier in the process, but whenever it happens it’s important to create more enduring forms of connecting with fellow organizers. This might consist of a workplace organizing committee that meets monthly or an organization of organizers in an industry that agree on shared goals and strategies or any other number of committees or structures that hold together what you and your fellow organizers want to accomplish.

In much organizing practice, I think the formal stuff is given too prominent a role in such a way that the informal relationships are devalued. For example, if a group of organizers only cares about who shows up to meetings and completes their tasks and doesn’t put real effort into maintaining the care, trust, and solidarity that sustains relationships, then the formal structures can be an impediment to worker power rather than a boost to it. Within a relationship-based model of organizing, organizers should be vigilant to never let formal structures substitute for the power of relationships, and rather the purpose of formal organization should always be to buttress the relationships between co-organizers and coworkers.

Organizing, Fast and Slow

In organizing gradually in this fashion, maybe you finally get to the step of taking action after many starts and stops, after more than a couple detours, after staff turnover forces you to go back and repeat some steps. Contrary to the oversimplified narratives about organizing taught in books and trainings, this is a totally normal way that organizing develops. This is what my first couple years of organizing looked like at a workplace initially characterized by rigid hierarchies among staff, high staff turnover, an anti-social work atmosphere, and no willingness to openly question working conditions or supervisors. One phrase that’s helped me understand different paces of organizing is the idea that “organizing happens at the speed of relationships,” which can vary widely depending on the culture of each workplace. 

I had strong political and social relationships with other organizers in my industry who were at other workplaces that gave me the confidence, motivation, and support to keep going even when things looked hopeless. The relationships I built with my immediate coworkers along the way were ultimately what made it all worth it and what made our organizing strong enough to start to take action and change things for the better.

In contrast, sometimes workplace grievances, coworker dynamics, and boss incompetence leads workers to go from a standstill, moving through all of these steps in quick succession, to pulling off an effective action in a relatively small time window, and that’s totally normal too. The only thing I would warn against with such victories is that sometimes organizers falsely come to the conclusion that since action was easy and quick the first time, it will be easy and quick the next times too. Sometimes actions come together so smoothly that the role of relationships in organizing is obscured, and then organizers mistakenly focus on the more technical parts of organizing, like getting enough signatures on a petition or hitting their target of 90% of their coworkers wearing their union button. While such activities can be a useful aspect of organizing, sometimes they are emphasized at the expense of actually building genuine relationships. 

Sooner or later, organizing goes through some really hard patches because capital doesn’t intend to just let workers waltz in and take the means of production without a fight. Sooner or later, the bosses perk up their ears, wipe the smirk off their face, and start plotting to take back every crumb that the workers have won and every inch of control they have previously lost. 

When the trenches are dug, the sandbags piled high, and the machine guns mounted, then organizers discover that it’s the relationships coworkers have with each other that are the source of all their power. In response to organizing the boss might start threatening to discipline or fire people, the company might make abrupt changes in policy that seem punitive or retaliatory, some of your former coworker allies might be picked off through transfers and promotions. When the boss tries to instill fear, isolation, and hopelessness, it will quickly become apparent if the workers have strong enough relationships to weather the storm or if they will get swallowed by the waves. Only workplace relationships provide the potential power to make things better but also the potential power to not be stepped on like bugs.

Does a worker talk with others about their plans over holiday break and how their kids are doing? Does a worker seek and find little moments of joy in the connection they have with those they spend a good portion of their waking hours with? If a worker isn’t getting their breaks, is it something other coworkers have ever thought to ask them about? If a worker is being bullied by the boss, do they feel like they can tell a coworker and be listened to and supported? When a worker is invited to a union meeting, are they going to be engaged and listened to or just talked at and expected to sit through boring procedures? When a worker is stressed out, is it something their coworkers notice and ask them about? If a worker is angry about being pressured to take an extra shift, is there someone they can vent to? If a coworker is scared to go to a direct action, is there someone they can confide in? If a coworker has an idea for an action to take against lack of safety equipment, is there someone they can scheme with? When a worker gets their job back after an unfair firing, are there others they can celebrate with?

For any of these questions to be answered with a “yes” depends on the degree that coworkers feel trust, care, and solidarity towards each other. It’s relationships all the way down. Relationships and relationships some more. Nothing else matters. Or rather, everything else in organizing matters insofar as it strengthens the trust, care, and solidarity of relationships between coworkers.

To make the workplace better is to carve out a shared sense of community, dignity, and empowerment in an often hostile environment thrown on us by capitalism. The mark of a good organizer is not whether their coworkers look at them as particularly brave, radical, brilliant, or electrifying. Rather, the organizer is hitting their mark when coworkers feel like an organizer will listen to their concerns and ideas, support them in tough moments, encourage them to express themselves, and invite them to participate collectively in solving workplace problems. This is a model of organizing that everyone can draw from and contribute to.

4 thoughts on “Notes on Social Relationships in Workplace Organizing

  1. I love this blog. Aside from FEDSMILL, this is one of my all-time favorite blogs…along with OrganizingWork with Marianne Garneau. Incredibly well written and fleshed out with real-world organizing experiences and reflections on the same, it is an arrow in my quiver as a new union steward.

    On that note, I have a comment about my experience and maybe if you like, you could share your views on my situation? This might help others that come here and read your words work out solutions in their workplaces.

    The issue is performance and Big Management’s use of “objective performance standards” to shed workers. Older workers, workers with learning disabilities, anyone who can’t make the sped-up “standards” year after year that grow 20-25% each year with no additional assistance and the additional administrivia they add to our workload over the years keeps growing.

    It feels like an old episode of Hogan’s Heroes on Nickelodeon. We’re in the camp, the doofuses (doofae?) above our supervisors are really disconnected but hostile to us. We work with Klink and Sgt. Shultz to survive but we could actually improve our lot if we controlled policy. Our supervisors hate their upline as much as we do, but they’re like capos in the camp. They are tasked with firing, so they fire. Or they get fired. Sweet little management by stress system.

    Meanwhile, the people we serve are getting the shaft. They are losing money, time, and things they have earned. The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy…not the public we serve. I see how a mega-grievance on the legal side and popular resistance from the rank-and-file would help change things. But I’m an introverted, nerdy, cis-male, straight Caucasian with no rhythm and not a “cool kid” in the cliques. I’m not trusted, seen as a rat because I am friends with the top manager, and seen as a sleazy self-interested jerk. Nothing could be less true. I’ve worked hard to forge relationships with local leadership who have confided that they really want to help, they don’t object to the Union (for now, at least) and want to get rid of the bullcrap performance standards.

    Short-winded version: I’m shy, quiet, and non-confrontational. I PTSD out because of my experiences during harsh conflict. I want to build these relationships but I’m a fat lazy fellow more like a hobbit than a human being.

    as a new Union steward, how can a shy hobbit build these relationships in real organizing without burning out and hiding in his hole? How do I develop that level of trust among people from different and diverse backgrounds without seeming like a “white savior” wanna-be? Finally, if local leadership is willing to work in collaboration, can I make policy the enemy rather than the “boss”? We’re not in a traditional capitalist workplace, but a bureaucracy. It is different…even though our Big Management are sharks, the lower levels can be sometimes reasoned with.

    I’d love your thoughts.

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    • Thanks for the kind words! It means a lot to get feedback like this from others out there who I’ve never even met.

      Your workplace and its grievances sound really complex, so I don’t really feel like I can say much about those things from a distance that would be helpful.

      When organizing was tough going and overwhelming in my workplace at first, I made it through partly by luck, and partly by just having others I could talk to or vent to who would listen. Not sure if you’re in a similar situation of being overwhelmed and stressed like I was at first, but honestly, just having ppl around who will listen to me vent a sometimes satisfies some deeper need for self-expression and being seen which gets me through (though obviously you only want to vent if it seems like they’re there to support you, it can be harmful to assume ppl want to listen to venting).

      As for relationship-building, I find it goes best when I’m not trying to force it and rather just take it gradually. In my own role as steward that sometimes gives me little opportunities to talk to ppl. I’ll start a convo with a coworker I don’t know very well with a line like, “As the steward, I’m just checking in with ppl. How’s your year going?” I hear you about the shy thing. I’m pretty introverted myself and it takes a lot for me to build up the energy and confidence to go talk to ppl, but as long as I don’t put too much pressure on myself to rush through things, I find I can get around to talking to ppl eventually. Getting a reputation for listening to ppl is one of the best ways to build trust in a workplace.

      Anyway, this is all pretty general advice, not sure how helpful it is. In my experience, when you build relationships, then the organizing will come naturally. But it’s definitely a slow process and can take a while.

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      • Very helpful! Sometimes I struggle with what to say when really, it’s the listening piece that matters. I’m a counselor, so you’d think I would know that listening is the foundation. We have something we call the righting reflex, that urge to jump in and be a Superhero, and it just messes up good listening. The other thing I wanted to mention was that there are people in my unit that hate each other with a passion. There are racial and cultural fault lines. We mostly work from home. In fact, I’m close to 100% work at home. So, it is a question of how to build relationships from afar. If you were interested in blogging about distance relationship building, that could help a lot of organizers figure out how to navigate the land of Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

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    • Yea, remote workplace organizing has its own set of challenges and strategies. My workplace went totally remote for about a year at the height of the pandemic and that also saw a surge in our organizing due to safety concerns, but we were building on relationships that most of us had from our in-person working together so it was definitely not the same. I’ve read accounts of remote organizing (though I wish there were more) and as far as I can tell, most of the same overall organizing principles apply but just have to be tweaked and adapted. As someone without much remote organizing experience myself I hesitate to write about the topic because I don’t really know what it’s like, but I’ll try to pay closer attention to others’ accounts of remote organizing and maybe I’ll feel comfortable trying to write about it, or at least mentioning it more, in my writing then. Anyway, I you luck as you try to figure out all of these dynamics.

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