[This post is part of my series on relationship-based organizing. If you are new to my blog, I recommend checking out earlier entries in this series first.]
Relationship-based organizing (RBO) is a method of union organizing that centers building social relationships with coworkers. Everyone likes social relations, especially in our hyper-isolating and individualizing and anti-social capitalist society, so RBO is just puppy dogs, lollipops, and rainbows all of the time, right?
Of course not. One of the first things that goes through new organizers’ minds when they think about how to talk to their coworkers and build relationships is the question of those coworkers that aren’t easy to talk to or build relationships with. I’ll call them “thorny coworkers.” Like your biological family or your neighbors, you usually don’t have much control over who your coworkers are and you have to find some way to live with what you got. The first temptation upon realizing this is to think that maybe the organizing can just leave the thorny coworkers out of it. Depending on the grievances and social dynamics of any particular moment, this might be an entirely plausible strategy.
However, as a general approach to organizing your coworkers, leaving the thorny coworkers out of your organizing entirely will likely backfire or severely restrict what you can win. Every coworker you exclude from organizing is another coworker who becomes easy pickings for the boss to turn against you. Every once and a while, you might be at a workplace where just one or two coworkers are thorny and ignoring them doesn’t really create any problems.
But in most workplaces, there are plenty of people who don’t get along with each other for personal, social, political, or any other kinds of reasons. Trying to just carve out a little self-contained sphere of organizing among only those people who like each other already will make your reach extremely limited. To really threaten an effective work stoppage of any scale or to implement a policy of the workers’ own choosing against what the boss might explicitly agree to, you’ll likely need some majority of the coworkers willing to act together. To be able to do this, you’ll usually need to win over or neutralize some portion of your thorny coworkers.
But just as the kinds of thorny coworkers are many and the dynamics that they pose to organizing are complex, so there’s no single simple approach to address this. Building relationships with the thorny coworkers is still the main strategy, but what that looks like in practice is often not intuitive and can differ widely from case to case.
General Principles for Organizing Thorny Coworkers
For most coworkers you want to take the same general approach: build social relationships with them, build up trust that includes the trust to be able to talk about what’s going on at work, and process and take action together around workplace issues. This same general approach applies to most kinds of thorny coworkers, though there are additional strategies that can be used for particular kinds of thorny coworkers, as discussed below.
Despite my warnings that ignoring thorny workers entirely is a mistake, when you first start organizing at a job, start with the coworker relationships that come easiest. Getting a little foothold is important for building your confidence and momentum before trying to exert yourself with more challenging cases.
Before you get to know your thorny coworkers, the prospect of building a relationship with them or including them in organizing in even the smallest way might seem daunting or even impossible. But actually getting to know someone often opens up all sorts of possibilities and openings for what might be effective, possibilities that were totally hidden before. Rather than be intimidated by the perceived difficulty of a certain coworker, it’s best to get to know them some first before deciding what approach, if any, to use in organizing around them.
If in trying to build a relationship with a particular coworker you find it’s consistently too stressful or time-consuming or uncomfortable, that’s totally fine and you can set whatever boundaries you need to balance spending effort building relationships that are easier and those that take extra effort. You should feel good about your organizing most of the time, and when things don’t feel good, you can ask what you need to do to find the right balance again. Ignoring thorny coworkers altogether can be a mistake but throwing all of your energy into them could turn into an emotional sinkhole.
Many coworkers who have pro-boss or have anti-union political views often hold those views because that’s what they grew up around or that’s been the dominant view of every workplace they’ve ever worked at. However, when you organize with a broad swath of coworkers and people start to see and talk about the workplace differently, politically thorny coworkers might find themselves questioning their beliefs as well. This might happen less because someone explicitly challenges them but because they want to fit in like anyone else, and they start to naturally absorb the ideas of those around them. Organizing your thorny coworkers should never be seen in a vacuum but should be seen as one part of an organic whole where all the pieces push and pull on the others.
The classic approach for conservative coworkers (and often moderate and liberal ones as well) is to start by bypassing their opinions about larger social and economic issues and focus on the workplace. Do all of the usual relationship-building with them and most of the time, as with any worker under capitalism, there will be some aspect of work that they don’t like, less for abstract political reasons than just out of pure material self-interest. Whether it’s low wages or bad working conditions, one’s larger political opinions usually don’t prevent one from wanting work to suck less.
Relating to conservative coworkers as coworkers first and foremost is the best way to build a social connection and the real possibility for solidarity and action. After you have that social connection and shared understanding of workplace dynamics, then it will be easier and more effective to discuss and push them on larger political issues if that’s something you want to do. This order of operations is better because if you start with the disagreements it will be harder to affect someone’s opinions and form a degree of trust necessary to build a relationship.
Beyond the traits of the individual coworker themselves, the broader staff dynamics can influence how you navigate conservative coworkers. I’ve worked mostly in predominantly “liberal” industries, where the large majority of workers vote Democrat and there’s a small portion of radical lefties and conservatives on the margins. Conservatives have been politically isolated at work and they tend to get along with the prevailing workplace culture and not make a big deal about their unpopular opinions. In this environment, at least trying to win them over has been worthwhile, sometimes successful and sometimes not, but it’s been a standard part of just building relationships with coworkers as a whole.
Certainly, different dynamics prevail in workplaces where conservatives are a majority of staff. But I’d wager that relationship-based organizing is better situated to these kinds of conditions than mainstream union approaches that are more publicly aligned with liberal sentiments and the Democratic Party.
Bosshead is a term for a coworker who sides with the boss and who sees the boss’s interests as the same as their own. There’s different kinds of bossheads that deserve different approaches, so let’s take them in turn.
There’s the bosshead who genuinely thinks that the boss is right about everything at work. They make the most charitable interpretation of everything the boss does, even those things that are harmful to themselves and their coworkers. In building a multi-dimensional relationship with this kind of bosshead, you can process what it’s like at work and you might be able to gradually show how, through experience and conversations, that actually the boss often isn’t right.
Then there’s the bosshead who is just aligned with the boss out of self-interest because that’s what they think gives them the most respect and job security. However, if through your organizing you’re able to flip the balance of power and make it so that the workers start to have more influence over workplace issues than the boss, sometimes these kinds of bossheads will “switch sides” over to their coworkers out of self-interest.
Some bossheads side with the boss because they know that’s the key to their own career advancement to get a promotion or become a boss themselves. These bossheads are usually not worth trying to persuade as their material self-interest is explicitly aligned with the boss liking them. Building relationships with these kinds of bossheads is sometimes strategic just to try to keep them neutral in conflicts or to blunt how aggressively they side with the boss, but don’t bother trying to win them over to organizing.
Some bossheads are foot soldiers for the boss and do much of the peer-pressuring and bullying of coworkers that the boss wants them to do. This kind of bosshead might overlap with the other bosshead motivations noted above, but any bosshead who is doing this and actively trying to destroy solidarity between workers should be treated as indistinguishable from the boss themselves in most cases. Try to organize people against them and undermine their bases of support among your coworkers by revealing how their behavior is harmful.
In trying to organize around bossheads, it’s often helpful to know their motivations so you can find an approach that is in line with your larger organizing goals.
Far Right Coworkers
Having coworkers who are somewhere on the far right is a different situation than your average conservative coworker. Your average conservative coworker may have views that are socially harmful, but they can still be reasoned with and brought into situations of seeing their own self-interest as more aligned with their coworkers than with the bosses. Over time this experience can lead them to question individualistic, oppressive, and pro-capitalist beliefs that before seemed ingrained.
However, someone committed to the far right, to explicit belief in the superiority of men and white people and other dominant groups, usually deserve direct challenges. In addition to being morally repugnant and socially destructive, allowing such beliefs into your organizing space can create deep and irreparable rifts. Whereas it can sometimes pay off to build relationships with normal bossheads and conservatives and see how much they change in response to organizing, there’s rarely the same reason to build any positive relationship with far-right coworkers while they retain those views.
If you don’t have the standing in your workplace to really challenge far-right coworkers, or doing so would expose you or others to discipline or harm, of course that’s different. In such situations you might continue building relationships with the rest of your coworkers until dynamics are ripe to start explicitly organizing against any far-right coworkers.
While the normal methods of getting to know your coworkers is usually best for even thorny coworkers, sometimes a conflict or disagreement will arise that really requires a specific intervention. If a thorny coworker is at the center of a conflict at work that can’t just be put on the back burner until the relationship is stronger, you’ll have to have some more immediate tools.
One three-step approach that I learned goes as follows.
Step 1: As the organizer, you’re often familiar with workplace dynamics and are in a position to approach a thorny coworker about their conduct.
Step 2: Find who in the workplace the thorny coworker respects or has listened to in the past, and have that person approach the thorny coworker over their behavior.
Step 3: Have all of the other coworkers as a group approach the thorny coworker.
If none of those steps work and the problem behavior is totally unacceptable, you can choose to ostracize the coworker or, if the situation is bad enough, try to have the coworker fired. Getting a coworker fired is a last resort, but if a coworker is engaged in consistent sexual harassment or consistently makes racist comments, getting the coworker fired might be the best option for keeping others safe. Maybe everyone makes the coworker’s life miserable at work by giving them the cold shoulder or refusing to work with them, or maybe you put pressure on the boss to fire them to keep the workplace from being so toxic.
One of the central features of relationship-based organizing is resisting the constant urge to rush things. Building relationships with coworkers may take more time than other union approaches but will lead to healthier and stronger worker power in the long-term.
With thorny coworkers this can take even longer. People are usually the way they are because of a lifetime of accumulated experiences and well-worn thought patterns. The further away someone is from being in solidarity with their coworkers the longer it will usually take until organizing with them pays off. This is definitely one of the hardest parts of RBO, but it’s also where some of the biggest victories can lie.
Sometimes a thorny coworker will change in a deep way and will become a big part of your organizing, and sometimes your extra thorny coworkers will remain extra thorny forever. But for some thorny coworkers who are not so thorny as they need to be rejected out of hand but not so amenable that you can be entirely open with them about your organizing, you’ll have to manage your relationship with them in the long term. Their thorniness might vary year by year and grievance by grievance, and in each individual instance you’ll have to decide how strategic it is to include or exclude them from organizing. As your organizing progresses at your workplace hopefully you can find a balance that minimizes the bad aspects of thorny relationships, maximizes the good, and keeps the focus on building worker power.
4 thoughts on “Relationship-Based Organizing with Thorny Coworkers”
I’m reading Secrets of a Successful Organizer by Labor Notes. Any thoughts on how to make it even more RBO friendly?
Oh, nothing in particular. I thought it was a good book. Just in organizing in general, I find myself having to re-interpret organizing ideas in general via an RBO frame to make them better suit my needs. Definitely let me know if there’s any more specific question you’re thinking through in relation to the book.
A comment and a request: first the comment. I started reading Rules to Win By by Jane McAlevey. The more I read her work, the more I find myself nodding. It is true that her writing seems to lessen the importance of deep relationships, but I think that is not accurate. She relies upon naturally occurring relationships such as cliques, teams, crews, and so forth and identifying natural leaders to organize these subgroups. That makes sense. Not everyone is going to receive the message or develop the same depth of bond with the organizer…not matter how persuasive I am, I’m a pinko commie bastard straight white middle-aged lefty male labor nerd and I can’t reach certain individuals. Hell we can’t even agree on basic facts, let alone anything controversial. But there are bridges to these folks. They are the natural leaders that Jane mentions. And she does have a deep bank of experience to draw these conclusions. She could go deeper into how to build relationships and put more of an emphasis on that aspect but her stuff beyond building those bonds is solid. The techniques of Motivational Interviewing are legit perfect for this. I’ve been meeting with an External Organizer with the IWW, of which I am a member, and he does MI continuously.
To answer the question of how do we know our bonds are strong enough, Jane recommends micro-structure tests. Even getting someone to give you their address is a level of commitment and a structure test of the Union. Gradually escalating commitments and starting where the worker is currently seems to be a good tactic. Example: asking someone to sacrifice a lunch break to come to a lunch and learn or a Union meeting, that’s time they could be doing something else.
Anyway to the request: I see you’ve published my real name not my nom d’plume or username. Would you kindly change it or remove the comment because I don’t want my comrades getting into trouble if management reads this blog. Me, whatever happens happens lol. Thank you!
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It’s great to hear you’ve been working with an external organizer and organizing more at your job. I just finished reading the big Motivational Interviewing book and I liked it a lot, thanks again for turning me on to those ideas. I’m aiming to write a blog post or two including ideas from MI.
McAlevey does have a lot of good stuff to say, and I’ve really enjoyed reading her books. At the same time, I started being critical of her as well when I began to see some of her methods put into practice in my own union. A lot of ppl in my mainstream union are big fans of hers and have been to a lot of her online trainings and read her books, and I find their implementation of those ideas in my union to be lacking the relationship focus that I’ve found most helpful in my own organizing (I comment at a little more length in this other post that I know you’ve already read (https://firewithfire.blog/2022/12/31/a-critical-survey-of-left-unionisms-mcalevey-burns-moody-syndicalism-permeationism-and-relationship-based-organizing/)). I’ve found myself having to fight against McAlevey’s ideas as often as I’ve fought with them. While McAlevey talks a lot about natural leaders and such natural leaders are definitely an essential part of any overall organizing approach (most union organizing traditions have some theory of natural leaders), I think there’s a more relationship-based way to do that (it’s one of the topics I plan to write a blog post on at some point). I think there’s definitely some ideas in McAlevey worth stealing from, but I’ve found I needed to significantly re-calibrate them in some ways so they align more with my own organizing philosophy. For all my complaints about McAlevey I think best for organizers to try a lot of different approaches, including hers, and see what works for you.
As regards your posting name, I don’t have control over that. Maybe when you posted initially you were logged into a different wordpress account or email such that it automatically used your name? Fyi, when I click on your nom d’plume it links back to your wordpress site which also has your name in the url. I’m not sure if there’s a way to change that in your wordpress settings or if you have create a separate account to post without linking back to your name or if there’s a different way to post anonymously. I can go ahead and delete your original comment above, and regarding your other comments my guess is that you should have control over deleting them if you so choose. I appreciate the comments and conversation though! Good luck with your organizing.