By Matt Noyes. Adapted from "See, Hear, Feel" in Educating for Change
To generate a concrete definition of union democracy that is meaningful to people; to get past easy, abstract generalizations about democracy that block the definition of real, achievable, measurable goals; to hear from each individual and also create a group definition of union democracy; to flush out any "hotspots" -- points of intense interest, disagreement or controversy.
People talk about democracy, especially when they feel it's being violated, but not always in concrete terms. In this activity participants describe what they understand union democracy to be, using physical, practical terms: sight, sound, feeling and action.
What you need/preparation:
handouts -- four sets, each with a different sentence to complete (see below); flip chart, markers.
Explain and motivate the activity.
- Facilitator divides participants into four groups (for more on forming groups see Educating for Change), giving them handouts. Each group has a designated note-taker, whose task is to write up the group's answers on big paper. The facilitator will keep time, and circulate among groups to clarify the activity and to keep people on task.
When giving groups instructions, also give some process instructions: make sure everyone talks, be aware of time, if you get stuck on a disagreement note what it is and move on.
- In group 1, participants complete this sentence, based on their experience:
I know union democracy is happening when I see...
Have them brainstorm a list of specific, concrete things they see (can include actions or objects) that demonstrate the presence of democracy or democratic functioning.
- Group 2 completes this sentence:
I know union democracy is happening when I hear...
Have them brainstorm a list of specific, concrete things they hear (can include things people say or other sounds, e.g. people arguing) that demonstrate the presence of democracy or democratic functioning.
- Group 3:
I know union democracy is happening when I feel...
Have them brainstorm a list of specific, concrete feelings they have that demonstrate the presence of democracy or democratic functioning. ("I feel equal" or "I feel like I'm in a rowdy family discussion at the dinner table")
- Group 4:
I know union democracy is happening when I do...
Have them brainstorm a list of specific, concrete things they do, actions they take that show the union is operating democratically (e.g. "I vote on contracts" or "I help coworkers speak up at meetings...")
When the groups are done, they post the sheets of paper and then the facilitator guides a review of the answers, looking for issues, differences of opinion, common themes. It may be useful to summarize the points in a few, main features. The discussion can go various directions, depending on the objective of the workshop. For example, this could lead to a discussion in which the group sets goals it wants to achieve. It could also lead to a discussion on obstacles to democracy, "why don't we see, hear, feel democracy in our union? How can we act to build democracy or win reforms?"
People often go first to abstract or cliche answers, such as, "I know democracy is happening when I see fairness." The facilitator may have to push people to be concrete, giving examples or rephrasing the question to help clarify the purpose. With brainstorming it is important to be clear that the purpose is to generate ideas and that there is a next step: prioritizing, discussing, sort out the ideas collected. If you just form a list and leave it there, people may feel they have wasted time.
- You can use this technique to concretize the analysis of any issue or practice -- positive or negative. In Educating for a Change, the technique is used to analyze racism. You could use it to analyze undemocratic behavior or autocracy, or a positive force like workers' power. The scope can be narrowed -- "I know I am effective as a steward when I see, hear, feel, do...." or broadened -- "I know the labor movement is growing stronger when I see, hear, feel, do..." The value of this technique is that it helps a group build a collective and concrete definition of the thing they want to work on.
- You can use this to explore the link between union democracy and other issues, having one group do the "see, hear, feel, do" for union democracy while another does it for shopfloor power, or antiracism, for example.
- In Educating for a Change, when discussing the results of this activity, the facilitators use something they call the "Triangle Tool." See Activity 2.3 The union democracy triangle tool for an example.
- You can do it backwards: ask people to give examples of experiences when they could tell democracy was NOT happening, then find the positive criteria in their examples. "If it's not democratic when the same people run the meeting and the same people speak all the time, what is democratic? Rotating the chair/facilitator role, adopting speaking rules that give people equal chances (or progressive speaking lists)." (Thanks to Aki Owada for this idea.)
I used this technique at a workshop at the national conference of Pride at Work, the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender AFL-CIO constituency group. The purpose of the workshop was to explore the links between activism for union democracy and activism for LGBT rights and pride. (It was the intrepid Sarah Luthens who got this dialogue going for AUD, and advocated for the workshop at PAW.)
I divided the PAW workshop participants into two groups, asking one to complete all four sentences for union democracy, the other to do the same for LGBT pride. We then compared the answers and used them to talk about how the fight for union democracy is related -- or not -- to the fight for LGBT pride. A queer woman sheetmetal worker, a queer woman bricklayer, and a transgender newspaper worker later talked about how democracy and pride interact in their activism. See my article in Union Democracy Review: "Coming out for union democracy: AUD at Pride at Work".