Adapted from "The triangle tool" in Educating for a Change.
Using a simple analytic tool, this activity helps people become aware of the different factors -- structure, culture and participation -- that combine to make a union more or less democratic. It also emphasizes the role of the rank-and-file as well as the officers and staff.
Helping people deepen their understanding of union democracy and how it is built or undermined; helping a group develop a shared understanding of union democracy and how they can build it as rank-and-file members and as union officers and staff. Would be good for new officers, for union staff, as part of a new member training, as part of a workshop for union reformers...
Big paper, tape, handout with short case studies.
If you are doing this as a follow up from "Activity 2.2 This is what union democracy looks like," take the results of that activity ("I know union democracy is happening when I see, hear, feel, do _____") and write them on index cards, one item per card. (Write big so that people can read the card across the room). Color code the cards so that you can give the "See" cards to one group, the "Hear" cards to another, and so on.
If this is a stand alone activity, the facilitator should do Activity 2.2 on her/his own to generate the items for the index cards.
Number of people:
flexible, as described below, about 20 people
Depends on how you handle discussion. Probably at least two hours.
People need one wall or big blackboard for posting the triangle and cards, need to be able to form small groups and meet as a whole group.
- Explain and motivate.
- Set the theme in motion. Present three short cases each one representing a union democracy problem that emphasizes one aspect of the triangle: an example of an institutional problem, an example of undemocratic culture, an example of undemocratic participation. If literacy may be an issue, ask for a volunteer to read each story out loud, or write each one as a dialogue and get volunteers to act them out. For example:
- In Local 1133 members do not have the right to ratify contracts by secret ballot vote. The officers decide whether to approve the contract or not.
- In Local 4422 members can go to the union website and find the union constitution and bylaws, the contract, information about their democratic rights, and an open forum where members can post whatever they like, as long as it has something to do with the union (no spam).
- In Local 3355 members attend union meeetings, ask questions, make proposals for action and debate issues openly before making a decision.
- For each case do a quick poll: "is this union democratic? Yes or no?" Obviously, we can't decide based on one factor alone -- we need to look at a broader range of factors.
- Form groups of not more than five people. (Think about how you want to group people. [THIS SHOULD BE A NOTE THAT APPLIES WHENEVER GROUPS ARE FORMED -- MAYBE A GLOSSARY ITEM)
- Facilitator explain the triangle tool:
- Draw a big triangle on the board/big paper, leaving plenty of space to post index cards next to each point of the triangle. (You may want to write notes inside the triangle, too, so make it big.)
- What are we talking about when we say a union is democratic? Or isn't? Let's break it down, using this triangle tool. Each point on the triangle represents a different part of union democracy. We will run through them first without spending too much time defining them, we will do that together later.
- First, there is the union's structure. This means everything that has to do with rules, procedures and laws, but also the structure of the union, how it is set up.
- Then, the culture of the union. Think of this as how people think about the union, what the attidude towards democracy is, how the union sees itself... (leave this a little vague and let people flesh it out, you can also think of this as politics, but be careful not to confuse people who may think of politics as just union political endorsements, this is politics in the broad sense)
- Finally, there is the question of participation. This is the who-does-what, who-knows-what, who-decides-what. Not just formal roles (see institutional) but who participates and how they participate.
- Check-in to see if the basic idea is relatively clear -- it will get clearer as the activity goes on.
- Tell participants we will flesh out each part, using the things on the See, Hear, Feel, Do lists (if not a follow up on the "This is what union democracy looks like" activity, briefly explain how you came up with the items that are on the cards).
- Hand out the index cards, one set per group, and ask the groups to look at their cards and decide where on the triangle to place them. If there is disagreement, make a note of what the disagreement was -- we will discuss the disagreements, too.
- When the time for preparation is up, have the groups take turns placing their items, one at a time, on the triangle. As a person places the card s/he briefly explains to the other groups why it belongs to that part of the triangle. Members from the other groups can challenge the placement of the card. As you go, ask members to point out where there were differences in their group about the placement of the cards.
- As you flesh out the triangle with the cards, look for two things: a) the interaction between structure, culture, and participation, and b) the official and unofficial structures, cultures, and types of participation.
- a) Where can we see the influence of the structure on the culture? What about the influence of the union's culture on its structure? What about participation, how does it influence the other two and get influenced in return? Keep it concrete: can you think of examples from your union?
- b) for each point -- structure, culture, participation -- we can always find unofficial forms: unofficial structures or procedures, unofficial cultures, unofficial forms of participation. Sometimes this unofficial union life is organized -- think of a rank-and-file reform caucus with regular meetings, an independent website, organizing campaigns in the union -- most often it is spontaneous and disorganized, but it is always there. Again, keep it concrete: can you think of examples that reveal this unofficial triangle?
- If these don't come up, the facilitator should mention them. If it seems people don't understand, don't spend too much time. The point of calling attention to the unofficial side of the triangle in addition to the official side is to counteract the natural tendency to focus on the actions and ideas of the union officers and ignore the role that members play. This goes to a very basic problem for union democracy: it is often the union members who think themselves unimportant or powerless or even undeserving of democracy and power. It goes to our understanding of where workers' power comes from and how a union can help us build that power.
- When the triangle is filled out, you may want to add particular items that were not on the index cards and did not come up in the activity. For example, a union may provide members the constitution and bylaws, but what if those documents are in English and many members don't read English? It is important to look at language as something that can block or facilitate participation and democracy. These will depend on the context.
- Before taking a break, ask people to talk for five minutes or so with the person next to them about the activity -- anything they want to talk about.
- Bringing it home
- Now that the triangle is clear, time to bring it home. Ask people in groups to talk about their own unions, each person trying to find an example of how some part of the union's structure, culture, or participation undermines democracy in their union and an example of a change that they coud make immediately to make the union more democratic (i.e. not a bylaws change, but something they can do right away). After hearing from each person, the group should choose one example of each to share with the whole group.
- Report back. One person from each small group shares the examples they chose. People from other groups can ask questions.
- Whole group discussion
- Evaluation -- in small groups, ask people to discuss whether the triangle tool was useful to them, keep it in the tool box? Leave it on the shelf?
- Don't let the triangle tool get too abstract -- this is not a sociology lesson (though it would be an interesting one!)
- People will probably challenge the categories: where do we put the right to vote on contracts? Is that structure or is it participation? This is helpful because it brings out the interaction between each point of the triangle. In this case a clause in the bylaws -- membership ratification of contracts -- creates a forum for participation. Interestingly, in some cases, members have exercised the right to vote on contracts even though the bylaws didn't provide for such a vote -- "it is just the way things are done." Further, you may have the right to vote in your bylaws, but the union officers may have members vote without giving them a the text of the changes to the contract and without providing time for review and discussion. This shows how lack of participation can undercut an important structural element of democracy.
Above all, remember that the triangle tool is just a tool. If it helps people become more aware of the different things that contribute to or undermine union democracy, that's great. If not, use a different tool. However, as facilitator, you need to be clear about the categories -- it may help to run through the activity on your own, seeing how you would place items and where it might get confusing. If the tool doesn't work for you, it's probably not a good idea to use it.
- When the groups are taking turns posting cards, the facilitator will have to decide the right balance between allowing for discussion of each item and moving the activity along. It can be helpful for the facilitator to add her/his two cents -- "that's interesting, I was thinking that "no vote on contracts" went under "structure" -- but be careful not to confuse the purpose of the activity, which is to use the triangle tool to help people clarify their understanding of union democracy (not to see if people can come up with your answers). If you want to help clarify, ask questions.
- When drawing the triangle, start with simple icons that illustrate each point: maybe a picture of a book of laws for structure, a union t-shirt for culture, a talking worker for participation. Then draw lines to connect these three points.
- Watch short clips from films that show democracy at work (or being subverted). Use the triangle tool to analyze the scene, looking for the structural, cultural and participatory aspects of union democracy. Look for scenes that involve the three aspects of union democracy and/or illustrate both the official and unofficial forms. For example: Marlon Brando fighting Johnny Friendly, then walking through the gate to work, from On the Waterfront. The secret union meeting in Matewan, where the organizer argues for including the black and Italian workers in the union. The union meeting in Salt of the Earth where the workers discuss whether to stay on strike or go back to work. The bar scene in Blue Collar, where the workers first meet the FBI agent. The scene in Roger and Me where the UAW executive drives by in a limousine while a rank-and-filer on the sidewalk says, "some people know what time it is, some don't."