By Matt Noyes. I started using diagrams to help explain the framework of legal rights and the importance of organizing, then found that the diagrams could also be used to explore people's visions of what unionism is and can/should be. I added the handout later as a kind of summary of my own view of the diagrams.

To get participants to spell out their visions of unionism; to get people thinking and questioning their assumptions and understandings; to encourage people to set long term goals for their activism; to smoke out issues and problems to work on; to build a shared vision among participants; to introduce different ideas of what unions can/should be; to set in motion a dialogue between AUD and the participants about union democracy and reform.

Let's get really deep. What is the long term vision of unionism that motivates us? Do we have a long term vision? What kind of unions are we in? What do we want to build? How can unions be changed and who can change them? How does our vision relate to what we are doing now? Using crude diagrams to represent four simple visions of unionism, the facilitator asks participants to explain and explore their vision of unionism.

What you need/suggestions:
Prepared diagrams (see below) on flip chart, markers, handouts with diagrams and material on visions of unionism. (NOTE: the diagrams here are the handouts. The flip chart diagrams should be more like cartoons, with faces and expressions.)

The flow:

  • Explain and motivate, stress that this is about various possibilities not about identifying the "right answer."
  • Facilitator calls participants' attention to first diagram of unionism, then leads a discussion, following a series of steps: description, analysis, connection to one's own experience.
  • There are four diagrams representing four types of union or visions of what unions are/should be. The diagrams are not labeled or titled, though for purposes of describing the activity I'll give them names: a) the service union, b) the corrupt union, c) the rank-and-file union, and d) the reforming union.
  • I start with the "service union," because it is the type of union most people are in and because it shows the basic roles and power relationships that participants usually want to understand.
  • I then show the "corrupt union," to acknowledge that such unions exist and pose a huge obstacle to democratic and powerful unionism, and to distinguish real corruption -- sweetheart deals, theft, violence -- from bureaucratic or top-down functioning. I am careful to distinguish union corruption from service unionism. At the same time, I remind people that these are models and that in the real world unions may have a mix of features.
  • Having gone to the extreme worst form, I show the "rank-and-file union," a union in which there is complete democracy, full participation of rank-and-file members in the union and on the job, etc.
  • Finally, I show the "reforming union," a diagram that shows the service union with a reform group organizing inside it.

(NOTE: These diagrams offer a good case study of the problem of the role of the facilitator -- they can be used to propagandize for a particular model of unionism or to draw out people's ideas and objectives. They clearly reflect the ideas and vision of the facilitator and his or her engagement -- they are not neutral -- but if they are effective it is because they get people talking about their own visions and ideas, which often differ from those of the facilitator, and building a common discussion and analysis.)

For each diagram, the facilitator follows the following process of questioning and discussion:

  • Step one: description. The facilitator asks participants:
  • What do you see? What is going on here? Who are these people?
  • As people call out answers, the facilitator challenges, summarizes, questions, trying to help the group come up with its description. (NOTE: The description phase is the most interesting and important -- what do people see? The questions I ask about the diagrams: the arrows, circles, etc. are real questions; I am not fishing for "correct" answers (i.e. answers that match my own) even though I made the charts. I want to know what people see. If they see something very different, then I want to know why, what they are thinking, what their experience is -- the difference becomes a point of departure for our discussion.)
  • The facilitator then explains his or her own idea in making the diagram and where it matches or differs from what people saw. The diagram represents the different players involved in unionism. There are three basic groups: a) union members, b) union representatives, and c) the employer, and his or her representatives (lower level managers). (You can also include additional parties: courts, media, community, families, etc.)
  • The facilitator then asks people to describe the different groups of players -- who are they, what are they doing, what types do you see, are these types realistic?

Step two: analysis.

  • The facilitator asks participants to analyze the diagram:
  • What kind of union is this? How would you describe it? What are the players doing -- and why? What do they want? Do you think this union is strong or weak? Why? What is the problem?
  • In the discussion, the facilitator looks for key points or concepts, issues that are unclear and need to be explored, informational questions (Is it legal for employers to be in the union? What is the AFL-CIO?), and hotspots. Debate should be encouraged, though the idea is to get people to explore different ideas, not defend their own to the death. The discussion of which union is the ideal or the goal (are those two the same?) is an important one.

Step three: connection to experience.

  • Once the participants have described and analyzed each diagram, the facilitator asks participants if any of these diagrams represents the type of union they are in.
  • Which union(s) look like yours? Which features? What’s different?
  • Which type of union is best? Why? Is the union you chose a realistic option?

Step four: strategies for change.

  • Once the participants have described and analyzed each diagram, the facilitator asks participants if any of these diagrams represents the type of union they are in.
  • If you want to be in this ideal union (the one they designate), but you start out in the other one how do you make the change? Where do you begin? Why? How?
  • You can see that this leads into a large discussion of goals, strategy, even labor history, that could be the subject of many more sessions. For the purposes of this activity -- to get people to talk and think about what unions are, what they want them to be and why, and how to change them -- it is enough to raise the issues and discuss them. This activity can get people interested in future discussions of strategy.
  • You should keep a punchlist of the many questions that can't be addressed in this activity, but need to be dealt with later (you need to know when and where "later" is).

Watch for/suggestions: Do not follow those steps mechanically. Follow the flow of the conversation. However, it is useful to bring out all the elements in the steps, in whatever order they come.

What's not allowed to happen when you do a workshop?

This activity works only if the facilitator is committed to its purpose and is willing to work with a range of ideas and arguments without slipping out of the facilitator role and into that of the judge. You have to keep your eyes on the prize.

The "wrong" answer. What if someone endorses corrupt unionism, for example -- "Hey, at least the mob got good contracts" and others are interested in that idea? This is a chance to use what Paulo Freire called the "pedagogy of the question."

First, you have to judge how serious this position is and how widely held. If it is serious and many people support it, then you need to get the participants to break it down: What do we mean by mob? Who are we talking about? What do they do in a union? How do they operate? Who benefits? How? What makes for good contracts? How about contract enforcement? What is it that the mob does to win good contracts? What are the costs? Does anyone have personal experience of this?

The facilitator can also provide counter examples (adding information; note: the educator needs to know about the union movement and have specific cases; it's not good to just add an unfounded opinion to the mix). The facilitator can recommend outside reading or put participants in touch with unionists who have fought corruption in their unions.

But what if, at the end, the participant(s) still believes that corrupt unionism is good? There is only so much a facilitator can do. At that point, you clarify the difference of opinion and analysis and move on. (Obviously, because your goals and understandings are so different, supporters of union corruption will probably decide not to continue working with a union democracy educator, so this type of fundamental difference will work itself out in practice.)

It is more interesting if the participants endorse "service unionism," and the educator is a partisan of the "rank-and-file" model. First, go to the questions. Then, you can add information or your own two cents (don't let stating your opinion block out the other steps. This problem is common: because you are facilitating, it's easy to get the floor and hold it (and hold it) while you expound on your vision of unionism.)

This is a good time to think about your goals: to provoke discussion and reflection, to provide alternative ways to thinking about what unions are and should be for, to open a dialogue among participants and a dialogue with you. In the end, the goal of helping participants develop their own goals and strategy -- in dialogue with you -- trumps the goal of getting participants to adopt your program. If the differences are too great, you are under no obligation to keep working with them, nor they with you.

What makes this activity especially valuable to the facilitator is that it reveals what people think and believe about unions, and forces the facilitator, too, to reflect on his or her assumptions. By listening and questioning, the facilitator can learn a great deal from the participants about unionism.

Have participants draw their own union, using the diagrams as a model.

Have people draw the union they want, using the diagrams as a model.

Start by having people draw their union, with no previous model, then use the diagrams to compare and bring out features.

End with a back-loaded presentation on what makes for a democratic union.

I have used this many times, always tinkering with it. I find it provides a great way to get to know the participants and their perspectives. At the same time, it puts me in immediate dialogue with them about union democracy; they see that I respect their views, that for me the point is for them to define what they think.

At the same time they see I have views of my own which I am happy to share without trying to impose them. This is crucial: in undemocratic unions and on the job workers constantly face "superiors" who try to impose their views. The "practice of democracy in study" means creating a space where views are not imposed but cultivated.

In a retreat for the Coalition of University Employees in California, I used the visions of unionism piece to set the tone, to smoke out some differences among participants, and the same time to remind the participants of one of their group's basic strengths. This group had decertified a tired AFSCME local by campaigning for a different kind of union, one that would be very rank-and-file in character (for example, with no paid officers). The activity drew on one of their strengths, raised real issues, and put the subject of union elections -- the topic of the retreat -- in the larger context of democratic unionism, helping participants establish a shared framework before getting into the nitty gritty.

This write up describes the activity as I used it in the late 1990's, before the split in the AFL-CIO and the full emergence of the new bureaucratic unionism typified by SEIU. In a workshop for the Center for Transnational Labor Studies in Tokyo, Japan in 2004, I added a new model based on SEIU Local 32BJ -- it was hard to draw, it takes a lot of paper to show a mega local!

I have since thought it is more useful to keep the existing four models and leave the SEIU-type union (of course not all SEIU locals are the same) as a question mark? Where do the new mega locals fit in? What elements of the four visions do they combine, if they don't fit one of them? Which features are dominant? It would be very interesting to ask people to draw their basic analysis of such unions -- how does the diagram change?