By Matt Noyes (in collaboration with David Levin, David Pratt, and Steve Downs)

Okay, you have organized a rank-and-file reform group in your union. You are active and presenting a real challenge to the existing union administration. But how strong are you? How strong is the administration that you are challenging? How has your strength (and theirs) been changing? What are your weaknesses? What are theirs? Does everyone in your group share the same assessment? What are the implications for your strategy?

In this activity every participant expresses his or her sense of how the reform group is doing while at the same time creating a collective assessment of the power of the group and its opposition. The activity helps participants identify the hotspots, points where people disagree or where there is confusion, and gets them thinking in concrete terms about what it means to be powerful (how do you measure your influence?). This type of assessment of relative strength is good preparation for strategic planning.

Participants rate the power of their rank-and-file group and that of the union administration they are challenging, both in the present contract period and in the previous one, by placing color-coded stickers under a series of categories on large wall charts. (See the Union Democracy and Power Line in Chapter 2.)

Several sheets of flip chart paper posted with categories written along the top; prepare the categories ahead of time based on discussions with participants; colored stickers (enough so that each participant has two stickers for each category). NOTE the stickers need to be color coded, for example red for past and blue for present so that you can show past and present on the same power line; markers; tape. Camera -- this is an important chart to photograph and keep. It can be used to assess progress later on, etc.

Number of People:
Generally, the more the better, but reform groups are often small. If you get over twenty people, you may want to divide it up into two larger groups and add a sharing session where groups can compare their charts and discuss them -- maybe in a Mosh Pit format.

The same basic mechanics as the Union Democracy and Power Line, but more complex: this time you are assessing two opposing groups and looking at how the power of each has changed over time. You will need two power lines, one for the reform group, one for the administration, and you will need two sets of color stickers, one color for the past, one for the present.

  • Clarify the task: there are two groups here: the reform group and the administration, and you are looking at each as it was at a point in the past and as it is now.
  • You can ask people to place their "past" stickers first, for each group, and, when all are done, their "present" stickers, or vice versa, or past and present together, or one group at a time (the caucus, then the administration). Each approach has a different effect: doing past and present for one group first may be the easiest way for people to think about changes. "Okay, in 2003 we were this strong, but now..." In any case, be sure people understand the task and how to do it.
  • Hand out the stickers, make sure everyone has access to them, and ask people to place stickers on the two charts indicating the level of power the group (reformers/administration) has in each category. Place it high on the chart if you think the group has/had a lot of power in that category, low if not.
  • When all have posted their stickers, the facilitator begins discussion by asking participants for impressions of the power line -- "what do you notice? What stands out?" The facilitator's first objective is to get a thorough reading of the line, looking for patterns and "hot spots" key points and areas of difference.
  • The facilitator should save his/her own impressions to the end (backload) and then lead into the next step of the workshop.

The categories of power:

  • Our reform group has clear goals for the contract campaign and follows a clear plan to get them
  • workers express support for our group's goals
  • workers express trust in our activists
  • our group is able to frame the issues and set the terms of the debate
  • our activists have a clear action plan
  • our activists are accountable to group
  • our group can get the other side to carry out its contract campaign plan
  • your category(ies) here.

The exact same categories are used for the Administration power line, substituting "The [name] Administration" for "our reform group."

Watch for:
You may have to remind people a lot what each color means -- post a "key" on the wall: a sticker of each color and what it means.

"Your categories here" is not a throw away, it is crucial to give people this opening -- and time and space to use it -- to add things the chart is missing, leave space on the chart, have enough stickers, call attention to it, make sure others use the categories they create.

Note on facilitation: it is important, where participants express major differences in assessment of strength, to note the hot spots, and consider adding more discussion time to your agenda. Check with the participants, while they may have big disagreement, they may agree that other issues are more pressing. Because you are using this activity to bring people out and get the issues and perceptions on the table, it is not the time for people to evaluate or argue with people's assessment of their union administration/reform group. The hotspots are precious -- save them and make space and time to deal with them. (See the Mosh Pit for an activity that can be useful for discussing hotspots.)

As facilitator, you will help the discussion if you challenge opinions that seem superficial or cliche. Be careful. If you are perceived to be steering the discussion or functioning as an ally of one player/faction/subgrouping/way of thought it can undermine trust in the process and cripple the dialogue -- be very thoughtful, stick to your democratic principles, and make sure your motivation is clear to the participants. See Just what are your intentions. For thoughts about those rare cases when you wish to intervene, see When participants take over: from education to action.)

The power line can also be used to assess internal organizational strength and identify areas that need improvement -- "our caucus makes decisions democratically, members each take bundles of the newsletter for distribution..." etc

In 1999, TDU educators and organizers David Levin and David Pratt and I facilitated a one day strategic retreat for the New Directions caucus in TWU Local 100 in NYC. The local was facing a new round of contract negotiations and the New Directions members had been arguing about whether they had enough power to influence the negotiations and what strategy they should have. The goal of the retreat, which was planned in collaboration with several New Directions members, was to deepen and organize that discussion. As the agenda put it, "to begin analysis of where New Directions stands in relation to past contract negotiations and in relation to the James administration. The question is: how much power do the two groups -- New Directions and the James administration -- have going into the next contract negotiations?"

We used the power line to compare the previous contract period (1994) to the situation in 1999 (which came soon after they had been narrowly defeated in a local union election). For more on New Directions in this period, before winning power in the local, see the essay Hell on Wheels: Organizing Among New York City's Subway and Bus Workers by Steve Downs and Tim Schermerhorn, in The Transformation of US Unions.

The workshop agenda also included:

  • a brainstorm of the participants' goals for the upcoming contract campaign, the opportunities they saw and the challenges they expected to face;
  • a presentation about communications strategy based on the experience of TDU;
  • a role play to help participants see how they communicate with fellow workers on the job, and try out new approaches;
  • a video about using grievances to organize (Turn it Around, Teamster Stewards Solving Problems on the Job -- Education Department, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, 1994, 17 minutes. ); and
  • discussion of a proposed New Directions Contract Campaign Network Structure (modeled on the member-to-member network used to build grassroots organization in the run-up to the 1997 UPS strike -- see my adaptation of this: the worker-to-worker network).

The differences that were explored in the retreat ran deep -- to fundamental principles of democracy and power. New Directions went on to win power in Local 100 in 2000, only to fall apart soon thereafter. For an account of that history, see "Hell on Wheels, the success and failure of reform in Transport Workers Union Local 100", by Steve Downs.