(adapted by Matt Noyes from Running a UPS-Style Contract Campaign, by the Teamster Rank & File Education and Legal Defense Fund)
Everyone knows the basic ideas of organizing: in unity there is strength, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, the members are the strength of the union; each one teach one. While many union leaders give these ideas lip service, for workers who want to build a strong democratic union, these ideas are essential guides to action. You don’t have the resources and institution of the union to back you up. Your strength is in the commitment and activism of your fellow workers.
One way to organize for democracy and power in a union is to form a committee or caucus. The worker-to-worker network is a tool the caucus can use to get its work done in a way that builds the group and ensures accountability.
NOTE: The worker-to-worker network is designed to help you organize communication and action, it is not a decision-making structure. You need to have regular meetings where everyone can participate equally in decision-making.
1. The Basic Structure
The worker-to-worker network is organized in three levels, or concentric circles (more circles can be added as needed): Coordinators, Site Coordinators, Activists.
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The first circle is the coordinating committee: these are highly committed activists willing to do the work to keep the network going. This group selects a main coordinator, whose task is to organize meetings of the committee, to keep account of the network and people's assignments, and to check in with the group on the functioning of the coordinators. Each coordinator, except the main coordinator, is responsible for communicating one-on-one with up to ten site coordinators and reporting back to the main coordinator. The coordinating committee's first task is to recruit these site coordinators.
The second circle is the site coordinators: each site coordinator is responsible for communicating one-on-one with no more than ten workers, and reporting back to his or her coordinator. The site coordinators are also responsible for recruiting new site coordinators to join the network.
The third circle is the activists: they are the people who are willing to be involved in action at some level, but are not willing or able to take on the responsibility of being site coordinators. (It is good to think in terms of "organizing yourself out of a job" by bringing activists in to be site coordinators, and applying yourself elsewhere to organize new workers into the group.)
2. How it Works
There are two main tasks of the network: to use the network to build actions, campaigns, or other initiatives of the caucus or group, and to build and maintain the network itself.
- Using the Network
The coordinating committee meets to plan outreach for an action, for example a petition campaign. The task is discussed, deadlines are set, and assignments are reviewed--who will talk to whom by when. The coordinating committee members then go to their site coordinators, discuss the task, set deadlines and review assignments. The site coordinators then go to the activists one on one and discuss the task, getting signatures and noting how much success they have.
The site coordinators collect the petitions and information about how activists responded and meet with their coordinating committee member to discuss the results and pass on the petitions. The coordinating committee members then meet to pool the information and discuss the results. The main coordinator checks in with each coordinating committee member on how it worked, who was reached, who wasn't, why not, and they discuss how to overcome gaps in the network. The committee can report to the caucus membership at a meeting.
- Building the Network
While the coordinating committee uses the network, it also works on building the network by recruiting new coordinators and identifying new areas where activists can be recruited. At each step, the participants discuss not only the action at hand, but also the network itself--where are there gaps, where can they bring in new people to fill them. The main coordinator is tasked with keeping track of the whole process and collecting information, and needs to prompt people to extend or fill in the network.
3. Why Use a Worker-to-Worker Network?
There are a number of reasons:
- Spreading Out the Work
A worker to worker network is a structure that links your group to all of its members and potential members via one on one contact. The worker to worker network offers a practical way for activists to focus their energy on one of the most important parts of organizing: bringing in new supporters and helping them become activists and leaders. Like a phone tree, worker to worker divides the responsibility (and workload) of outreach among many people. It keeps some people from taking on too much work and burning out, and gives new people a way to plug in and do work.
- Accountability to the Group
The network gives you a very specific way to monitor your organizing work, to know how effectively you are reaching out, and to follow up on group decisions.
- Two-Way Communication
The network runs two-ways, what workers communicate to activists is as important as the message the activists bring. You can find out how many workers are ready for a job action, for example, or what are the key issues for the majority of workers.
- Building Relationships with People
The network emphasizes face to face contact, and encourages activists to build relationships with the people they want to involve in action.
- Bringing People In
The worker to worker network makes use of the fact that at any given time different people have different levels of involvement, and provides one way to draw people into more activity. Some people want to be full-time activists while others are not ready to do more than wear a button, or hand out a newsletter. The network provides a way for people to move into roles of greater responsibility, starting from their initial level of commitment.
- Teaching People how to Organize
By using a methodical and identifiable approach to build your caucus among the rank and file, you are also teaching people (including the core activists) how to build a strong grassroots organization, a skill that makes the individual activist stronger, and better able to teach the skill to others.
4. How to Set-up a Worker to Worker Structure
The structure is simple, but takes time and work to set up correctly. The fact that it requires constant maintenance is a good thing--it keeps you up to date.
- Map the Workplace
The first step is to “map” the workplace(s). Make charts that show where the members work with worksites, shifts, and locations. Be careful to build a network that bridges differences among the workforce: be sure to include workers of different religions, races, language groups, women and men, young and old, etc. You can make the map at an organizing meeting and update it as you go. You will also want to map the politics of the membership: note any existing caucuses, clubs, or groups and who supports them. [see the sample workplace map]
- Plan the Structure
Next, decide how best to organize the network. How many coordinators do you need? How many activists do you have? How many coordinators can you get? Where do you plan on recruiting? In many industries, you can do this based on worksite and shift, where and when people work: the goal is to have a coordinator for every building, every department, and every shift. In construction, you have to set this up a little differently, because members are spread out and move from job to job. You have to experiment and see what works best for your workforce. The goal is to always have a site coordinator on every site.
- Organize the Organizers
Start with your core activist group, the people who have already committed themselves to organizing for change. Decide who will be on the coordinating committee. These people are responsible for the entire operation and have a lot of responsibility. They will have to meet fairly often and will have to maintain contact with the site coordinators. (Note: the coordinating committee members should not be in touch with more than ten people each. Recruit more coordinators, if necessary.) The committee may want to choose a main outreach coordinator to organize their work.
- Assign the Sites/Activists
Assign a worksite or area to each site coordinator. If you don’t have a coordinator for each site, then the first goal is to recruit more coordinators. Each site coordinator should have no more than ten activists to communicate with. Six is an ideal number. If there are more than ten members on the site, the site coordinator needs to recruit another activist. The site coordinator is responsible for their site or area. [see the sample contact sheets]
- Test the Network and Monitor the Results
Run a test, choose a simple task and see if you can use the network to do it. For example, you may want to use the network to collect workers addresses, e-mails, phone numbers. After you pool all the information, troubleshoot: what did not work? Who did you reach? Who was left out? Was the deadline realistic? What needs to be changed?
Remember that you will need a phone number, e-mail, and address for every member, if possible. So, work on this early, and keep good records. You will also want to give people a way to contact you. If you can, it is very helpful to create a computer database of your supporters.
The ultimate goal is to have consistent face to face contact with every member of the union. You may not reach the goal, but the process of building the network expands and builds your organization and teaches a basic skill of organizing to a wide layer of members. Don’t be discouraged if your network isn’t 100% complete. It takes time to recruit volunteers. In an upsurge of activity--a contract campaign, a strike--the network will provide a base for organizing.
Your job is to bring people from the outside to the inside, from passive to active. You shouldn’t expect or ask everyone for the same level of commitment, but you should encourage everyone to do more. Above all, look for new leaders, people who are ready to take on more responsibility.
5. Making the Network Work
Four things will make the network effective:
Like all tools, the worker-to-worker network can be used to promote democracy and equality or it can be used to strengthen a top-down operation. The network is most useful for those seeking democratic aims because then members will have confidence in it and will be willing to raise their levels of participation and action. They will see themselves as protagonists, leaders, or activists, increase their commitment and support, and take more responsibility. If the network is not democratic, the activists will become passive, the coordinators too will fall into a more passive role, and the network itself will seem like a waste of time. The strongest networks will be the ones based on a democratic organization with regular meetings where workers set the goals, debate the issues, and make decisions collectively.
This is what the network is for. The network makes it possible for the whole group to act in an organized way, from small steps -- distributing leaflets, doing surveys, wearing buttons -- to big campaigns -- running for union office, organizing for a good contract, running job actions, etc.
Activity should start small and simple and escalate gradually. By starting with simple tasks that are not threatening you will build up your co-workers’ confidence and will not scare people off. You will also have a chance to see if your network is working, find the gaps, and fill them. By escalating gradually, you also send management the message that you are building toward greater, more powerful, activity.
- Reality check.
Accountability must be built into the operation. How many leaflets were actually put in people’s hands? How many members wore buttons? Who came to the meeting? Who didn’t? What reasons did they give? Have they been talked to again? Is our strategy clear? Are there issues we should be addressing that we’re not? Did each site coordinator talk to each of his or her activists? Checklists should be used to keep track of how well the system is working and to help you find out where you need to make changes.
Finally, the network is just one part of what your whole organization does. You need to have clear goals, a strategic vision for your work, a division of labor, meetings, events, a newsletter, etc. The worker-to-worker network is one tool to help you organize that puts the emphasis on one-on-one contact, accountability, and recruiting.
If you have comments, suggestions, questions about this handout, please contact us at AUD. www.uniondemocracy.org