Know the Union, Hear the Union, See the Union
Appeared in Indusrial Worker, December 2008
By Adam W.
On a 100 degree summer day I was in Stockton, at the Sikh temple meeting room. A middle aged trucker with a long, flowy beard asked me “How do we show the other drivers who weren’t at our meeting today what the union is and why they should join?” I struggled to give him a good, clear answer on this one. I improvised an analogy on the spot. I think it paints a picture of our Solidarity Unionism organizing model in practice: “Know the Union, Hear the Union, See the Union.” Let me break it down.
First you give the whole saying: “Here’s how our organizing works. Some workers will know the union, some will hear the union, but others have to see the union.” If you have a marker and paper, draw three circles around each other (like a bulls eye target). In the middle one write “know,” the next “hear,” and the outer most circle “see.”
You’ll get a raised eye brow or maybe a “huh?” look on the faces of folks, which usually translates to “What the hell is this crazy IWW organizer trying to tell me now?” Don’t worry, this is actually good. If you get this reaction it means people will be interested to hear the explanation. Point to everyone in the room. Tell them that they are the workers who know the union. Point out that they are the workers that have attended meetings, are initiating the organizing and maybe have already taken out a red card. From experience or being fed up, they already know collective action is needed to fight for change on the job and that this is the definition of a union. Usually this group is small, but it’s the starting point for every campaign.
The people who know the union talk to other folks. Some of the people they talk to will be quickly convinced. They’re the ones who hear the union. Maybe they won’t come to the first meeting or they might want to know that it’s a legit effort and not the malcontents of the month, but once they are asked they will participate. This is usually the first layer of workplace leaders that are brought into an organizing committee.
Most workers are in the third camp, ones who need to see the union. They won’t be meaningfully won over to the organizing effort simply by telling them something. These folks are skeptical that collective action by workers can win. They’re probably scared of losing their jobs or maybe had a bad experience with another union. You might be able to convince them to sign an authorization card, but we don’t use card signing as our strategy in the IWW because simply convincing someone “unions are good” and have them signing a card doesn’t meaningfully move people. They can be easily flipped against the union because what the union is about isn’t tangible to them.
Here’s how we move the workers who need to see the union in action. The workers who know the union organize and build relationships and leadership among the folks who hear about the union. Together both groups take action to change small issues. This demonstrates in practice what a union is. Other workers see the union in action and start to understand that change is really possible. An important thing to remember is where most campaigns get stuck is when they’ve brought together the workers who “know” and “hear,” but they have trouble in moving the worker who need to “see.”
For myself, this is one of the most useful concepts when beginning to organize. Organizing starts with those who “know” the union, they bring in the folks who “hear” about the union and together they take action to move the workers who need to “see” the union. How this plays out in the long run is that workers move from “seeing” to “knowing” the union through becoming involved in the organizing and action. This process builds the IWW and builds a conscious and militant working class.