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Hey Union Stewards - Don't Complain, Organize!

Published Tuesday, July 9, 2019
by Ellen David Friedman/LaborNotes
Hey Union Stewards - Don't Complain, Organize!

Complaining isn’t the first step to organizing - it’s the graveyard of organizing.

Just ask any Union Steward or Rep who’s listened to a Member complain bitterly - but refuse to take action.

If you’re a Steward, Officer or Rank-and-Filer trying to fix problems on the job (or in the Union), a good place to start is to rethink the role of complaining in your work culture.

There’s probably no easier way for Co-Workers to communicate with each other than by complaining.

It’s the universal “go-to” for informal work chat: “Can you believe what he just did...;” “What were they thinking when...;” “I’ve had it with her...;” “If I have to clean up after them one more time…”

For any Worker entering a job, there’s a kind of unwritten law: Listen to who’s complaining about what; Who’s agreeing; Who’s keeping away from the mess, and you’ll learn a lot about the boss and power relationships on the floor.

Many of us feel that complaining is natural, especially in workplaces that are riddled with inequities, bullying, speed-up, understaffing, and irrational management.

If you don’t complain, aren’t you somehow agreeing with the terrible conditions?

Complaining may even seem righteous.

Some Organizers will tell you that complaining is productive because it brings simmering problems to the surface.

But complaining to “let off steam,” if you take no action to change the problem, demonstrates something that’s poles apart from organizing - powerlessness.

It’s as if you’re saying: “This thing is wrong, unfair, and hard for me to manage.  But now that I’ve pointed it out, I’m going to go back to living with it, because there’s nothing else I can do.”

For Co-Workers, it reinforces their own sense of powerlessness and tends to keep them passive.

For the employer, it’s a perfect solution!

Fortunately, it isn’t hard to recognize these destructive patterns and start to change them.

Someone who’s complaining is often looking for others to agree, but they may instead polarize Co-Workers, creating a toxic, divided atmosphere that undermines the potential for group action.

For example, suppose one Worker is furious at how she has been affected by a particular policy, such as a change in hours.

She’s fuming in the break room.

She expects everyone to share her outrage.

But the complainer hasn’t bothered to consider that this policy may benefit others, even a solid majority of her Co-Workers.

She may be putting them in an uncomfortable position - and isolating herself.

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