The first time I went on strike, there had been no strikes in my workplace for decades and none of the union activists had first-hand strike experience.
As we prepared to ballot, a rumour circulated that the workplace would close and work would be moved elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, workers feared for their jobs if the strike went ahead, which shook our confidence.
In fact, the company did plan to close the workplace. But rather than moving the work abroad or elsewhere in the UK, they merely planned to move us all to a new site nearby.
The rumours weren’t accurate – they were scaremongering. Some thought the rumours had been spread by management, who did nothing to dispel them.
Despite the facts, the rumours still rattled people. Our campaign was set back as activists had to spend precious time reassuring people instead of campaigning around the issues in dispute.
We struck and we won some of our demands, but we could have won more if the closure threat hadn’t had such an impact.
A few years later, after moving to the new site, company attacks led activists to believe we were heading for another dispute. We wanted to be better prepared this time. We found an organiser who taught us about inoculation. The term has a medical origin, as a process where a patient is exposed to a weakened form of a disease (a vaccine) to build up an immunity. In a workplace setting, inoculation is when unions tell workers up front what to expect in terms of anti-union tactics and arguments.
Activists got together and listed what we hoped the company wouldn’t say or do. We used this to prepare a leaflet which included and ridiculed these arguments and lies. Most people thought the leaflet was funny. It put most managers off using the lines we had predicted, and when they did, workers took them less seriously.
If you’re aware of a weakness or a fear on your side it’s often tempting to try to hide it. But the odds are that your employer knows about it anyway. Much better to talk to workers about potential problems up front – on your terms – than risk your boss highlighting it at the most damaging possible moment.