Mapping Your Workplace For Power On The Job

Mapping Your Workplace

Workplace mapping can be used to identify health and safety hazards or the strengths and weaknesses of union membership in any workplace. Our concern here, however, is building strong workplace organisation by providing the ‘big picture’ and the details of the workplace. Mapping must be a collective process done by as many stewards or activists as possible in face-to-face situations. This, in itself, is a step toward better organization across the workplace.

The first step is simply to draw the outlines of your workplace (plant, department, office) and the various work areas or stations, entrances, machines, desks etc., like that pictured above. Use a large piece of white paper like that from a flip chart, drawing the basic outlines with a marker in black. Using different colour markers you can then begin filling in the sort of information you find most useful. Here are some ideas:

  • location of stewards
  • location of managers or supervisors & their attitudes
  • identify work groups—those performing their work together
  • work paths—who moves where as a result of their job, mark in dotted lines for possible lines of communication between areas and work stations
  • meeting areas if any, where people take breaks
  • who talks to who
  • grievances most common in each area—are there common issues across the entire workplace? Can you make grievances collective?
  • Past turnout for strikes, actions, ballots, and other relevant activity in each area to identify stronger or weaker areas.

You, of course, may have a better idea of the information you need to be more effective. If your workplace is large you may want to make more than one map. Some people use transparent plastic sheets to overlay the sort so information listed above. Start out simple, picking the types of information you think will help most. Later you can fill in more. Mapping can help you construct some of the infrastructure of organising, such as phone trees and email or facebook networks. Remember, however, surveillance by management is universal these days, so don’t use any company communications systems.

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Resisting redundancies in an un-unionised workplace

Job cuts are hard enough to tackle with a strong union. How did workers resist and build organisation starting with just three union members? They didn’t save jobs, but winning higher redundancy payments boosted organisation and confidence.

After one week of redundancy consultation, faced with 50% job losses, we won double statutory redundancy pay for everyone, including those with less than two years’ service who wouldn’t have got anything at all. This might be an absolutely minuscule step for the international proletarian struggle, but for my tiny, unorganised, private sector workplace, this was a big achievement.

It is always worth a fight! Initially pretty much everyone was resigned to job cuts and shitty terms, me included. Class struggle is for the public sector, no? My office is like the definition of ‘tiny, no hope, private sector, young workforce, who gives a shit’. Then I thought I might as well give it a stab, even if we fail miserably. As it turned out we didn’t. Less than a week into the redundancy consultation we doubled our redundancy offer and we went on to challenge many of the redundancies.

We did it through collective action. A majority of staff signed a letter to management demanding a proper, extended, consultation process, and better financial compensation for those who would eventually leave. Signatories included many whose jobs were already safe, a real show of solidarity.  The letter had no legal leverage at all, but in a workplace which has previously seen no collective action, it was enough to terrify our owner into a pretty big financial concession.

Getting the letter together wasn’t easy. It required days of arguing, explaining, and redrafting to get people on board. I wanted to give up by day two, when I had booked a day off. I spent the first 3 hours writing it, then on Skype, asking colleagues who were in the office to put their names down and start circulating. Showing colleagues political principle and conviction to my workmates is what got them on board. If you’re a socialist in a workplace, your confidence and clarity will carry people a long way so it’s always worth trying.

You have to know and be nice to EVERYONE you work with if you want to organise effectively. Particularly in a young workplace where these kind of things carry lots of weight and there is no established culture/memory of collectivity or class struggle. I used to be really good at this when I worked full-time. I would organise office socials, find subtle ways to stir things up. I would go to the pub every Friday and make sure I knew everyone. When I went part-time I got lazy and stopped doing any of this, and it made my life harder when the redundancies hit, attempting to win people on side who I’ve barely exchanged a word with for the past 18 months. All the funny stunts I pulled at work before might seem ridiculous but they genuinely worked and laid the ground work for some people to trust me enough to discuss the way forward.

This is not the same thing as relying on personal relationships in a dispute. Some of the people I get along with most have been the flakiest and quickest to crumble. Two of the colleagues fighting the hardest, and happiest to join the union, were privately educated.

All struggles are hard and all workplaces are different, but in small offices it can be really really tough to find the will to fight your boss. Long standing personal relationships with management obscure power relations and present one of the biggest obstacles. Our immediate boss was being chopped himself but felt forced to oversee the restructure by the owner. But tough shit, that’s what happens when you become a manager. Convincing everyone else that, as a buffer between us and the owner, we have no choice but to put pressure on him was hard. People felt the manager is a ‘‪#‎NiceGuy‬’ and they feel guilty about making his life hell. Because people are essentially good and decent, no amount of economic reasoning will change this. Convincing them that they should fight him for their own financial gain, or even to save their jobs, will be fruitless when they see how tired and demoralised he is from the process, and they feel sorry for him. This says lovely things about human nature but depressing things about class consciousness.

The same goes for unionising and legal advice. It’s really important to try to get people to unionise and to make sure they know their rights, and you should obviously demonstrate these at every opportunity as it scares the shit out of management and their fear helps us win. But, no amount of legal protection/guidance is going to give people the confidence to fight if they aren’t convinced of the wider reasons for doing so. Therefore you have no choice but to win people politically. The great thing about unorganised, small workplaces, is that you can cut through the crap and get straight to the meat of the argument. If they want us to propose an alternative restructure, how about a workers co-operative with the owner sacked, and his salary redistributed through the company? Why should he keep his job when it’s his mismanagement that’s got us here? Isn’t it our work that’s been making him rich all these years? These arguments are obviously far harder, but far more rewarding long-term and actually help build political ideas that people will carry into their next jobs/life in general. Introducing and winning these arguments is the biggest achievement so far.

This shit is hard, and harder in an office where everything is small and personal. If you work closely with the manager it will be particularly nasty. It doesn’t matter that he’s always been nice to you, that he let people change their hours or turned a blind eye to some stuff. You have to constantly remind yourself that all of this is meaningless when half of your colleagues are about to lose their livelihoods, and he’s the one implementing it. He WILL try to undermine you once he identifies you as the ring leader, and you will feel like shit. You will need the support of your friends and comrades outside of work to remind you you’re doing the right thing, and to keep you going, emotionally regenerating you every single night so that you can get up and face it in the morning.

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How I won union recognition in my workplace.

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Firstly, be under no illusions, union organising is a slow and frustrating process.

You will need to have a strong will to see it through, including, biting your tongue, watching your back, being prepared to stay with your company, even though many colleagues will be jumping ship for better pay/conditions!

But remember, it’s for the better good and unless more of us do it, there soon won’t be any better paying jobs anyway.

The basics to organising and getting union recognition are this;
1. Get directly employed, on the books with a company
2. Get to know your workforce, i.e. who you can trust
3. Keep a low profile, don’t become spokesperson too soon etc.
4. Get involved with your local union branch and get to know your local union Full Time Officer, they are going to be crucial when the time comes for balloting for recognition and for your protection
5. Spark up conversations with people, one at a time, as and when you get the opportunity, about working conditions,wages etc and whether they think a union could help?
6. When you’ve built up a head of steam, sometimes months later, start to build a sense of injustice in the way the workforce is being treated by the employer, highlight all the grievances that they’ve had and drop the seed about what could be achieved, if only we had union recognition
7. All the time, actively recruit people into the union, without union members, it will be impossible to gain recognition as you need 50%+ of the overall workforce to vote for it
8. Now, you’re ready to ballot for recognition, get you’re union officer on board and up to speed. It’s extremely important to get accurate numbers of workers, their details I.e. union membership numbers, trades, whether they are directly employed or agency.

Once you involve the officer, they will take charge and guide you on what to do next but as long as you’ve achieved 50%+ of the whole workforce in favour of recognition, you’ve got it!

Now, the real work of winning disputes and changes bad practices as well as fighting for better wages and conditions begins. The first thing you must do, in the weeks following union recognition, is putting yourself forward for election as shop steward/health and safety representative.

This brings with it valuable training for yourself and helps you to get those gains for your, now, members.

Always remember, we are stronger together and so, it’s important to keep the company of good allies, don’t allow yourself to be singled out and always take the moral high ground on every issue.

Be under no illusions, the company will come after you, it’s up to you to be one step ahead of them.

There are no friendly managers, only helpful ones that can make things easier for you but don’t get drawn into accepting bribes and always be aware that they are in their position because they have done anything to get there and they will probably be trying to get some personal gain from your position as steward, don’t fall for it.

Above all else, educate yourself, read up on trade union disputes, blacklisting, relevant tribunal wins, HSE bulletins etc, power is knowledge.

I hope this short guide helps and remember, there is an army of union members out there and you are not alone.


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Inoculation Against Bosses’ Lies

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.

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Social media in disputes: learning from the electricians’ BESNA win

In any campaign the power of social media should not be underestimated. This became apparent during the construction workers BESNA dispute of 2011.

Facebook groups such as “Sparks Against De-skilling and 35% Pay Cut” were set up and were used as outlets to get the latest information and news out to thousands of workers. They also gave construction workers the opportunity to have mass discussion and debate even though they were spread the length and breadth of the UK.

This dispute also saw the birth of the “Electricians Against the World”(now “Site Worker”) blog which was created by a rank and file electrician using the pseudonym of “Jib Electrician”. Logs show that the blog was visited by the employers, politicians and police on an almost daily basis during the dispute as the information shared on the blog and Facebook group included dates and times of protests and demonstrations.

When the organisers of the blog and facebook group realised how much the employers and police were keeping an eye on their activities another tactic was used to cause disruption and panic. False information was drip fed on the social media outlets, for instance, in one case a question was posted on the facebook group asking “Does anyone know if Unite are paying for travel and accomodation for the protest at the Beauly Substation on Wednesday?” It came to light a couple of days later that the site management had asked the guys to start at 6am in order to avoid the BESNA protest at the site gate.

Another example of false information was when there was a protest at the Balfour Beatty Engineering Services head office on the outskirts of Glasgow, while there, activists started to post on the Facebook groups that they would be moving to construction sites local to where the original protest was happening. This resulted in the police being called to one particular site and the gates shut in anticipation of the rank & file protestors arriving and occupying the site as had happened on many other occasions during the dispute across the whole of the UK.

Thanks to the Facebook groups and meetings which were happening all over the country on a regular basis, a construction rank & file contact database has been established of email addresses and mobile numbers. Added to that the campaign Facebook group has over 3000 members so through the group, blog, email and text messaging we are potentially able to reach 6000 construction workers.

The victory over the BESNA rogue employers was delivered by building the rank & file network and co-ordinating action up and down the country and it can work in the same way for all workers from any sector.

The tip from this is, that a good social media presence can be one of the most important tools that activists can have, why do you think the Tories have included social media restrictions in the Trade Union Bill?

You can join the Sparks Against De-skilling Facebook group. Follow the Site Worker blog.

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Migrant solidarity for a strong and democratic union

Activists want to organise workers, helping them realise their power in the workplace. The employers use every trick and device to prevent us from achieving the unity that allows us to achieve this aim.

For example. racism exists within unions just as it does within wider society. Most union members don’t like to think of themselves as racist or prejudiced, yet it’s difficult not to carry some unconscious baggage in a society so marked by inequality and many have to rationalise this inequality with racist ideas. The competition for jobs feeds into fear, prejudice and resentment. At a personal level it’s hard for white trade unionists to understand the pain inflicted by a casual remark with racist overtones. But even these incidents undermine union solidarity.

Often casual or institutional racism is ignored as its viewed as being too difficult an obstacle to counter or challenge. Sometimes ignoring backward ideas or opting for tokenism that doesn’t challenge established relations can seem like the path of least resistance. This tendency is fostered and encouraged by those, including some union officials, who encourage business unionism or partnership with the employer.

The recent statement from Unite encouraging activists to oppose the new anti trade union legislation is a case in point. Members are being encouraged to write letters to the press as “proud British workers” objecting to the new legislation. All the references to British workers are divisive and ignore the composition of the workforce in Britain today.

The number of foreign-born people of working age in the UK more than doubled from 2.9 million in 1993 to slightly more than 6 million in 2013. The share of foreign-born people in total employment increased from 7.2% in 1993 to 15.2% in 2013. Compared to the early 2000s, the presence of foreign-born workers has grown fastest in relatively low-skilled sectors and occupations.

The government and media are continually playing on people’s legitimate fears about job and income security by whipping up racism. The determination of the government to maintain a ‘fortress’ has nothing to do with the supposed burden that refugees place upon the country, and far more to do with the political management of the labour force. The scapegoating of migrants is a tool used by governments and employers to undermine the independence of new migrant workers while differentiating them from the existing workforce to sow divisions and make the workforce easier to manage.

Workplace activists can’t ignore these attempts to divide migrant workers from existing workers and need to oppose racism wherever it raises its head. However, there’s another reason why we have to oppose ideas that divide us.

Democracy at work is a vital tool in helping us achieve workers power. Real workplace democracy can only be achieved if our organisation and culture includes all workers. This means removing any barriers to participation in union structures in the workplace and challenging prejudice and discrimination in all its forms. So we have to develop ideas and tactics that help us undermine ‘common-sense’ racist ideas to build greater unity and to create a more democratic culture, and stronger organisation, in the workplace.

Migrants in Hungary near the Serbian border

Migrants in Hungary near the Serbian border Photo: Gémes Sándor/SzomSzed –

The current refugee crisis has provoked a huge wave of human solidarity across the country. Up to a third of people in Britain have given donations, money or the offer of shelter to refugees. The convoys of aid to Calais are a wonderful example of the creativity of those determined to give aid and show solidarity with migrants stuck in terrible conditions. Some activists have started to raise the idea of collections and donations at work. I raised this last week at a members meeting and was surprised at how supportive people were. We are now trying to work out the mechanics of collecting aid and contacting one of the convoys to see if we can make a donation and maybe encourage some activists to join the convoy. As well as raising material aid and solidarity, organising support for migrants in the workplace helps break down some of the everyday racism many workers accept from government, employers and the media. Helping migrants in the camps can help us build stronger workplace organisation.

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Keeping flexibility after a ballot, with members in control

When union members are asked to vote in an industrial action ballot, they want to know what action they are voting for. This presents a dilemma. Propose too little action at the start, and it might not be enough to win. Propose too much, and members might be wary of voting for it. Often members are willing to escalate action once a strike is under way – going beyond what they would have backed at the start.

YesXWhen we’ve had local strikes, we’ve tackled this dilemma by not declaring with the ballot what action we will or won’t take – leaving it open ended – but committing that the union won’t call any action that hasn’t been approved by a members’ meeting. This gives members the confidence that they will remain in control of the dispute and won’t be asked to take action they don’t support, while giving them flexibility to escalate action as far as they need to.It’s a lot harder to use this approach with a strike that covers multiple sites. You can’t normally get all the members together in one place to debate and decide what action to take.

Shortly before a multi-site strike we arranged for members to directly elect a national “combine committee” covering every member. When we balloted, we said that no action would be called that hadn’t been approved by the combine committee. Combine committee members then worked hard to hold meetings around the country before deciding what action to call. While this didn’t give members as much control as they could have in a local strike, it gave them a lot more control and confidence in the process than giving a blank cheque to people they didn’t know. It avoided having to tell the employer in advance how far we could escalate the action.

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