News & Events

Strengthening organizing skills at the local level

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
June 2009 Edition

By Tom Breslin
Associate Director, Labor Education & Training

Just because it’s the beginning of the summer does not mean the work of the MNA membership and leadership at the local bargaining units should slow down.

With the break from the usual routine that summer naturally brings, it is tempting to allow the work of the union to take a back seat to other things. But even though the weather is nicer, unions should be just as busy as ever—and, in some ways—even busier what with dramatic shifts in the economy and layoffs. Combine those issues with the developing possibility of a national nurse’s union and it means there is more happening at every level in the MNA.

We should not lose sight though that our work in the bargaining unit needs to be thorough and consistent, even in the lazy days of summer. This means that the MNA and individual bargaining units need to be active in the areas of internal organizing, mapping and member mobilization (to name a few). Without keeping these tasks in mind, it might be easy to forget about the day-to-day work that is at the heart of any union.

As important as developing a national union is, working on legislation at both the state and federal level and becoming the voice of health care in the commonwealth—not to mention negotiating our contracts—is just as important. And we particularly need to concentrate on becoming mobilized, internally organized and vocal at the local level. The success of the MNA’s national efforts are largely dependent on the MNA having its local bargaining units internally organized and its members motivated to achieve these goals. After all, the organization is only as strong as its units.

The internal organizing work that a unit does is the most important work that it will engage in since it is the process which best guarantees the success at both the local and state level.
The work of reaching out to members and organizing them to work on the goals of the local unit is not something that can wait for a “better time,” whenever that time is. Simply put, there is no better time.

As a result, the summer time might be a good time for each unit to do an assessment of what they are doing, whether they are effective in what they are doing and what they need to do to improve what they are doing. This type of assessment is helpful to do on a regular basis. It will serve as a measurement to determine the extent to which the leadership has connected with the members, the degree to which the members share the goals of the unit and how engaged the members are in achieving those goals. It will also provide an opportunity for the unit to change or modify their goals if the assessment shows that it is warranted.

The first issue to evaluate in this process is to evaluate the quantity and quality of communication in the local unit. As we know, this is a key element in the success of any local bargaining unit. Communication in the form of local unit newsletters or other means of reaching members needs to happen throughout the year and can’t just take place during contract negotiations. If we only do it or wait until bargaining is scheduled to begin, we will be not only too late, but considerably less effective at mobilizing the membership.

The combination of a local unit newsletter, bulletin boards, local meetings of both the leadership and members and the MNA e-mail system for members is a good and comprehensive starting point for local leaders to keep their members informed and involved. Combine those methods with the new bargaining unit pages on the MNA Web site and the leadership’s ability to inform and educate members is now greatly enhanced as long as these communication methods are used in conjunction with a one-on-one approach in the local unit on an ongoing basis.

Communication, however, is only a step in ensuring that the membership is involved, engaged and mobilized. One of the most important tools a local unit can have is up to date and accurate mapping data. This will give the leadership a complete picture of the bargaining unit, areas of strength and weakness, an idea of which members are willing and able to commit to unit activities and workplace actions. Again, if you wait until you need this information to collect it, it is too late. It will be important, though to update your mapping data periodically to ensure that it is complete and accurate. The success of the organization at every level is greatly enhanced once every bargaining unit has completed these steps.

For those MNA bargaining unit leaders who need to learn more about these issues, the MNA labor school offers courses on internal organizing, mapping and building the strength of the local unit. Labor educators are also available to work with individual bargaining units to provide them with information about these critical issues as you build the strength of your unit and of the entire organization.