News & Events

Don’t whine, organize: Internal organizing and member mobilization

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
October 2010 Edition

By Joe Twarog
Associate Director, Labor Education & Training

Building a social organization of any kind takes constant work. Such organizations are by their very nature fluid and fragile entities. The reasons for that are as legion as the group’s members: people move and change interests; family demands emerge; others lose interest and become uninvolved; some feel isolated or out of the loop; many may feel a sense of hopelessness and defeat.

Some of these causes are legitimate and unavoidable (family illness), while others may be due to a failure of the organization itself (such as exclusivity or poor communication). However, to acknowledge that social organizations are fragile does not mean that they are weak or impotent. Rather it is a constant reminder to “build the group.” A labor union shares many of these same qualities, simply because it is made up of working people who have many competing demands on their lives. In general, people will become involved and act for many reasons—including self-interest. Self-interest is not necessarily a bad or selfish thing, but rather a realistic motivator. Nurses negotiate for better working conditions and compensation for themselves and their families as well as for better patient outcomes by limiting mandatory overtime and winning safe-staffing language.

Yet, all too often one hears that the general membership is apathetic. It could be that this is the case, but the cause itself may be internal. This is where internal organizing and member mobilization come in. One cannot adopt a negative or defeatist culture and expect people to flock to become involved with that group.

Many organizations have an active core group that keeps the association together, although when a crisis arises or an important event is scheduled involvement by the larger membership generally soars. I often use the example of church/temple attendance during the year. Most people can typically get a frontrow seat in their church or temple, yet one might not even be able to get inside the building on Christmas service or for Yom Kippur.

Similarly, a very small group of officers and activists usually sustain a union throughout the course of a year. However, when contract negotiations are in progress, or layoffs are threatened, the membership will attend meetings and get active … assuming there is a well-developed plan, structure and opportunity for member participation.

People are social beings. We like to belong. We like to be involved with and connected to something. That is one reason why people join various groups, like community associations, sports groups, book clubs, religious communities, clubs and even on-line groups. Clearly, the current phenomenon of the Tea Party has stirred people into action, albeit for primarily negative and even malicious reasons. Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learned from this.

Obstacles to organizing

A good starting point may be to look at possible causes for apathy and an uninvolved membership.

Lack of vision/focus: The union might not have a well-defined focus on the issues that members care about; or they may be “visionless” on how to change them.

Poor or one-way communication: Developing an effective communications network is critical to member involvement. The lack of an open, two-way communications system is deadly.

Lack of participatory vehicles: Does the unit have ways for members to get involved, such as regular monthly membership meetings.

Appears to be a “closed club”: Some members may be alienated because they view the elected leadership as a closed club in which they are not invited to participate.

Internal politics: Personality conflicts, creation of personal power bases or fiefdoms, petty disagreements.

Entrenched leadership: Elected officers who have become so entrenched that no one would consider running against them. Such officers may in fact have lost their way as true “leaders” and merely hold the title.

Apathy: Some synonyms for “apathy” are indifference, lack of interest, lack of concern, lackadaisical attitude. But are workers indifferent about their working conditions and work lives? Or rather, do they feel powerless about how to effect change?

Tools to overcome the impediments

The MNA has worked hard to overcome many of these impediments, but it is a work in progress that requires on-going efforts. Many of these tools are structural in nature, while others are attitudinal and philosophical.

Mapping: The MNA maps (charts) all of its units. This means listing all of the nurses and health care professionals in the units with their basic information, contact information and social networks. Mapping is really the key to building an effective and powerful union. It is much more than creating a list or phone tree since it involves constant dialogue with the membership and the creation of a structure that is constantly updated. Coordinators from each floor/unit are also an essential part of the mapping process.

Communications network: Internal communications are also an important component. These include membership surveys, updated and visible bulletin boards, newsletters and bargaining updates, and regular general membership meetings. Membership meetings are crucial to establish the permanence and presence of the union, regardless of the numbers that attend. All the formal channels are no substitute for the power of one-on-one conversation to communicate with members.

Union elections: By federal law local unions must conduct formal elections for their constitutional officers at least every three years. Often, these elections (if held at all) are “loose” to the detriment of the membership, not to mention non-compliance with the law. Open and contested elections clearly neutralize the “closed club” criticism.

Symbols and group identity: Symbols have power, much like a nation’s flag or anthem. The MNA has jackets, lanyards, caps, buttons, stickers, T-shirts, fleece pullovers, etc. This “branding” exhibits personal pride in the MNA and highlights the organization and its power.

Challenge to action: As former House Speaker Tip O’Neill said, “People like to be asked.” Union leaders must be conscious that workers should be directly asked to participate. These calls to action are best when they are realistic, simple and defined. Such delegation of authority (to attend a meeting, participate in an action, serve as a contact on the unit) inevitably promotes member ownership of the union.

Realistic goal setting and accountability: The practical and measurable assignments and tasks that members have taken responsibility for have to be followed up with recognition and thanks for a job well done.

Robert D. Putnam argues in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community that American society has become increasingly disconnected from family, friends and neighbors in the electoral democracy, civic organizations and even in recreation that he terms “social capital decay.” Organized labor and the MNA can help to provide the “bonding social network” that Putnam cites as a way to mobilize the membership, build the union and to reverse the decline of the social network.