Organizing Through the Anxiety

by Max Belasco

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Imagine this for a minute:

You’re representing your local at a day long new staff orientation. Your contract gives you fifteen minutes to talk about the union, sign members up for mailing lists, and get as many in the room interested in coming out to the next meeting. Management has “unintentionally” gone long in the driest HR presentation you can imagine, and warms the room up for you by saying that once the union representative is done everyone can break for lunch. By the time you’re up, you’ve got ten minutes and the crowd is looking at the clock more than you. Who are you, trying to talk contracts and grievances and putting their lunch off?

Or maybe think about this scenario: you need to visit a building on campus filled with workers notorious for being evasive and difficult to reach. You’re in contract negotiations, and you need to get folks to sign commitment cards saying that they’ll keep paying their dues for the coming year. There are some in the building that are friendly to your union, but there are more than a few that won’t greet you warmly. You’ve got to prepare for coworkers demanding that you leave the building, along with some very aggressive managers who will threaten to call security if you dare to talk to their workers while they’re on the clock.

If you’re at all like me, either of these situations makes your stomach turn. I vomited after my first visit encountering workers hostile to our union. I’m an introvert by nature; I’ve been struggling with social anxiety for most of my adult life, and I’m normally very conflict-averse. Many of our union kin are in the same boat, and some still don’t seem to understand why I wanted to start engaging members and take on the duty of being a steward for our local. They certainly don’t believe me when I explain to them that I find the experience empowering and therapeutic.

The first dozen times I did site visits or presentations to new staff were some of the hardest experiences I’ve had at work. Having conversations with dozens of complete strangers on a regular basis, and getting asked very specific questions about HR and the grievance process, all the while trying to look more authoritative and trustworthy than management, is a nerve wracking experience. What if I give the wrong information, mess up someone’s case, embitter them and their coworkers forever to the union? What if I lose this whole orientation crowd and nobody attends our new member meetings? What if someone more experienced could have handled that conversation better, won that member over, and my failure to do so is just hurting my union?

But it started to change for me when I first learned to have organizing conversations. Conversations with strangers, inside or outside a union context, are frightening to me. I’m terrible with small talk and I never know what to say. I thought organizers had to be charismatic and witty, charming members into attending meetings. It never dawned on me that there was a structure to the way organizers would have conversations with those they are organizing: a structure that guides someone into becoming more involved in building their union. Once I learned that organizing conversations have a natural arc and you can use this to identify a coworker’s issues, agitate them by validating their concerns, get them to lay the blame at the feet of the boss, and then have them commit to take action to resolve the issue, I started picking up some lessons I use for every social situation.

Of course, organizing conversations aren’t exactly like conversations you have with friends and family — it’s poor form to bring a petition or union cards for everyone to sign at Thanksgiving. But I’ve found what makes for a good organizing conversation also makes a good conversation in general. Trying to discover my coworker’s issues made a lot more patient and deliberate in my listening to any conversation partner, making me focus on asking questions rather than scrambling for something clever to say. Don’t get me wrong: I’m still terrible at small talk. But I feel my conversations in general have gotten much more thoughtful and clear since I started adopting lessons from organizing conversations.

When I first started canvassing buildings I found success agitating coworkers once I found out what issues bothered them the most, but earning a commitment from them to come to a meeting seemed impossible to me. Part of it was just not wanting to be rebuffed by a lot of coworkers about union work, but another part of me was worried that maybe I was pushing people too much out of their comfort zone. What if I was demanding too much, and actually coming off as a jerk?

I remember sharing this concern with a more experienced union member, and his response to me is something of a mantra now — “Don’t make decisions for your coworkers.” An organizing conversation is an invitation you give your coworkers to take a more active role in building their power in the workplace. They may say no, but if you never ask you deny them that opportunity to make that decision for themselves.

I’m not saying that every introvert should brave their anxiety and other inhibitions to become a steward, or dive head first into organizing conversations. They’re challenging and can be emotionally taxing, and it took years of practice for me to get competent at them. However, they’re also structured, and that structure keeps me centered when I’m organizing in a way I don’t find in other social situations. I doubt that I’d have the handle on my own social problems that I have now if I didn’t learn organizing conversations as a technique.

Talking with your coworkers is hard. Having a weak union — or no union — is much harder. The way we build power is by learning to trust each other, and you build that trust one conversation at a time. Make sure that you know your own limits, but don’t think being a good organizer is contingent on being a social butterfly.

Max Belasco is a rank-and-file member of UPTE-CWA and a member of the Strikewave Editorial Collective.

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