Talking to Your Colleagues about Your Union

Introduction

A union is as strong as its membership, so it is important for us to talk to colleagues about the work we are doing. We maintain a website, organize meetings, and send regular email announcements, but the most effective way for us to communicate is through one-on-one conversations. In these conversations, you talk to a colleague about issues related to their work, discuss how union involvement and collective action can address concerns or improve particular conditions, and ask your colleague to take a specific action that tests and builds their commitment to the union.

Detailed training materials produced by the AFT and other unions are available, but there is no magic prescription. Every experienced organizer has their own style and philosophy about the conversation. The most important thing is to try it! Start talking to people–you will gain comfort and experience as you go–and you will learn more about your union and UCF in the process.

One Person’s Experience with Office Visits:

As a brand new organizer about to begin work on a critical campaign with several experienced organizers, I was intimidated. Before holding conversations on my own, I shadowed another organizer as she talked with non-member instructors about union membership and I led a conversation with another organizer present. This is a short account of my learning curve and the lessons I absorbed.

The first 60 seconds are the hardest. My polite Midwestern sensibility makes me feel like I have to apologize for even approaching someone and taking up their time. Do not! Be polite of course and honest about what you are there to do, but this work is important and worth the time of faculty members. Opening with some kind of small talk is great to break the ice, but stay on task. “How long have you worked at UCF?” is a good way to get a conversation going about the union, especially if they have not been approached before.

Let them talk and listen up. The most daunting part about this kind of work is the feeling that no one will sign up unless you say the right thing. That is not true, there are no magic words. It is most effective to let people talk themselves into membership. Ask open ended questions about their work and as they answer, point out how the union can support their professional aspirations. What are their issues? What is their vision for their department/discipline/individual research? The conversation should be roughly 75% them, and 25% you.

You are the perfect person for this work. You do not need to be a labor historian to do this work; effective organizing conversations are not dependent on specialized academic or legal training. Your lived experience as a faculty member at UCF is the most valuable information. Ask early and often. A person’s commitment to the union develops over time. This is a reality of organizing work; it’s sometimes frustrating, but it’s also very fulfilling when your patience and persistence pay off.

Tips to Keep the Conversation Focused and Moving

Sometimes people are unsure about how to initiate a conversation. Keep it simple and be honest. There is nothing to hide–say you are with the union and want to talk to them about their work.

Some questions to help you focus and move the conversation:

  • “How long have you been in this position?”
  • “What is the focus of your research?”
  • “Have you been involved with the union (or any union) in the past? What is your impression of the union?”
  • “What do your colleagues think about this problem? Do you ever discuss it at department meetings?”
  • “What would solve that problem/ improve things?”
  • “What is your typical workday like?”

Words of Wisdom

  • Remember the basic premise of organizing: we are building collective power to work against institutional, legal, or some other existing power structure. Collective power necessitates that people take action for themselves; we cannot do it for them. Organizing work–and the conversation as a key component–is how you facilitate people through the process of building collective power.
  • Keep in mind that the majority of people become involved in unions because it is in their interest to do so, not for ideological reasons. Do not assume you know someone’s issues or motivations; ask and find out what matters to them.
  • You are not making a sales pitch, and you are not asking a favor. You want the person to take action because it is in their interest to do so, not because of peer pressure, your irresistible charm, or because you caught them off-guard. None of these will inspire long term involvement.
  • You are not trying to win a debate. Do not feel like you need to be equipped with talking points or arguments to respond to any situation or position. You are genuinely trying to understand and respect a person’s perspective and interests and work from there.
  • Organizing is a process; do not think of a single conversation as an isolated event or a one-chance opportunity to create an activist from scratch. Organizing takes patience and persistence and you should think of organizing conversations as ongoing relationship building.
  • You cannot assess level of support without asking the faculty member. Do not assume from body language, statements made during the conversation, their politics, etc. that you know what they will say.
  • You should ask for a clear “Yes/No” response. It is better to hear “no” than to have a vague or implied (but weak) commitment.
  • Someone who refuses to openly support the union does not support the union. In other words, a weak, assumed, or implied commitment is not a commitment.