Secrets of a Successful Organizer — and handouts — read or use in a group!

August 14, 2016

Cross-posted from In These Times, by a high school teacher…

Secrets of a Successful Organizer—a new book from Labor Notes, by Alexandra Bradbury, Mark Brenner, and Jane Slaughter—is a perfect primer on the basics of good organizing. Distilled into digestible bites, the book lays out eight main lessons—from how an organizer thinks, to how an organizer maps a work site and designs, carries out and assesses a campaign. (It even includes a brief summary of labor law and related resources.)

Unlike many wordy and inaccessible how-to manuals, Secrets of a Successful Organizer reads more like a conversation with an experienced and patient organizer, guiding you and reassuring you along the way.

You’re encouraged to see that even reading the book can be a collective activity.  “You could read this book alone, but you’ll learn more if you talk each lesson over with a buddy—or better yet, a group of co-workers,” it reads.

The book is designed to make this possible through its organization and content.

Each chapter builds on the previous one to paint a coherent picture of how to build better organizers and organizations, and have successful campaigns. The book’s eight lessons are divided into 47 shorter tips, and nearly each one includes downloadable handouts, specific organizing stories and exercises you can do with co-workers or in trainings.

The perfectionist in me loves the chart handouts. One explains “How the Boss Keeps Us Disorganized.” Another shows how to track tasks during an organizing campaign, along with who is responsible and the deadline for each task. While you’re reading, you might think things like, “Easier said than done!” but no sooner than you have, the book anticipates your concerns and, like a good organizer, inoculates you—giving you reason to hope and telling you a real story to prove the point.

For example, the book profiles Joe Uehlein, an organizer in a Georgia meatpacking plant. He and his colleagues used the escalating tactics of singing, whistling and humming at work to call out a union-busting official every time he walked on the plant floor. Each escalation was a response to the boss trying to shut down an organizing drive with ridiculous new rules. The actions scared the bosses and gave workers confidence in a short period of time, which ultimately allowed them to win a union. Tip #34, “Don’t Let the Boss Trip You Up,” then lays out the main tactics that bosses use (fear, hopelessness, confusion and division) to stop organizing.

Some of the stories are complementary and help organizers not only see the tips come alive, but point out that the workplace context will often dictate what kind of tactics are best.

The section around Tip #25, “Choose an Issue That Builds the Union,” includes the story of Los Angeles hospital workers who organized a campaign after management changed policy to mandate that workers provide a doctor’s note even for a one-day absence. A subset of workers demanded a meeting with management and, when it was held, workers took their 15-minute breaks in rotating fashion to attend the meeting. One set of workers started the meeting, then as workers had to leave when their breaks were over, new sets of workers joined. They were able to keep the meeting going as long as possible and testify as to why the change was bad.

That story contrasts well with that of the Pennsylvania social workers who organized a powerful 15-minute strike by using the flexibility in their work rules to have all social workers take their regular 15-minute breaks at the same time.

This story, contained within Tip #31, “Keep the Boss Off Balance,” is simple and inspiring, but the similarities and differences between it and the story about Los Angeles hospital workers help organizers draw on universal advice and apply it to their unique setting.

Additionally, each of the stories includes reflections, quotes and honest assessments of mistakes and accomplishments from organizers and workers on the ground.

For me, maybe the biggest lesson the book helped to hammer home is that we are often reactive in organizing, but it’s important not only to respond to crises. To be our best possible organizers, we have to proactively and strategically select organizing issues that are the most urgent and important to the broadest set of members.

Whether you’re a labor leader wanting to increase worker or member engagement, a veteran organizer in need of a refresher or a new steward wanting an orientation to best practices, Secrets of a Successful Organizer is a must read.

Buy the book for $15 + shipping here.


Lesson 1: Attitude Adjustment

Lesson 2: One-on-One Conversations

Lesson 3: Map Your Workplace and Its Leaders

Lesson 4: Choosing an Issue

Lesson 5: An Escalating Campaign

Lesson 6: Expect the Unexpected

Lesson 7: Always Be Organizing

Lesson 8: Putting It All Together


“As with the Troublemaker’s Handbook, Secrets of a Successful Organizer offers us a broad range of experience from throughout our movement of how to move members to act. The book itself is a well-organized tour through the life of an organizer. It’s a step-at-a-time manual to build the collective spirit, harness power, and make the world a better place.”

Larry Hanley, President, Amalgamated Transit Union

Secrets of a Successful Organizer is an invaluable tool for shop floor activists. It shows how to work together to empower the rank and file and create real union power in the workplace, and it points out many less-than-obvious pitfalls that should be avoided. It’s a powerful antidote to today’s anti-union environment.”

Donna Cartwright, retired Co-President, Pride at Work, AFL-CIO

Secrets of a Successful Organizer is not only a must-read book, but an invaluable resource if you and your co-workers want to build power at work. Whereas most books are written for you to read, Secrets of a Successful Organizer is written for you and your co-workers to take massive action in your workplace. So enjoy the read and the ride.”

Asar Amen-Ra, Chrysler logistical warehouse worker, United Auto Workers Local 1248

“No matter where you work, or what union you’re in, Secrets of a Successful Organizer will help you get organized. This book is full of so many creative examples and powerful rank-and-file stories it makes you want to dive right in. As a teacher, I really love the exercises at the end of each lesson, and I’ve already started using some of the handouts!”

Gwen Sullivan, President, Portland Association of Teachers

“I expect Secrets of a Successful Organizer will quickly become a go-to book for new and experienced organizers. It’s a great tool, combining the underlying principles that guide successful organizing campaigns with concrete examples of tactics that work. It’s also a good read, with lots of inspiring stories that remind us that good organizing brings out the best in people.”

Pam Galpern, Verizon field technician, CWA Local 1101

“This book should come with a complimentary Post-It pad because you will need it to mark the pages you can use! Building rank-and-file power is tremendously challenging and there is no exact blueprint. What Secrets of a Successful Organizer does is provide real-life examples and time-honored gems that assist, encourage, and support us as we challenge others to take up the struggle, not behind us, not beneath us, but alongside us.”

Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, RN, President, New York State Nurses Association

Secrets of a Successful Organizer is a wonderful book for any worker that hopes to build power and win respect in their workplace. It focuses on building power through solidarity with concrete examples. Examples, with a little imagination, can be adapted to be applicable in a wide variety of workplaces where workers desire more respect and dignity on the job. The book also contains exercises and can be used as a teaching manual. One of the most powerful lessons is the recognition that, while grievances are important, they are not enough. Grievance procedures tend to delay and isolate the workers and workplace problems. Solidarity actions to solve problems should come first and be coupled to the grievance procedure whenever possible.”

Scott Houldieson, Vice President, United Auto Workers Local 551

“This is a great read and reference for workplace organizers—primarily mobilization at a union workplace, but many of the strategies would work without a union as well. For many working women and men in the U.S. the bridge from a union to a non-union workplace is more like a tightrope, so this is not a manual for how to organize a union. Many of the tools are the same—building unity across racial, occupational, or other divides, mapping out the workplace and building lists, and organizing around issues. In years of mobilizing training at CWA, we learned that education of mobilizers or stewards was critical to successful action. This publication is a great asset in the educational process.”

Larry Cohen, past President, Communications Workers of America