Decisions in Union Organizing: Applying a Gender Analysis to Organizing Campaigns

Tom Egan, Solidarity Center Senior Program Officer, Trade Union Strengthening

Tom Egan: Conducting a gender analysis before an organizing campaign can boost its effectiveness. Photo: Matt Hersey

Tom Egan, who has been designing and running organizing campaigns for more than 20 years, facilitated this breakout session for those interested in the link between gender analysis and organizing. Egan said he sought to demonstrate that conducting a gender analysis prior to an organizing campaign can strengthen organizers’ strategic preparation,  improve the campaign’s effectiveness and increase its inclusivity—all of which ultimately will lead to a more inclusive, cohesive and sustainable trade union.  For instance, a  bargaining committee created after an organizing campaign that keeps gender in focus will be more inclusive of women workers and the collective bargaining agreement less gender-biased toward men’s concerns.

The 16 participants, who came from around the world, spoke about their experiences with organizing—some had extensive trade union background while others had engaged in community organizing.

In discussions on the elements of an organizing campaign, the majority agreed that the most important outcome is to get people to act, to change agendas and shift the previously existing balance of power. Participants discussed the steps of an organizing campaign, including:

• Preparing a campaign
• Identifying potential leaders among employees
• Recruiting the potential leaders to join the organizing campaign
• Training the leaders and empowering them to run meetings with their co-workers
• Identifying common issues among the employees
• Encouraging the group to undertake small, winnable activities
• Preparing the group to eventually establish the union with concrete and common demands and proposals so as to be ready to engage in collective bargaining

Egan gave the group an organizing exercise that highlighted how a gender analysis could influence the decisions made when running a campaign. He divided participants into three groups and asked each to develop a campaign for a separate bargaining unit of a fictional workplace. Employees in each area experienced different problems, some between the management and employees and others among employees. These problems included accusations of sexual harassment of women employees by male employees’ accusations that management favored men over women when it came to which employees were offered better shifts; wage equity; health and safety; and cafeteria food scheduling.

Each group was asked to select four candidates to run the organizing campaign in their department and each was given the same bio sheet listing of eight candidates from which to choose. Each group was tasked with reporting to the full workshop the process behind their choices of the four organizing team members. The groups also were asked to determine how they would create unity among the workers based on the workers’ diverse concerns. Finally, participants were asked to list the information the organizers would need to know about each worker.

In the report back session, the groups reported selecting different workers to lead the organizing committees. It became clear to all that gender influences decision making at all levels of an organizing campaign and keeping gender issues in the forefront will not necessarily make the decision-making process easier.

The exercise also confirmed the universality of organizing concepts across the globe. The group also came to another important conclusion: It is vitally important to try to include a worker’s family in the organizing campaign for the union to be sustainable. Unless the worker’s family members clearly understand the benefits of a trade union, they will not understand the worker’s motives and so may not support the decision to join a union or become active in one, and instead may resent the worker’s absence from the family.

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