Talking with your coworkers

Sometimes, your boss does something that makes everyone furious. When this happens your coworkers usually won’t need much convincing that it’s time to come together and take action. What’s needed is to form a group (an “organizing committee”) that can help move things forward across the workplace, decide what you want (your demands) and make a plan to win them

The importance of one-on-one conversations

Often, though, you’ll need to have deeper conversations with coworkers in order to build the power you need to win what you deserve. One-on-one conversations are the building blocks of any effort to change your workplace. While years of experience has shown that it’s best to have these conversations in person, during this pandemic the best we can sometimes do is to engage coworkers over the phone and through text messages. 

But however we do it, the goals of these conversations are the same:

  • Learn the most important concerns your coworker has
  • Let them know they have a right to be mad about these concerns
  • Help them see that others are also concerned and ready to do something
  • Offer a vision of how things could be different and a plan to get there
  • Let them know they have a right to take action despite what their employer says
  • Get a commitment to take action and agree on a follow up plan

Ask about the issues – and listen

The last thing you want to do is talk at your coworkers. Your goal is not simply vent frustrations or even to convince them of your position that things must change. Remember, your co-workers are experiencing the same things you are: lack of safety protections, schedule changes, long hours with no pay increases, or whatever the issue is at your workplace. Your goal is to give your coworker the chance to verbalize what they are experiencing, and move them to action. 

To do that, you need to listen. In a good organizing conversation, you’ll talk for 20% of the time and listen for the other 80%. For some people this can be really hard. Remind yourself not to interrupt or lead people to your own conclusions. 

Start with open ended questions like:

  • How are things going for you all in this department?
  • How long have you been working here? How have you seen things change since you started?
  • How are you coping with the recent changes?

Remember – your goal is to listen and understand the concerns your coworker has. Ask follow up questions. 

Agitate and show that others are also concerned

Understanding your co-worker’s issues is the first step. It’s only when we agitate around these issues that we create the conditions for action. As you’re listening, point out that your coworker has a right to be mad about the things they are experiencing. 

  • “Your supervisor said what?” 
  • “I would be furious if that happened to me!”
  • “Have you ever raised this with HR? What did they do about it?”

Now that your coworker has expressed their concerns, it’s important to show them that others are in the same boat:

  • Share your own experience (remember, though, to keep it short)
  • Point out that your hearing these same issues from workers throughout the workplace
  • “People are talking about coming together to do something about these things. What do you think?”

Put forward a vision of how things could be different

Point out that right now, the company gets to deal with us as individuals. But when a large group of workers sticks together and takes action, they have to listen to us.

  • “Right now if we go by ourselves to the office they don’t listen to us. But what if all of us went to the office united to demand what we need?”
  • “They need us to get the work done, especially now. If we have each other’s backs and go to them together we can get a lot more done.”

Call the question

Now that you’ve heard your coworker’s concerns and talked about how things can be different, it’s time to ask them if they’re ready to join the effort. Here are some examples of what you can say:

  • “So do you think it’s time for a change here?”
  • “Some of us are coming together to do something about this and I’d love to have you involved. Will you join us?”
  • “So do you think it’s time we all came together to do something about this?”

It’s important that your coworker answers “yes” when asked to join you before moving on to the next step. We want to make sure they are on board before discussing specific action steps. This is often the part of the conversation where you’ll pick up on any fear, doubts or hesitation. This is natural, and we’ll need to address these things if we want their support. See “What happens when you get stuck” below for ideas.

Educate them on their rights and anticipate the boss’s next move

We have a right to take action (your rights are detailed here.) It’s illegal for our boss to fire us, discipline us or discriminate against us because of what we’re doing. But we also know that the employer doesn’t want to give up any power, and they may try to scare people or even break the law. But a united group of workers educated on their rights can’t be stopped. To ensure success, we need to prepare our people:  

  • We have a right under federal law to take action to improve working conditions
  • The best way to protect ourselves is by uniting with our coworkers. There is power in numbers!
  • Prepare for what the boss might say or do
    • What happens if they say they’ll fix the problem but don’t follow through? (don’t let them off the hook, push them for a deadline, make it clear this issue won’t go away.)
    • What happens if they try to divide us? (Make sure you include a diverse group of workers from the beginning. Focus on the issues, not personalities. Get agreement that no one speaks with management alone.)
    • What happens if you get called into the office? (ask for a witness, stay calm, take notes and talk with an organizing committee member as soon as you’re out.)

Get a commitment

After you’ve gotten their commitment to support the effort and talked through what to expect from your employer, ask your coworker to complete a task. The task should move the campaign forward in some way.

Remember: your goal isn’t to do everything yourself. We need to involve as many people as possible. Even if you ask them to do something small, completing a task is how we keep people involved and grow our organizing effort. 

Ask them to do something specific, such as:

  • Talk to two specific coworkers in their department about helping sign people up on petitions
  • Write down a list of who works in their department
  • Attend the next meeting/phone call/video conference to help plan our strategy
  • Come with us when we go to the office to talk with the manager
  • Together with coworkers, wear a sticker that communicates what we’re fighting for

Most importantly, agree on a time when the task will be completed, and arrange a time for a follow up conversation. 

What to do when you get stuck

It’s natural to have times during these conversations when things get difficult. Common things you might hear from your coworker are:
When they say:You can respond:
“People here will never stick together”“I’ve already talked with lots of people, and people are ready to stand up for change. Now we have a plan and a reason to stick together”
“It’s always been this way, things will never change.”“That’s what the managers want us to think. But workers in workplaces like ours are standing up and winning hazard pay, PPE and more. We can guarantee nothing will change if we stay silent.”
“I can’t participate, I need my job.”“We all do. The key is to do it as a group. There’s power in numbers”
“They said they’d fix it, maybe we should give them a chance.”“Haven’t they said that before about other things? What have they done? How many chances can we afford to give them? How long are we willing to wait while our health is threatened?”

When you reach a difficult point in a conversation, try to bring it back to the issues. Remind your co-worker of all the problems you’ve discussed and the impact on themselves and their family. Point out that we have two choices: stay quiet and allow things to stay the same, or come together as workers and do something about it. How much longer are we prepared to live like this? Another month? Another year? If we don’t take action, nothing will change. The time is now

Where to talk with your coworkers

You always have a right to talk with your coworkers about these issues on non-work time in non-work areas. Non-work time means youre break, lunchtime, before or after work. Non-work areas means the break room, near the timeclock, in the hallway in the parking lot or at the bus stop.

In addition, if you are allowed to talk about non-work issues during work time, then you can talk about these issues during work time as well.