[Contribution by Willem Dekker] - Took a refresher course in organising the other day. Four days in a varying group of ‘old’ and new organisers of ABVAKABO FNV and FNV Bondgenoten: transportation, health care, commerce and my own sector, cleaning. Nice group, good people, learned a lot. Try explaining in four sentences what a union is, good practice for anyone I’d say, harder than you think in any case. Organising, a new and hip word in the trade union movement, only people often have very different ideas of what it means. What is it about?
When I entered the trade union movement as a cashier, after a failed adventure as a left-wing student, I mainly got to know the trade union from the inside. The rooms in Utrecht and Amsterdam Sloterdijk, two days in the country and of course the various smoking rooms. Marketing people, policy advisors, clustered yellow post-its full of ideas, awkward team building activities and brainstorming, a lot of brainstorming: What kind of website do we need? Why aren’t young people signing up? How do we approach young people? The FNV as a brand to be marketed. An approach that I’d like to call the easy way out.
What I have learned as an organiser during the past three quarters of a year I spent with cleaners in Utrecht, The Hague, Leiden and Rotterdam, is that the issue is not how to approach non-members, but to approach them. More doing and less thinking - sorry, I meant brainstorming. In a distribution centre of the Super de Boer supermarket I saw how an activist was doing just that, resulting in twenty young members in one morning. Organising, marketing’s nemesis.
When I walked to Central Station this morning, I read that I can join FNV Bondgenoten for six months for 25 euro [as part of the ‘Power to..’ campaign - ed.]. Three steps ahead, I read that I can fly to Spain for less than twice that amount. Power is not in a poster announcing an introduction offer, it is in organising and organising starts with a conversation, face to face or one on one during a home visit, in organisers’ jargon.
Yes, we visit people’s homes and in so doing we put the union where it belongs, in people’s daily lives. I understand that writing papers and designing poster campaigns is a lot safer, easier as I wrote. But if we want to change something, we shouldn’t be recruiting members, we should be building a union, power to the workplace. That’s what organising is about. Hollow rhetoric? Let me explain what it is exactly what we’re doing.
An organiser reaches out to workers and promotes self-organisation. In short, organising is about going back to the roots of the trade union: the members and the ‘not-yet-members’. Organising is planned and structured, from how we map workplaces to the way in which we have conversations with workers that are almost scripted. A script that leads from an individualised problem to a collective perspective on change. Organising also means leaving the office: I’m supposed to spend 80 percent of my working time ‘in the field’.
The message is always the same, but packaged in the actuality of a collective agreement fight, compliance with a collective agreement, a petition or an action. The message is: I’m not the union, you are. Only if you and your co-workers organise and face your problems collectively, can you change something.
As a trade union movement, we have to make a serious choice for organising and during the refresher course I saw that we’re moving in the right direction. So marketeers of all unions, unite; you nemesis is here.
Willem Dekker is an organiser for FNV Bondgenoten in the cleaning sector. This article originally appeared in the new trade union magazine VERS.