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It’s a new year, and it’s time to talk about the big picture!

Labor-Center-column-logo-trans(Jan. 9, 2015) — Don’t you love those conversations about the minutia of your union contract or what dues get spent on?  Lots of union activists spend lots of time explaining this kind of information to members or even trying to correct misinformation — and that’s important.  Union members need to know what’s in their contracts and how their unions work, and an unrestrained rumor mill can be deadly.

But for those of us who see unions are part of a larger movement for social and economic justice, these conversations can also be a tiresome slog. Here’s an idea for re-energizing yourself and build union power at the same time!

Workplace leaders can and should engage union members in conversations about justice, fairness, the rights of working people to a decent share of the economic pie, and about what unions are supposed to mean, not just what they’re supposed to do.

Arm yourself with a few really good, open-ended questions (i.e., questions that can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no”) like:

“What does being treated with respect at work mean to you in concrete terms?”

“How do you think working people are doing in this so-called ‘economic recovery’?”

“Why do you think union workers are seen as greedy, or as trouble-makers?”

“When union workers stand up for themselves, how do you think that impacts non-union workers?”

“What kinds of an organization do you want our union to be?”

“What’s your No. 1 priority for the future of unions in the U.S.? What can we do to make that future a reality?”

Questions like these ask union members to see themselves as part of a bigger picture. They will still probably want to know what their dues money gets spent on, but engaging in these conversations can be part of culture shift in your union — from a service mentality where all union reps and members talk about is contract enforcement (still super important!) to an organizing mentality when union leadership and members see themselves as advocates for a fair economy.

If you get on a roll with this, you could even consider videotaping some of your members answering these questions and posting them on YouTube!

If you would like a communications training for your union leadership to help them engage in these kinds of conversations, or make the more daily conversations about contract enforcement and union business more effective, the Labor Center can help!

Check out the classes and events we have coming up:

Jan. 24 — U.S. Labor History (registration deadline is Jan. 12 — so don’t delay!)

Feb. 21 — Safety At Work: Take It Back

Feb. 28 — Caring For Others, Caring for Ourselves: A half-day conference to empower social service workers

For details visit our website or call 206-934-6671

If you have labor education questions or topics that you’d like to see addressed in future Working Education features, email me at

Sarah Laslett is Director of the Washington State Labor Education and Research Center at South Seattle College. Her column — “A Working Education” — is a regular feature of The Stand. Learn more about the Labor Center here.

CHECK OUT THE UNION DIFFERENCE in Washington: higher wages, affordable health and dental care, job and retirement security.

FIND OUT HOW TO JOIN TOGETHER with your co-workers to negotiate for better wages, benefits, and a voice at work. Or go ahead and contact a union organizer today!