labor Steward's Corner: A Path Out of Fear
What’s the greatest gift the labor movement offers? It’s not the ability to bargain a contract, protect yourself on the job, or win higher wages, though those are important.
The greatest gift is a path out of fear. Once we can see that path under our feet, the real fightback can begin. But the question is, how do we find it—especially at this dire moment?
Right now, it feels like fear is saturating us. Despite boiling frustration at the dangers forced on us by bosses and government during the pandemic, the coalescing of this shared rage into workplace power has been uneven.
Yes, workers are talking to each other—complaining, commiserating—and there’s a definite uptick in collective action. But fear, confusion, and delusion are combining to squander the power we could have. The default to “let’s wait and see” has become a big problem.
When we “wait and see,” we are advertising our powerlessness. We’re announcing that we trust someone with more power—the boss, politicians, the health department—to decide our fate. This deeply rooted default to hierarchy leads us to look up the ladder for solutions. Even as layer after layer of the powerful ignores or betrays us, we are scared to offend them.
WHEN NORMAL IS TOXIC
Ask a co-worker how things are going, and the misery will pour forth: Management isn’t telling us anything, they change plans all the time, they aren’t listening to us, it’s not safe, we’re understaffed, people are exhausted, morale is at rock bottom.
But invite these same co-workers to come to a small meeting, to join together and talk to the boss, to sign a petition, to defend a co-worker who’s being bullied—and fear comes up like a brick wall. Fear of retaliation, of losing “access” to a boss, of creating division, of losing friends, of losing a job, of being labeled a troublemaker.
This is a fear that seems so normal, and so rational, that most people don’t even question it. In fact, they will question you, the person bringing this trouble to them. And so we stumble along, isolated, accepting fear and misery as if they were inevitable.
This culture of fear serves bosses very well. It allows them to withhold information, change the rules, and avoid accountability. They know that workers are grumbling, but as long as the grumbling doesn’t turn into action, they can disregard it.
Under pre-COVID conditions this was just “normal bad.” Now it has become toxic bad. Our collective fear is no longer an okay excuse; its consequences are too dire.
FINDING STEP ONE
So if you’re a workplace organizer, the first commitment you should make is to help your co-workers find the path out of fear. Don’t blame, judge, or dismiss them for being fearful—help them get through it.
This may be a long and uneven process. Your radical patience—the patience to keep steady while facing disappointment—will be key.
Let’s start with clarity about what unions can’t do about fear: We can’t rely on labor laws; under current conditions, they’re often useless.
We can’t promise that someone else—union officers, government agencies—will do the heavy lifting. We can’t deny that there are risks to taking action. And we can’t make guarantees. Results are conditioned on how much power we build.
Keeping all that in mind, here are some things we can do—that are being done every day by workers all over:
First, check in on your own attitude. Are you ready to trust your co-workers, even if your workplace has long-standing divisions? Even if you feel that differences of race, gender, language, age, and politics are insurmountable, it’s your responsibility to reach out. (And yes, supporters of opposing presidential candidates can be allies in workplace struggles.)
Cultivate your curiosity. Bring your respect—if not for their beliefs, then for the contribution your co-workers can make. Banish cynicism; it has no place in organizing.
Be confident that you, collectively, can shift the balance of power. Inspire your co-worker to feel: “At last, someone is listening to me! I’m not invisible.”
TALK IN GROUPS
Listen, talk, summarize, expand, repeat. Fear is reduced by steady conversation—one on one, in small groups, in big groups. The more we hear other people’s experiences and recognize commonalities, the less isolated we become.
Talking in groups is an act of trust, and trust is an antidote to fear. Make these conversations happen in ever-expanding circles.
Every development in the workplace, every attempted fightback, every counter-move by the boss—all these moments should be triggers for purposeful conversation. (And remember… don’t complain, organize.)
Find agreement. The strongest power we have is unity among the majority. It’s rare to find agreement on everything, but all you have to do is find agreement on something.
As you participate in wider and wider conversations in the workplace, keep your ear open for shared goals—not just shared complaints.
Engage in fear-reducing activities. Where fear is dominant, it’s not a good idea to ask people to take risks right away. Asking someone to sign a petition or speak up to a boss, as a first ask, may terrify them.
Instead, offer fear-reducing options. Talk through the specific fears a co-worker may have and brainstorm how those anticipated disasters could be handled.
Ask what information they need to feel safer about taking action, and try to find it. Surface rumors, dissect them, and dispel them.
Invite your co-worker to name others they trust in the workplace, and suggest a group discussion among this cohort.
Give an example of how you—or a group—took action and achieved something. Share an article that describes an organizing success among similar workers (Labor Notes archives are a great source), and offer to discuss it.
Remember: don’t argue, don’t sell, don’t badger, and don’t express desperation. All these modes of communication reduce trust and increase fear.
LET IDEAS FLOURISH
Generate the plan together. The most likely way your co-workers will act, despite their fear, is when they have generated their action steps and their plan in a group setting.
If you come to them with a ready-made strategy, it’s easier for them to dismiss: “Ha, easy for you to say—you’ve already got a target on your back.”
But when people have sat together (even on Zoom), deliberated, encouraged each other, and felt the rising sense of safety together, their minds will be less burdened by worry and will start to become creative.
They will bring ideas that are grounded in their own experience, and that make sense to them. The plans that emerge will be owned by the group, and will therefore automatically increase the safety we feel in numbers.
Action can start small. Collective action is essential for overcoming fear—but “action” isn’t only flashy acts of defiance on the street.
Collective action is also a group of co-workers dividing up a list of names, figuring out who will call who, agreeing on the goals of those calls, setting a time to meet again, and planning the next step.
The fear of talking to co-workers is the most important fear to overcome—because once that action starts, the dynamic of building power has begun, and further actions are taken together. That’s the best antidote to fear.
Ellen David Friedman is a retired organizer for Vermont NEA and a member of the Labor Notes board.