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Activity 2.1 The union democracy and power Line

By Matt Noyes, adapted from "Power" in Literacy for Empowerment: A Resource Handbook for Community Based Educators. Washington, D.C. : Association for Community Based Education, 1988. (ACBE credits this activity to Barbara Greene of the Mountain Women's Exchange.)

[illustration: workers placing stickers on a democracy and power line]

How strong and democratic is your union? How do you measure that? What do your coworkers think? What are your particular strengths and weaknesses as a union? This activity asks participants to rate the power and democracy of their union, using concrete categories, by placing stickers on a large wall chart, creating a kind of huge graph. The chart has three main levels: strong, so-so, and weak. If the union is very powerful (or very democratic), the sticker goes high, if it is weak (undemocratic), the sticker goes low.

Good for:

  • Getting every participant to express his or her view of the union at the outset,
  • creating a group assessment of the union,
  • finding the hotspots, points where people disagree,
  • finding confusion/questions,
  • getting people thinking in concrete terms about a wide range of issues,
  • putting participants in the position of assessing their union according to their own goals and needs as workers.

This activity also gives the educator valuable information about what the participants think and care about. In short order, you can get a picture of the group and the range of opinions and experiences in the room. By putting people's ideas and experiences front and center at the start of the workshop, it demonstrates the educator's interest in their opinions; it also makes it clear that the workshop is about free speech and thought and that the facilitator is not there to tell people what to think, or what is allowed or banned. It sets a great tone and is content-rich.

Materials needed:
Several sheets of flip chart paper posted with categories (ten to twelve) written along the top (forming the columns of the chart); prepare the categories ahead of time based on discussions with participants; colored stickers (enough so that each participant has one sticker for each category); markers; tape. Camera -- this is a great chart to photograph and keep. It can be used to assess progress later on, etc. (See sample categories below.)

Number of people:
Ten or more people (more people = better graph)

30 minutes to one hour

Set up:
Chart along one wall that is easily accessible, lots of stickers so people can post at the same time.


  • Explain and motivate the activity as people come in and hang out before the session.
  • When it is used at the beginning of a workshop or discussion: as people come in, before the workshop starts, they are directed to the power line (on big paper) on the wall, where, using brightly colored stickers, they are asked to rate the power of their union (or rank and file group) on a scale of 100% perfect strength to 0% absolute weakness in a series of categories. (The facilitator has to identify these categories based on the group, their concerns, the issues they face. You need to get some of this info. ahead of time; brainstorming the categories on the spot would be time-consuming, but may be useful in another situation.) Make sure to leave space for participants to add a few categories of their own.
  • When all have posted their stickers, the facilitator begins discussion by asking participants for impressions of the power line -- "what do you notice? What stands out?" The facilitator's first objective is to get a thorough reading of the line, looking for "hot spots" key points and areas of difference.
  • The facilitator should save his/her own impressions to the end (backload) and then lead into the next step of the workshop.

Watch for:
It may be important, where the assessment is overwhelmingly negative -- resulting in a "weakness line" -- and seems to reflect a kind of hopelessness, to follow this activity with a brainstorm of what makes for a strong union, so that the point of building strength is not lost in the harsh assessment, or to analyze the causes of the weaknesses, and how these causes can be addressed. Because you are using this activity to bring people out and get the issues and perceptions on the table, it would be an error for the educator to try to argue with people's assessment of their union, based on his or her own belief that "it can't be that bad." The activity asks people for their assessment, not the facilitator's. The facilitator's role is to challenge participants to make a critical, thorough assessment.

If you have time, it may be useful to have participants generate the categories themselves: what are some concrete signs of union strength? Of union democracy?

Have people initial their stickers so you can better see each individual's assessment along with that of the group. (In a first meeting, people may be more comfortable posting if their stickers remain anonymous.)

Connect the dots with solid lines -- creates a line graph; not so useful if there are many participants.

This activity is very adaptable. Here are three different contexts/adaptations:

A meeting of about fifty unionists and community-labor activists in Boston organized with the help of SEIU member Paul McCafferty. (See "They ain't Gunslingers and this ain't Dodge," McCafferty's piece on how to organize an AUD workshop.) We used the power line to begin a one-day workshop on union democracy, legal rights, and how to organize for change in the union. The initial assessment was that members were dissatisfied in just about every category -- the stickers were all pretty low on the chart (a few were posted on the floor!). But there was one row of stickers along the top: it turned out they were placed by a member of the "Workers Education Local 189" a kind of association of labor educators that had no contracts, no grievances, no bargaining or organizing campaigns... The chart quickly gave me and the participants a read on the experiences and concerns of the people in the room and helped focus the discussion that followed about the elements of a strong union.

The second case was a workshop for eight or so newly elected officers and Business Agents in a local of the American Postal Workers Union in New York City (see the example in Nightmare Scenarios.) We used the power line to quickly assess their strengths and weaknesses as a new leadership, according to criteria generated by the officers themselves. Looking at the completed power line, they concluded they needed to focus their planning on grievances and the need to transform the grievance procedure.

The third example was a day-long workshop run by the New Directions Caucus in Transport Workers Union Local 100 (several years before they took power in the local) -- in which we created two more complex (more categories) power lines, one for the incumbent union administration and one for New Directions. Then we created two more power lines for a period a few years earlier so we could see how the relative power of the administration and the caucus had changed over time. This example is written up separately in Chapter 7 "Their power line and ours".

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