The latest season of my podcast is all about volunteer organizations. I talk about how volunteer organizations can be great places for building relationships and creating non-traumatizing and even healing workplaces. Because they’re not paid places, we often don’t think about them as workplaces, but my definition of a workplace is anywhere a group of people are working together for a common goal.
One workplace that is mostly volunteer run is a union. Unions are in the spotlight right now because of what is happening with the Writers’ Union (WGA) and the Film and TV Actors’ Union (SAG-AFTRA). While most executive leadership positions might be paid within a union’s organizational infrastructure, like a CEO, CFO, Business Representative, or office administration, elected officers are rarely paid. Sometimes a president might receive a salary, but in the case of both SAG and WGA, the elected officer positions are unpaid positions and are Guild members themselves. Officers and board members do a lot of the work associated with organizing, communicating, and volunteering for functions within the union.
Unions are truly one of the most democratic institutions in the world. They are directly member-run and member-led as nothing can proceed without votes by the membership. By-laws of unions are often very stringent about the actions officers and senior leaders can take to prevent authoritarian leadership. The most important by-products of unions, namely the contracts they help facilitate and negotiate, have to be voted on by the membership. Robert’s Rules are followed in nearly every meeting done under an official union heading, as the laws of union self-government are very strict.
This means that if you’re looking for a space where you can have direct influence in making a workplace that is less traumatizing, a union is great place to be. Not only because it will influence your paid workspace, but also because the union itself is a workplace where you can have influence and consistency.
I can hear my late husband chuckling at this. He served as his union’s president for 6 years and had many interactions that were pretty harrowing and shocking. I remember one time he sent a response email to someone’s complaint and the member sent a reply putting a “Hopi Indian Curse” on him via email.
But despite those very strange moments, what made it a non-traumatizing experience for him, and even a highly connected and healing experience, was the consistency. The rules were very clear. The procedures for getting things done were very clear. The comment period for an issue, the order of discussion, the time they could speak, was all very clearly laid out in Robert’s Rules and the Constitution and By-laws.
Even the more intense moments of individual negotiations were largely non-traumatizing and healing because of the goal he was working towards was crystal clear. The people he was negotiating for had made their needs known, sometimes forcefully, and so whether or not he agreed with it, the goal was front and center for him. Because unions are run where a majority rules, the outliers with wild requests would be outvoted by the majority and what they wanted. And this was always a product of ideas rising to the top of the group’s discussion.
Structure and communication are keys to successful union operations. They’re basically enshrined in the founding documents and the federal government has a ton of legislation on how unions can operate and how much power they can have. So the structure and process is crystal clear and present in almost everything a union does. Communication is required under Robert’s Rules, but also unions that thrive and grow to the power and presence of a WGA or SAG-AFTRA get there by communicating regularly and well with their members. They also have to do a ton of communication externally. This is why we always know when a strike authorization vote is happening and what their demands are. It’s not only good for marketing and PR, but also because some of these announcements are mandated by law.
So, if you need a space that is legally mandated to be communicative and have structure, if you want a volunteer space that is governed by the will of the majority, and if you want a way to get your voice heard in making a workplace for health and healing, join a union or unionize within you workplace. It’s built in community and a ready outlet for holding your organization accountable to better working conditions.