We know that a stronger Guild gets us better contracts and allows us to organize more workers. But
where do we start? I think we begin by examining our role as leaders in the union.
Whether you’re a steward, a committee member, an officer or a paid staffer, your approach to leadership
is what makes the difference in whether the union gets by or gets stronger.
You became recognized as a leader by your ability to get things done. You were the one who often
figured out how to take control of situations and solve problems. Leaders have to prove themselves. But
now you’ve been chosen to lead and you recognize that doing everything yourself is neither practical nor
It’s ironic that established leaders have to learn to step back. The first instinct is to continue to lead in
the manner it took to establish leadership. After all, people look to you to fix the problems. But continuing
to do for others can actually weaken a local, even though in the short term the approach works. But all
organizations, and especially unions, benefit from a leader who reaches out and includes others.
One of the most helpful books I’ve read on the subject is “The Tao of Leadership,” by John Heider. In
it, Heider interprets and translates the ancient Chinese text, the “Tao Te Ching.” This book was written by
Lao-tzu in the fifth century B.C., and is the most widely translated book in world literature, after the Bible.
The ”Tao” philosophy on leadership is perhaps best summed up in a translation by Stephen Mitchell:
When the Master governs, the people
are hardly aware that she exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.
Ifyou don’t trust the people,
you make them untrustworthy.
The Master doesn’t talk, she acts.
When her work is done,
the people say, “Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves!”
How we lead is very important. Accepting responsibility for the process and not controlling the results
is a critical step in becoming a good leader.
We need to make the union a community, not a contract. Members, and potential members, should
know that we genuinely care about them and we’re not just there to file grievances. I once heard a steward
explain to a new member that paying dues was like buying “Blue-Cross for job security.” He explained that
you may never need it, but it’s there if you do. I was horrified at this definition of a union and realized I had
more work to do to make the union vital.
For example, as leaders we have to do more than post notices of meetings. We need to invite people to
meetings by talking to them one-on-one. We need to let them know that they are needed at the meetings.
Do you hold meetings close to the worker? Many locals have struggled to increase attendance at
membership meetings by providing food and even door prizes. That doesn’t work, and it shouldn’t be the
goal. Instead, reach out by having smaller meetings in convenient locations based on smaller work groups.
Talk about issues that are pertinent to the group and people will show up. They might even surprise you by
attending the next membership meeting.
Do you make decisions in isolation? I’ve talked with frustrated leaders who are being weighed down by
large decisions. If you’re lying awake worried about making the right decision, you’ve skipped the
important part of the process. Share decision-making through committees or core groups of leaders. Again,
if a union is what it should be, decisions should be made as broadly as is practicable. Some locals have
regular grievance committees that review workplace issues and decide whether a matter goes to arbitration.
Better decisions are made this way, and these committee members who know their contracts often end up
making contributions on the bargaining committee.
Do you make training opportunities available in the local? Many communities have excellent resources,
sometimes through the local college or university. The Guild offers a Guild-wide training program every
February and subsidizes small locals. Identifying new members to take training is another way to share
decision-making. Training can give someone the confidence he or she needs to move from member to
Do you establish a mobilizing structure before bargaining a contract? Many locals mobilize around
issues and use the flow of bargaining to determine when to reach out to members. In recent years we’ve
given high priority to establishing a plan and structure well before bargaining begins. With the help of the
CW A, we’ve recognized that mobilizing has to focus on the structure and not just be based on the issue of
the day. Like the “Tao” model, pay attention to the process and let the issues come later.
These are just a few ideas, and I’ll never suggest that getting others involved is easy or that there is one
correct way to do it. People will still call on you to solve problems, and you do have to take responsibility if
others choose not to. But your commitment to a style of leadership that recognizes the importance of
inclusion is critical. It is a cliche to say that a union draws its strength from its members, but it is true.
When we’re at our best we work as a vital network of individuals, all drawn together to achieve a common
goal. Our ability to reach out and draw others into the struggle is what makes us a union.
The Guild has many challenges before it in the coming years. I am proud of our union, and have been
honored to serve it. But I recognize that we need to make more of an effort to reach out to our members, to other media industry workers, to fellow unionists and to the community. There are a lot of good reasons
why we can’t always find the time. We become burdened with contract enforcement or bargaining or are
under attack by our employer. But until we find the time, our union will only get by-it won’t grow. Our
merger with CWA was predicated on the belief that getting by is not enough. We now have access to
resources that allow us to reach beyond our traditional parameters. We can play a critical role in expanding unionism in the information industry as it expands and changes.
I intend to foster a continuing dialogue on leadership in the Guild, because I believe our strength as a
union starts with a commitment to a leadership style that allows a free flow of ideas. I hope that we can
share ideas that have worked for your local and I’m seeking your help in this dialogue. We need to be able
to reach out to other leaders, activists and members as a regular part of what we do. Then we need to start
the important work of reaching beyond our union. Our proper role is to assist all information workers in
their pursuit of meaningful jobs with just working conditions.
Or as translated by Heider:
The wise leader does not intervene unnecessarily. The leader’s presence is felt, but often the group runs itself.
Lesser leaders do a lot, say a lot, have followers and form cults.
Even worse ones use fear to energize the group and force to overcome resistance.
Only the most dreadful leaders have bad reputations.
Remember that you are facilitating another person’s process. It is not your process. Do not intrude. Do
not control. Do not force your own needs and insights into the foreground.
If you do not trust a person’s process, that person will not trust you.
Imagine that you are a midwife; you are assisting at someone else’s birth. Do good without show or
fuss. Facilitate what is happening rather than what you think ought to be happening. If you must take the lead, lead so that the mother is helped yet remains free and in charge.
When the baby is born, the mother will rightly say: “I did it!”
[Other recommended reading:
Tao Te Ching, a new English version, by Stephen Mitchell; Harper Collins
Real Power; Business Lessons from the Tao Te Ching, by James A. Autry and Stephen Mitchell;