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Driving a Tribal Mentality

How Unions Lead Workers Against Their Self-Interest

Understanding the tribal mentality of unions can help your organization stay union-free.

Ricardo Torres President & CEO - PSLC

3/7/2019

In my past, I have served in many high-level union roles, a small sampling of which includes:

  • National Strike Director
  • National Organizing Director
  • Organizing Strategist
  • Lobbyist on behalf of the AFL/CIO
  • PAC Coordinator
  • Constitution Committee Member
  • Global Outreach Coordinator
Rick at the Detroit Newspaper Strike

These roles all have one thing in common: I was charged with motivating people to doing things that were not necessarily in their best interest but were certainly in the unions' best interests (and benefitted their pocketbooks). Whatever else I may have done as a union official, I was first and foremost a motivator.

I recall many times when we led people out on strike where the workers were so angry that they couldn't wait to destroy the company that employed them (sometimes for decades). I had strikers who destroyed the property and reputations of management. During strike actions, it was my job at this level to encourage this behavior. Looking back now that I work with management to prevent these types of scenarios, I regret my previous efforts to sow conflict. Unfortunately, I was still under the thrall of a radical ideology that focuses on dividing people, rather than encouraging cooperation to make everyone's (workers and management) lives better.

One memory from when I was working as a strike director on the Detroit Newspaper Strike stands out. A striker, who had 40 years of seniority and should have retired, cried when he went out to destroy newspaper racks and told me the never thought he would harm the company he had loved for so many years, but he said he knew it had to be done for the greater good. Two weeks later, he was almost hit by a newspaper truck aggressively driving through a picket line. He had a heart attack and died at the scene.

At the time, I of course thought this was tragic but, due to my indoctrinated "win by any means necessary" union mentality, I exploited the tragedy to motivate the other workers to become more deeply invested in the strike, which led to even greater havoc.

People at this same strike, along with others recruited by the unions, fought police in the streets. Many were arrested, sent to jail, and lost their jobs and future prospects. It was amazing to see strikers, who before the strike were just regular people with families, who went to church and lived normal lives, both men and women, walk right into tear gas and police batons to seek and demand justice and extract pain, simply because that's what you do to your enemy.

Detroit Newspaper Strikers vs. DPD

As an organizing director, I ran many campaigns where workers destroyed company equipment and filed false EEOC and ULP charges against management. These normal, everyday people would now pursue any action to attack their employer or coworkers who didn't fall in line. In extreme cases, they would even try to destroy the company that employed them.

My job was to instill the emotions (especially fear) in to these workers to achieve my goals. I created a common enemy in the form of the management and executives who provided these workers' jobs and livelihood. Raw emotions are the steering wheel that a skilled manipulator uses to drive people into the deep commitment necessary to achieve desired results.

Now that I work to bridge the gap between workers and management to support the whole organization, I try to help my clients understand how to protect against becoming the victims and targets of these raw, untethered emotions and, instead, redirect their employees' emotions into a positive direction. I can only provide truly effective assistance if people understand the depths that unions can, and will, push your employees to and how critically important it is to avoid such pitfalls.

Always maintaining control of the message is paramount to winning or losing in any organizing campaign, contract negotiation, public support operation or employee motivation program. In my previous roles, I understood that, if I let the workers control the narrative, I would be unsuccessful, so my goal was to ensure that no employee could freelance or turn independent.


When I was a national organizing director, my organizing teams across the country kept getting stonewalled by professional healthcare workers who commonly expressed their disdain for an adversarial relationship with management. Their near-universally expressed views were that they were part of a "mission" towards the greater good and, while our overall organizing numbers were strong, we needed to "build a better mousetrap" to catch healthcare professionals.

I found myself working with the AFL/CIO organizing department at the George Meany Labor College developing advanced strategies for healthcare and non-healthcare organizing. I pushed my concept of changing the narrative around healthcare unions so that professionals would seek us out. We took the healthcare message away from the industry by starting a national "grass-roots" challenge for hospitals to protect their patients. We also pushed hard for political and legal changes to healthcare institutions, like the "Safe Needle" campaign, RN to patient ratios, and many others to emphasize patient care.

Over the years, healthcare organizing has exploded, and more professionals than ever are saying they joined the union to ensure better care for their patients. Despite the idea being ridiculous on face value, unions have successfully indoctrinated this idea into healthcare workers' minds.

We are seeing the same thing happening now with the increase in teacher strikes. The primary messages that teachers are using to try to get public support are 1) better student protections, 2) smaller class sizes, and 3) reform in education. Of course, teacher pay is always thrown into the mix. Any why not? Higher pay for teachers means more dues moneys in the unions' coffers.

Selecting the most effective technique is always a balancing act between the carrot or stick. You must understand the mental makeup of the targeted employees and figuring out what will get them to react the way you want. Clearly, almost everyone who enters the healthcare and teaching professions knows that these are not fabulously well-paid positions; however, they honestly like helping people and want to make the world a better place. They deserve a good wage. The best way to motivate these groups to break their conscience is to demonize the opposition and make it appear that they are actively trying to harm those the workers want to help.


During my many strikes, I understood that keeping striking workers from crossing the picket line is paramount in maintaining the moral high ground and winning the strike. During the Detroit Newspaper Strike, with about 2,600 workers from 5 international and 6 local unions, we arrived at our two-month strike anniversary with no end in sight. I began to hear grumbles and workers were crossing the picket line. To try to plug the holes, I started a program where part of the members' strike pay was contingent on participating in "get to know your neighbor" marches. I would take 200 to 300 strikers to walk up and down the street in front of the "scabs'" homes with signs and bullhorns. We brought along reporters and photographers and published the photos in the strike newspaper (The Detroit Sunday Journal), which published over 200 editions and saw circulation of 40,000-60,000 copies each week. (It eventually became one of the longest running temporary newspapers ever.)

We made sure that every striker attended at least one of these marches, to make sure that they all thought, "I hope this S.O.B. doesn't do this to me." Family members, neighbors and police parked in the street: all observed the chaos. We put on a big show for a few hours each time. The shame and embarrassment heaped on members who crossed the picket line (or as we called them "scabs") was effective, and we saw a large decrease in the number of people crossing. Such shaming and othering ("scabs") allowed us to even turn the workers against each other: pure tribalism at work.

The art of deception flourishes when you know your audience, those who you are trying to convince. You need to understand that, at our core, people are mostly tribal creatures. Whether we are part of a certain social class, ethnic or regional identity, the fact is that we are more likely to spend time, and enjoy time spent, with individuals who are like us and who enjoy the same things. It is part of our subconscious survival instincts. Tribal mentalities create an instant, subconscious rapport that can be conveyed without explicit verbal communication.

This is the core idea I used to drive actions when I was a union official, and it taps into very powerful emotions. I witnessed strikers from every walk of life fight police and replacement workers hand-to-hand in the streets of Detroit and the surrounding communities. These were all just regular working Joes trying to support their families. They were your neighbors, brothers and sisters, fellow church/club members and they were putting everything on the line because they felt they were part of something larger than themselves. They shared a common cause and belonged to a single tribe, which led them to reject their previous communities.

I remember receiving calls at all hours of the day and night from my organizers giving me updates. The organizers sometimes worked 12 hours or more without complaining because they felt part of a cause greater than themselves. In one state, we had three elections occurring within a matter of a couple of weeks. One of my organizers had to go into the hospital the next morning to undergo cancer surgery, but she still insisted on training casual organizer we pulled from organized units like the current campaigns'. She didn't finish her training until after 9:00 PM and had to be in the hospital at 7:00 AM the following morning. This is tribal mentality in prime focus: the group always comes first!

It was common for the companies we were organizing to use catch phrases like "team members", "our company family", along with the rest we know so well, but the problem is that these were almost always just words. My teams turned them into the butts of jokes that were used by the workers against their "enemies", management. We played on the workers' natural instincts. We became part of their tribes by fitting in and making them comfortable with us. To do that, we had to take the time to get to know who we were dealing with and mirror them. We then took charge and directed their actions.

Here is a great quote that sums up this inherent trend towards tribal mentalities:

"A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate."

Tribal manipulation can be used for negative purposes or positive endeavors. It is not enough to simply regurgitate catch phrases that sound good, though; unions need their members to follow up their words with actions, and they frequently succeed by setting up a rival tribe in their members' minds.

Breaking free from the traditional tribal mentality takes a lot of work but is worth all of the effort. In the workplace, it creates an atmosphere of trust and fairness and makes the goals and objective of everyone collectively (the entire organization) something bigger than each individual that everyone can become a part of. Of course, this is yet another form of tribalism, but one that's based on mutual respect, rather than competition. This is not a pie-in-the-sky dream, rather it's a relatively simple path to a productive work environment that relies on well-documented human behavior.

I was a hardcore union official who refused to take prisoners and, while I held my positions in unions, I was strong in my beliefs. My attitude over those lost years in labor was that management was my enemy. My job was to beat them every day. I knew what worked and utilized these tools for my benefit.

Rick at Detroit Newspaper Strike

Now that I recognize the fallacy of zero-sum thinking embraced by the unions and work with management, I want to share common-sense methods to bring positive changes by showing the flip side of tribal mentality applied to employee relations. While writing this article, I stumbled upon another great quote that illustrates the opposite of the us vs. them tribal mentality unions indoctrinate their members with:

"You can no longer see or identify yourself solely as a member of a tribe, but as a citizen of a nation of one people working toward a common purpose."

To tie this into today's world, one simply needs to look at what is happening right now. We have a government that is at war between the parties. The far-left is pushing the concept of tribalism through "intersectionality" more than ever before, as are the unions. The recent federal government shutdown is a perfect example of this point as unions controlled the message:

Public sector unions (and unions in general) have been taking regular beatings with the Right to Work (RTW) movement and the recent Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision. Anti-union organizations have been filing charges on behalf of disgruntled union members who want to stop their union membership and be reimbursed for past dues have also been harming unions' bottom lines.

The unions had a perfect chance to leverage their idea that unions are good for employees by simply creating a message to fit the narrative. For example, they highlighted and even embellished union organized efforts on behalf of furloughed workers. In my opinion, though, they failed this effort by not doing a better job promoting the fact that the unions representing the government workers (AFGE, NFFE and PASS) supported their members, and private sector unions supported their brethren, by organizing public protests across the country, establishing food banks and filing lawsuits to reopen the government.

Pro-employer and Right to Work groups have spent the last several years urging workers to quit unions. Where were these groups during the shutdown, especially the National Right to Work Foundation (NRW)? If I were in my pro-union headspace, I would have painted their anti-union position as purely political and pro-big-business. I would be spreading the gospel message to workers everywhere that the NRW is not about a right to work. I would say that they only care about destroying unions, along with the higher wages and better benefits that collective bargaining can get for workers. In other words, I would have taken the moral high ground to create the impression that unions were the only groups loyal to workers.

To be completely honest, the absence of RTW organizations during the shutdown did give the impression that they are mostly interested in ensuring the people who bankroll RTW keep more money in their pockets, at the expense of workers. I would have loved to see pro-company/management groups, who believe in a strong connection between management and the workforce, use their voice during the shutdown, but they simply didn't bother to weigh in. Of course, RTW has done a lot of good over the years, I just wish they would have taken the opportunity to spread their message more than they did.

Additionally, one might think that after a record low in union organizing campaigns proceeding to election during 2018, we may be able to breathe a sigh of relief. However, I strongly urge caution. Look at the complete picture of 2018 to understand why the levels were so low:

The unions experienced a terrible year (plus) in public relations, with many scandals, the biggest being the UAW-Chrysler embezzlement. The pension fund crisis was consistently making the news as retirees worried about their futures. Uncertain laws from the Obama era went through changes or are actively under consideration for change. Conditions were simply not suitable for unions to lead an organizing onslaught.

The unions pulled a pretty smart move. The appear to have decided to hold back and rebuild their sense of relevancy with the public. With a record number of strikes and actions that shook not just the US, but the world, unions have begun to rebuild the sense of purpose in collection action with a generation that is far more radical than their parents.

If I were still on the union side, I would certainly be exploiting today's political and social environment to launch new attacks, which is exactly what you should be concerned about. The time to protect yourself from predatory unions is now. Don't wait, as it is not a matter of if the unions will launch a resurgence of organizing campaigns, but when. In my opinion, the plans are already in motion and it won't be very long before we see them come to fruition.

So, as I work to bridge the gap between workers and management to form a better alternative to unions, my advice is to prepare your management and supervisory team. Focus on building relationships with your employees and make sure that your supervisors know and understand the signs that unions are trying to subvert your organization.