House Calls

Fixing a Broken Weapon

House Calls are simply not the same as they were when I was a National Organizing Director. Don’t get me wrong. Organizers still make house calls but when my team made them, they had a different mindset (and skillset) than many organizers out there today. But unions have identified this flaw and are working on strategies to fix a broken weapon.

Ricardo Torres President & CEO - PSLC


House Calls are simply not the same as they were when I was a National Organizing Director. Don’t get me wrong. Organizers still make house calls but when my team made them, they had a different mindset (and skillset) than many organizers out there today. But unions have identified this flaw and are working on strategies to fix a broken weapon.

Proper house calling is one of the most important ways a union can ensure a victory in an organizing campaign. To be a successful organizer, you must understand that building a relationship with the families of the workers will greatly aid the union’s goal of preventing the worker’s from changing their minds on supporting the union. The first thing my organizers did was to take the time to collect as much information as possible about the workforce. They would seek out things like:

  • Their religious beliefs
  • Do their children play sports?
  • What schools do their children attend?
  • What does their spouse do for a living?
  • Who are their parents (Is there a history of unionism in the family)
  • Family or personal illnesses (Cancer, Diabetes, etc.)
  • Political beliefs
  • Favorite vacation spots

Basically, my organizing teams would seek out any information we could use to build a strategy geared towards absorbing ourselves (organizers) into their lives. We wanted to and very easily did become embedded in their family element. We understood that to be successful in the organizing campaign, we had to have a multi-prong approach that would force the workforce to get in over their heads to a point that it would be considered a family and/or public betrayal to recant their support.

First of all, the core of any drive is to have the strong basic issues and mistrust of management but that was the easy part. Over many years, I have learned that almost three quarters of all management teams do not know personal information about their workers and to be honest many simply don’t know anything about their employees personal lives.

When we walked into the picture there was already an “us against them” atmosphere. Employees (and often management) were disengaged and the workers felt that their concerns were not being heard. The workers had no voice and the company treated them more like children then adults.

The first thing we did when we were called in by employees was to find out what personal issues served as the catalyst for the SOS call to the union (what caused a desire to unionize). If we thought the issues were sufficient we would start the process of organizing. From the beginning we made it loud and clear that the internal organizing committee always understood that our support hinged on them meeting their obligations and timelines to the organizing actions. For an organizing drive to be successful the internal organizing committee has to take the lead and the union organizers had to be in a support mode. If at any time they failed to meet these obligations then we would pack our bags and leave. We knew we wouldn’t win without this commitment from the internal organizing committee.

Once we had the internal organizing committee properly engaged and directed and successfully gathered all of the personal background information, we set out to close the deal by connecting ourselves with the employees outside activities. For example, when there is a heavy Latino workforce we would have Spanish speaking organizing meeting with the workers and we joined them on the soccer field on the weekends. This would give the organizers a chance to meet the families and to bond on a personal level that we never could reach otherwise. We would have female organizers meet with the wives of the male workers and start support groups with them. The wives had a clearly defined job. They were to fully support their husband’s activities and reach out to the other wives.

We would always try to get woman into the internal organizing committees because they are typically much stronger in their dedication to organize then men and it makes men less likely to change their commitment because they never wanted to get beat by a woman. When there were a lot of men in the voting block we made sure an attractive woman was on the internal organizing team and let nature take its course. I used to have hearty laughs as many of the men would fall over themselves to get her attention.

We looked at family illnesses and capitalized on them. I remembered one employee’s father had cancer, so we supported a community cancer walk in honor of this employee’s father. This act alone made us look like the good guy but we had more in store for the workers (part of our secret internal plan). At the last minute, we had a committee member request that the company supported the event as well. Before asking the internal organizer to make this request, we made sure that it was too late to submit a sponsorship. We used the “lack of support” to serve as a slap in the face to the workers by an uncaring employer (even though they did attempt to sponsor the event). My team did a house call on this employee, making sure his entire family was present along with some of his fellow workers and gave them the Cancer Society’s certificate supporting his father. It worked like we planned. Not only was the employee grateful, but his entire family and a handful of coworkers witnessed it. Word got back to the women’s support group and back to the plant. We were heroes and the company was disgraced by “not contributing”.

My organizers never used house calls as a tool to get cards signed, which had to take place between workers at work, the bar, on the ride home or anywhere they thought was appropriate. We required 65 to 70 percent before we would file for an election petition. We used house calls as a tool to maintain a level of support that would ensure victory. We knew that some “Yes” votes would sway back to management’s side. By embedding ourselves into their personal lives we could minimize the loss of “Yes” votes.

When we knew someone was in financial trouble we had someone close to them take over some items that they needed. Many times, when we had a company supporter that was harassing a union supporter, we took that same union supporter on a house call with us to the trouble makers house with the meanest looking and toughest organizers (4-5 strong). The goal was to let the problem employee know that there were consequences to his attacks on our supporter. Trust me, put the fear of the union (and the fear of God) in them while at the same time giving the other union supporters a feeling of power.

We tried to cater to each card signer’s concerns. As an organizing director, I knew we could keep the focus away from the company’s efforts to stay union free, which would mean union victory by making each and every supporter feel like part of a family. We became an integral part of their extended families and got them to depend on us. The internal organizing committee was trained to come to the aid of any employee who was having problems with management whether they were a union supporter or not. This way when the company attacked us, it would be met with anger by many of the employees. We continued to be ready to drive a family member to the doctor appointment or to the store (at any hour) which demonstrated to them we cared about them.

In a strong campaign, with strong organizers who stayed true to the strategy where the workers were committed and dedicated to the organizer, the campaign would take on a life of its own with the employees pulling most of the weight because we knew how the company was going to react. They always reacted the same way. We won more than we lost.

Today, the only reason companies win as many elections as they do is because most organizers are as incompetent as most management teams. Over the past ten years I have been working with management and listening to so called “union experts” and I have come to the conclusion that many companies really don’t want to understand the complexities that cause their employees to reach out to unions. Most corporate leaders pat themselves on the back after winning an election and congratulate each other for being so “great” when the truth is they won the election because modern union organizers are terrible and ill prepared but most people don’t want to think about that. It is far too rare when the company fulfills the promises they made after winning an election. To many members of upper management believe that all they need to do is call a “firemen” (consultants and attorneys) to put out their fires and don’t need to fireproof (union proof) their company.

This is VERY DANGEROUS for management as the union is taking steps to correct inadequacies in their organizing efforts. Bad management practices cost companies more than just the threat of union elections. Bad management also becomes a cancer in the heart of their company and like cancer, it slowly eats away at their team.

AFL/CIO union affiliates have been working for years on innovative organizing strategies and are ready to implement them but they have always been too distracted and/or lazy to move ahead with the plans but now, under the AFL/CIO President Richard Trumka’s leadership, they are relooking at revamping the Organizing Institute. The Organizing Institute (which I helped to establish) was at one time a very strong training program for lead organizers. Over time, it has become weaker and weaker. Trumka will not accept this weakness.

When I was working to build the curriculum for the AFL/CIO Organizers Institute, we took a lot of time building a comprehensive strategy behind the core fundamentals of house calls. We turned house call training into an art, meant for the best organizers from each union. To be effective, it had to be a refined way to bond with employees and their families. During the four-week long Advanced Lead Organizers Training, we sent trainees to staged houses and apartments where they would face every scenario you can imagine. The script was set up where everyone knew their parts, type of job setting, employee’s position in the company, education, personal history and work history. Each staged employee was empowered to make his or her own determination on the effectiveness of the house call.

The house call training was only part of the overall organizing program so everything was made available to the organizers that would be needed during a real organizing campaign including internal organizing committees, difficult committee members, workers history and personalities along with common in-fighting scenarios that the trainees would have to deal with in the real world. The outcomes were not predetermined to make the training as raw and real as possible. This training was very time consuming and many organizers didn’t make it through the whole program. The goal was to take them out of their comfort zone and make them thrive under the pressures. The training was a perfect fit for the new smart organizing plans we had so much hoped for. We had set a goal of helping each union create and strengthen their own organizing departments. We also wanted to create an A Team that could respond across union lines for the whole country in both healthcare and non-healthcare campaigns to assist any participating union in the planning and implementation of organizing drives.

Once again, effective house visits are one of the most important tools the unions have. When I was still with the union in a senior role on the national level, house calls had specific purposes and were very powerful but today, organizers almost always execute it in a miserable fashion. But you have to remember; personal communication, common courtesy, and appreciation for hard work are management’s most powerful tools to avoid the union. Unfortunately these tools are also executed in a miserable fashion by far too many management teams. Unions are working on correcting their flawed tactics. Management had better be working on correcting their flaws, or the union will once again become a huge headache that too many management teams are not prepared to handle.