Organized Labor’s Opportune Moment: The House Call

Tool review by
Joseph Burzynski


I knew that people who didn’t feel threatened wouldn’t fight.

–Martin Levitt, from Confessions of a Union Buster

We’ve got to let them know we’re not going to take this anymore. We want education. We want livable wages. We want decent housing. And we want health care for the rest of our lives, not the life of a contract. It’s very simple—it shouldn’t be hard to understand.

–Lorell Patterson, employee, Staley Manufacturing, Decatur, Illinois

Labor organizing’s academic domains tend toward economics, labor relations, and political science, as these fields follow lines of inquiry interested in organizing’s material outcomes. Namely, what does the presence or absence of a union have on an industry, company, worker, or political cause? Rhetoric’s strengths—its various theoretical concepts by which power relationships and beliefs are brought to light and understood through texts—provide an ideal lens through which to view organizing’s day-to-day tactics that lead to the outcomes studied in other fields. What do workers say to each other? How does persuasion happen or not happen between workers? How are workers moved or not moved to act? Studying oral, grassroots, and on-the-ground communication provides an opening into modern labor rhetoric that encourages an update to strictures like materialism and worker/employer binaries and, in turn, offers additional, relevant entry points into a contemporary rhetorically focused labor studies.[1]

The day-to-day blueprint for internal labor organizing—that is, organizing to both maintain union membership and expand membership within the union’s particular labor sector—is the house call or the one-on-one.[2] Emmett Murray’s (2003) The Lexicon of Labor notes that the house call is a term of art in labor circles “used to describe visits by union staff, volunteers, or organizing committee members to the homes of employees they are attempting to organize” (p. 85). Unless you are a labor organizer or have been a part of an organizing drive, it is unlikely that you would know about this tactic.[3] Indeed, Murray’s language conjures an easy chat over some hard-to-reach, far away goal. The house call is a chummy ‘visit.’ The union is ‘attempting’ (not working, fighting, scrapping, or some other, more vital verb) ‘to organize.’ Murray’s reader might conclude that the conversation’s outcome is as random as a coin flip. The house call is not a haphazard visit; rather, the house call is an intentionally constructed conversation between a union organizer and a worker in which the organizer is trained to agitate and move the worker to join or advocate for the union. Organizers have charted and rehearsed the conversation’s course long before they set foot on the worker’s doorstep. The setting may change: the conversation may happen at home (hence ‘house’), but it can, of course, occur anywhere. While we live in an increasingly digital world, this rhetorical act is designed and planned for in person, face-to-face delivery.

To inquire into the house call’s rhetoric is to inquire into the ways that power is conceived, discussed, and represented between unions and workers. For academics who are curious about the intersections of rhetorical practice and organized labor, this is enough to be going on with. However, hanging over the analysis that follows is the reality that house calls and organizing drives are real, three-dimensional, everyday manifestations of economic power. In organizing drives, sides are taken. Qualities of life—if not livelihoods themselves—are at stake. Friendships are gained and lost. The house call is a living, breathing, and significant organizing tactic. Its subject is workers’ relationships to their employer, an inescapable, necessary part of life in a modern market economy. But the house call as a rhetorical moment reveals much about how unions encourage workers to (re)position themselves to express dissatisfaction with their working conditions, desire change, and stand level with their employers to negotiate an improved working life.

The house call as a rhetorical tactic

Labor organizers do not indiscriminately decide to organize a workforce, nor are they indiscriminate in how they speak to workers. In today’s organized labor, organizers are trained. Unions are formed and maintained by organizing apparatuses that study, focus on, and foster the one-on-one communication between an organizer and a worker. Unions use a number of methods to recruit and train organizers to communicate with workers, but, according to Richard Hurd (2004), the methods are clustered under the “organizing model,” a tactic launched by the AFL-CIO during Reagan’s presidency to reenergize the labor force (p. 7). The organizing model initially referred only to organizing already unionized workers for action, or what is known as internal organizing. As training became more standardized after 1989 and the formation of the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute (2017), external organizing, or “promot[ing] grassroots activism as a way to build support for union representation,” was gradually subsumed in the organizing model (p. 8). Here, it is important to briefly contextualize the Organizing Institute’s place in contemporary United States labor. Amy Foerster (2001) notes that the Organizing Institute is a separate branch of the AFL-CIO, and was “initially created to assist unions in devising new organizing strategies, to provide strategic analysis of successful and unsuccessful campaigns, and to recruit and train new organizers” (p. 156). The Institute acts as a central organizer distribution center to unions across the country. While separate unions may in turn hire and continue to train these organizers, it follows that organizers retain the experience and tools gained through the Institute.

The house call is a modern labor tactic that is hard to pin down, and, I would argue, it is not well known or understood outside of the labor organizing community. While a web search for ‘house call’ and ‘organizing institute’ yields pages of relevant and credible links—including, of course, to the Organizing Institute itself—these tactics are largely unknown beyond the workaday lives of organizers. I would argue that there are a few outstanding reasons: the organizing part of the labor community is reticent to talk about its tactics; the house call is an organizing tactic based on training large numbers of organizers who may or may not remain employed or adjust to the organizer lifestyle; and, perhaps most important, labor’s operating principle foregrounds the worker as the union. The union is not the organizer, nor is it an institution above and beyond the worker. It is the worker, standing alongside her fellow workers, acting together to effect change in their workplace.

Organizers are trained to use the house call method in one-on-one communication—preferably at the worker’s home—and for larger meetings—anywhere from two or three workers to a packed conference room. When applying this rhetoric to non-one-on-one communication, certain steps are modified (for instance, when speaking to an assembled meeting, the organizer does not need to get in the door). Because the Organizing Institute has been central to training and recruiting for the labor movement over the past 30 years and the house call is its curriculum, I suggest that much about contemporary labor can be revealed in this formula’s rhetoric.

In the house call dialogue, an organizer leads a worker through a conversation that is meant to lead the worker to four conclusions: My work life is bad; change needs to be made; my boss will resist change; I will act to be an agent of change for union formation. There are variations across unions, but, here, I will outline six steps that comprise the house call.[4]

1. Introduction

When going on a house call, organizers are given a list of names and addresses to visit. The organizer often does not know who the workers are before arriving on their doorstep, so the first thing the organizer needs to do is break down any resistance to her presence. The goal in this step is to establish a space where the worker and the organizer can have a discussion.

Example of an introduction

“My name is N, and I’m from the [insert industry] union. Some of your co-workers want to make changes at work and form a union. It’s an important decision that you’re going to have to think about. May I come in so we can talk?”

2. Get the worker’s story and agitate on the worker’s problems

Organizers come into the house call knowing the general problems workers may have. They’re predictable—even absurdly universal these days: workers may be overworked, underpaid, face unhealthy or unsafe conditions or receive no or poor benefits. But the organizer wants the worker to reveal her specific story concerning her workplace or employer. Once an important issue surfaces, the organizer will keep it in mind and refer to the issue as the house call continues, both as a way to motivate the employee to take action and to remind the employee of what is at stake for her.

Example of getting the story questions

How long have you worked there? What department are you in? What do you like about your job? What has kept you there? What things have you seen change since you’ve been there? If you could make one change, what would it be?

Examples of agitation questions

On pay: Would management do your job for what you get paid? Why don’t they pay you more? Do you think you’re worth that? On staffing: Who gets blamed if something goes wrong? How do you get it all done? Why isn’t there more staff? If they don’t hire more people, do they pay you more?

3. Vision of the union

Once the worker’s specific issue(s) are discovered, the organizer talks about the union difference. This statement is short and attempts to summarize concisely the differences between forming a union—and collective bargaining—and remaining non-organized.

Example of a vision statement

“Now they have all the say and you have none of the say. You want [insert the worker’s agitation issue], but they say no, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Now they deal with you one-on-one and they like it that way. They have all the power. When you have a union, you deal with them as a group. You get a seat at the table. You have the power to take back from management what they don’t want to give.”

4. Inoculation

“What would your employer think?” is the question that marks the beginning of inoculation. Here, the organizer invites the employer’s expected negative reactions (strikes, firing, union dues) to a union into the conversation. The movement in this section is not simply to answer those concerns; rather, it is to answer in a way that gives the worker a measure of immunity to inevitable anti-union arguments and practices. Any concerns that the worker may have are invited into the conversation. The organizer’s goal is to ground the worker’s concerns in the vision of the future, changed state.

      Examples of inoculation

      On being fired: “Right now you could be fired for no reason. The reason to stand alongside your co-workers is to gain the power to negotiate the right to not be fired at a moment’s notice.”

      On being forced to strike: “Do you know who decides whether or not you go on strike? You do. You don’t go on strike until you vote on it. Your boss wants to talk about strikes because she doesn’t want to talk about pay or staffing.”

      5. Assess and agitate

      The question “so are you ready to stand up to form a union?” marks the transition from inoculation and assesses the worker’s support for a union. Here, the organizer judges how strongly the worker is leaning towards the idea of a union. If necessary, the organizer returns to the worker’s story to re-agitate the worker. The worker’s answer and interest level will dictate how the house call will proceed. The organizer will not move to the final action step until the worker answers an unequivocal “yes.” If the worker is against the union or her support is perceived as too soft, then the worker may decide to bring the house call to conclusion. As can be expected, not every worker overwhelmingly supports or rejects unionizing at first exposure, so an organizer’s judgment comes into play depending on levels of resistance.

      Example of re-agitation

      “Do you see any other way for [insert worker’s agitation issue] to change? You’ve asked for things to change, but management won’t listen to you. Unless you stand with your co-workers to form a union, everyday will be the same. Nothing will change because management won’t have to change anything. Everyday you’ll go to work and [worker’s agitation issue] will be waiting.”

      6. Move to action

      If the worker’s level of interest dictates a desire to be involved in further organizing action, then the organizer wants to gauge the worker’s willingness to further union formation. For the organizer, concrete action and information is the goal of this concluding section. The organizer may suggest a range of actions from signing a union card to volunteering to speak to a co-worker. Any next steps will depend upon the worker’s commitment level. As in the assessment step, the organizer’s judgment informs what actions the worker will be asked to perform. For instance, a worker may immediately want to talk to a handful of her fellow employees. It would then be the organizer’s job to facilitate the meeting.

      Examples of move to action

      “Some of your co-workers might be confused about forming a union and what to do next. Management won’t be. They’ll take this seriously and act immediately. They’re going to try to put you on the defensive. In order to win, you have to act quickly and go on the offensive. Tell your co-workers you are for the union. If you tell them you’re for the union other people will stand with you.”

      House call implications

      By the end of the house call, inductive reasoning has moved the conversation through the worker’s problems with her employer in a way that concludes for her that the only way that her life at work will change is to stand together with her co-workers to form a union. To be sure, the house call’s goal is persuasion: the organizer wants the worker to acknowledge the union difference and assess for herself that the only way for her story—for her narrative—to change is to become her own change agent. While the house call may be rhetorically interesting because of its persuasive intent, the Vision of the Union and Inoculation sequences reveal deeper, more rhetorically fundamental implications about the union’s—and ultimately the greater labor movement’s—current ethos. Control is not fundamental to contemporary labor. The union is not the protector. The union is not the organizer, nor is it an institution above and beyond the worker. The union is the worker, standing alongside her fellow workers, acting together to effect change in their workplace.

      The house call’s process of moving the worker to embody the union begins with the vision statement. The organizer highlights the worker’s dispute with her employer over the distribution of benefits and power within her workplace and the remedy that collective bargaining can provide. Though the vision statement is brief, I argue it is a critical move that places the union into a position viewed by the worker as equal to her employer. If the organizer does not craft the union as an establishment that can sufficiently stand eye-to-eye with her employer’s position as an establishment, then the vision statement can achieve no legitimate effect. By positioning the union as a competing establishment that can work to remedy the worker’s problem, the organizer provides concrete insight into what the worker can gain from organizing—a process and goal that is likely to be vague for the worker at this early stage of the campaign. Providing substance to the claim that choosing to form a union will bring the worker on a direct level with her employer is crucial. It is a bit ambivalent, perhaps, that this mark of control—of authority to make change—is one that the union needs to relinquish as soon as it is established for the house call to have any effect in this organizing context. Giving up this authority happens during inoculation.

      During inoculation, the union needs to decenter itself, to remove itself as the focus of the house call and return the focus to the worker and her story, her work situation. There are two purposes for the organizer to inoculate the worker. First, complaints about unions are predictable and expected; it will improve the worker’s impression of the union and organizer if, later in the campaign, the organizer is validated by accurately predicting the employer’s messages and actions. Second, it is a transfer point from which the organizer cedes control of the union to the worker. The latter is the move on which the house call turns. In short, it says, “your boss will say the union is bad. In fact, she may sit you and your co-workers down in a room, not allow you to leave, and lecture you for an hour about how you are a family and the union is only trying to destroy that. And you’ll need to be prepared to resist tactics like this together, as a unified body.” Just as quickly as the organizer builds the union as a competing establishment through the union vision, she knocks it down to place the worker as the focal point and driving force behind any possible change. This is important because there can be no union or organizer to protect a worker while she is at work—once she returns to the power confines of her workplace—which is why it is important that any perceived union strength, authority, or sense of protection is weakened.

      From this point on as a member of the proto-union—the committee that exists before any official recognition—the worker, not the union, must play the role of a competing legitimate establishment that can and must now take on the employer. As the house call moves forward—and the campaign proceeds—workers who support forming a union can now claim legitimate power over their fellow workers and even the union itself. The proto-union must now decide the message and direction of the campaign, and they have the responsibility to organize their fellow workers. Should this power not be accepted by the worker, the organizer and the union become identified as the only figures who will effect change, thus preventing a transformation of the worker’s power.

      The vision and inoculation turns represent interesting implications for the greater organized labor movement. I do not have to cite the Wall Street Journal to claim that free market capitalism is undergoing a historic re-structuring and re-conceiving. It is increasingly evident that the fortunes and fates of industries, owners, shareholders, and workers are tied together by more than corporate labels or a contract’s wording. The cumulative effect of establishing and destroying union authority and power in the house call seems to have the greatest implications not for the worker or the employer, but for the union’s ethos. Though a weak ethos may, at first glance, appear inherently bad; in fact, it presents important implications. The rhetorical turns in the house call reveal that organized labor does not subscribe to the idea that concentrating power is inherently good. In fact, its ethos can be considered weak only if a centralized establishment is valued. Many of the issues that national or international organizing bodies like the AFL-CIO advocate for are predicated on de-centered notions of power (universal health care, universal collective bargaining rights). As a result, perceiving organized labor as a weakened movement may be misleading, as the idea of a strong, central moving figure is antithetical to much of what labor stands for. Labor is persistently anti-hegemonic. Even speaking of the labor movement (or theory) as being in crisis becomes problematic: what if crisis is not negative? What if the continual re-presentation of workers and power struggle is the goal? Regardless, sites like labor and texts like the house call, or any number of similar, mundane texts, should be examined because they present current –and rightfully complicated—conceptions of power and control in a changing economic landscape.

      The house call contextualized

      Before ending this house call analysis, I would like to take a moment to contextualize the house call not in terms of labor rhetoric or workplace studies, but in terms of rhetorical boundaries, of sorts. It may seem out of place to speak of contextualizing after I claim that my analysis is complete, but as with most rhetorics, there is more to the house call than an outline of a dialogue and a rhetorical analysis. The idea of the house call appears simple: an organizer visits a worker in her home to talk about forming a union at her workplace. However, it is no understatement to say that house calls and organizing campaigns—let alone labor law and policy—directly impact workers’ livelihoods and reshape their understandings of power. Engaging in a conversation that openly questions an establishment figure may be new to the worker, and it is risky. Without exception, organizing campaigns are resisted by employers. As indicated in my analysis, workers can be subjected to “captive audience” meetings where they are assembled in a room and lectured about the evils of the union. Martin Jay Levitt, the author Confessions of a Union Buster details such a meeting:

          The supervisors served as my front line. I took them hostage on the first day and sent them to anti-union boot camp. I knew that people who didn’t feel threatened wouldn’t fight. So through hours of seminars, rallies, and one-on-one encounters, I taught the supervisors to despise and fear the union. . . They soon came to see the fight through the eyes of their captor and went to work wringing union sympathies out of workers. (Levitt & Conrow, 1993, p. 2)

        Both union and employer tactics inevitably create a hostile workplace. Any anxiety or fear that was present before an organizing campaign becomes exacerbated. As Andrew Sabi (2002) notes, “an organizing struggle tends to favor the claims of some people or groups at the cost of the economic, social, or political gains of others” (p. 17). Perhaps this sentiment is best expressed in the words of a worker like Lorell Patterson, “a union member, a Black woman, and a veteran of a defeated labor struggle at Staley Manufacturing in Decatur, Illinois in 1994” (Cloud, 2001, p. 274). Patterson’s remarks delivered after the failed organizing campaign resonate with the immediacy of labor rhetorics:

            We’ve got to let them know we’re not going to take this anymore. We want education. We want livable wages. We want decent housing. And we want health care for the rest of our lives, not the life of a contract. It’s very simple—it shouldn’t be hard to understand. Every human being has a right to those basic essentials. The only way I can see that we’re going to get that is to start organizing and educating. We’ve got to start standing up and telling them no. I have a right to be treated as a human being. It’s time to start believing that we have the power. (as qtd. in Cloud, 2001, p. 6)

          Clearly, my own terministic screens are revealed in choosing to conclude with Patterson’s remarks. For me, however, this is a reminder that fundamental to the modern critical rhetorical approach is the operational understanding that everything is an argument. But maybe more important than that is the power reflected in such arguments. Public and pragmatic formulae like the house call provide a way for rhetoricians to read back to an origin, to disrupt a text or practice in order to reveal its forces and even its future. Sites like labor and texts like the house call, or any number of similar, mundane texts, should be examined because they present current—and rightfully complicated—conceptions of power and control.

          Endnotes

            [1] William Sewell’s (1993) “Towards a Post-materialist Rhetoric” calls for labor scholars to move beyond focusing on materialism as labor’s central metaphor. He argues that dividing money, advertising, and methods of production and exchange between material and nonmaterial is an arbitrary division that marginalizes details that are considered political, cultural, or ideological (p. 17). Too often, the concluding explanation for much in labor is proletarianization, which pays “insufficient attention to the profoundly uneven and contradictory character of changes in production relations, not to mention the role of discourse and politics in labor history” (p. 18-19). While Sewell calls on rhetoric to revitalize labor history, Dana Cloud (2001) calls on rhetoric to save communication studies from a cultural focus that ignores “what is still the most fundamental feature of workplace social relations and communication: a powerful class antagonism between workers and employers” (p. 269). He suggests this move for the benefit of “scholars interested in understanding and transforming relations of power, both material and symbolic, in the workplace” (p. 270). A more recent response to the above calls to revitalize labor rhetoric is Ted Brimeyer, Andrea Eaker, and Robin Clair’s (2003) “Rhetorical Strategies in Union Organizing: A Case of Labor Versus Management.” Here, the authors observe that most rhetorical studies of labor deal with unique figures or organizations, like Mother Jones or the Knights of Labor, and they consider a rhetorical analysis of organizing campaign materials (p. 52). return

              [2] In this text I prefer house call, as the term has a longer history and wider citation in academic discussions. However, a recent but notable change to ‘the one-on-one’ is found in the AFL-CIO’s March 2017 “Internal Organizing Toolkit: A Resource for Building Stronger Unions.” return

              [3] Full disclosure: In the summer of 2005 I was trained through the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute and subsequently hired by the Service Employees International Union 1199 WV/KY/OH where I went through a three-month field training. return

              [4] Similar to the variation in ‘house call’ v. ‘one-on-one’ nomenclature, the presence of six discrete steps is not definitive. Some training materials combine steps. Here, I apply my analysis to six different moves that, in practice, would appear seamless. return

              References

                  AFL-CIO. (2017). Internal organizing toolkit: A resource for building stronger local unions. Retrieved from http://www.opeiu.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=Xyr4aCJczjI%3D&portalid=0.

                  Berlanstein, Lenard. (1993) Introduction. In L. Berlanstein (Ed.), Rethinking labor history (pp. 114). Champaign, IL: U of Illinois P.

                  Brimeyer, Ted, Eaker, Andrea & Clair, Robin. (2003). Rhetorical strategies in union organizing: A case of labor versus management.” Management Communications Quarterly, 18(1), 4575.

                  Cloud, Dana. (2001). Laboring under the sign of the new: Cultural studies, organizational communication, and the fallacy of the new economy. Management Communications Quarterly, 15(2), 26878.

                  Crain, Marion & Matheny, Ken. (2001). Labor’s identity crisis. California Law Review, 89(6), 1767846.

                  Foerster, Amy. (2001). Confronting the dilemmas of organizing: Obstacles and innovations at the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute. In L. Turner, H. Katz & R. Hurd (Eds.), Rekindling the labor movement: Labor’s quest for relevance in the 21st century (pp. 15581), Cornell, NY: Cornell UP.

                  Hurd, Richard. (2004). The failure of organizing, the New Unity Partnership, and the future of the labor movement. Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society, 8(1), 525.

                  Levitt, Martin & Conrow, Terry. (1993) Confessions of a union buster. NY, NY: Crown.

                  Murray, Emmett R. (1998) The lexicon of labor. Retrieved from http://aflcio.org/about/programs/organizing-institute

                  Sabi, Andrew. (2002) Community organizing as tocquevillean politics: The art, practices, and ethos of association. American Journal of Political Science, 46(1), 119.

                  Sewell, William. (1993). Toward a post-materialist rhetoric for labor history. In L. Berlanstein (Ed.), Rethinking labor history (pp. 1538). Champaign, IL: U of Illinois P.

                  Author Bio

                  Joseph Burzynski (he/him/his) is an Assistant Professor of English at Texas A&M University-Texarkana. He teaches courses in writing and rhetoric (and their histories). His publications and research investigates access issues, organized labor rhetoric, and the intersection of sustainability and composition studies.