Labor Outreach for Organizing – With Nikki Budzinski

“The thing that I love the most about working in the labor movement is getting a chance to work with rank and file members because they are the people that really have the most compelling stories to tell.”

Nikki Budzinski, the labor outreach director for Hillary for America, has spent the last 13 months working directly with members and leaders in the labor movement to develop and strengthen relationships between the campaign and as many labor unions as possible. Her role is to create partnerships and opportunities for each to support the other—unions may provide a huge boost in organizing capacity, but Secretary Clinton shows her support for the unions as well, even walking a picket line in Las Vegas.

Nikki knows how to create these partnerships and takes them so seriously because she comes to the presidential campaign directly from working in the labor movement for 10 years. Though she originally began her career working first in local politics in Peoria, Illinois and later for John Kerry’s presidential bid in 2004, she found herself drawn to the labor movement in 2005.

In the decade she spent in the labor movement, Nikki has been successful in her work because she prioritizes the importance of the people who make up labor unions.

“The members who organize in politics are the one thing the labor movement has over the Koch brothers. Some of the best organizers in politics are really people that come out of the labor movement.”

Operationalizing the support that comes from the labor movement to the campaign is strikingly similar to the work organizers do on the ground every day. Nikki’s job lives and dies on the relationships she’s able to build with labor leadership, just like the job you do as an organizer depends on the relationships you build with volunteer leaders. To help you learn more about the work labor outreach teams do on a campaign and to offer you best practices from their work, we talk with Nikki about the relationships she builds every day.

Here are some important principles behind labor outreach work that you can apply to your work right now.

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Build a foundation.

“One principle behind my work is building a strong foundation. The foundational relationship with each union is what I spent a lot of time building on when I first began this job. It now is something that I’ve come to rely on today.”

Building a strong relationship takes time. It can feel like you’re spending so much time developing the relationship and so little time reaping the benefits when you first begin organizing, but it’s the crucial first step. Once you invest in a strong foundation, you’ll be able to rely on your volunteers when you need them most.

Make time for meaningful touches.

To lay the groundwork as the labor outreach director within the labor movement, Nikki met in-person with political directors from 20 different unions in her first week on the job.

Communicating via email, text, or phone calls is important. But when you’re starting to build that important foundation, make time for those meaningful in-person interactions. An in-person meeting can accomplish so much, even more if you follow it up with a thank you note.

Invest in regular and customized communication.

Nikki has developed different communication structures that she and her team use every day to make sure the labor movement is informed, has a seat at the table, and has the tools they need to be successful. Clear communication is so important to her, she says the worst thing someone could say about her is that she never gets back to them.

Develop structures to communicate with the volunteers and activists you have relationships with. Without structure, regular outreach to those you already rely on can fall aside, but don’t let it. Everyone needs to be updated and checked on regularly, so develop the best outreach plan for each of your volunteer leaders and systemize it to make your life a little easier.

Set personalized, aspirational, and realistic goals. 

“It is really important to understand what people’s strengths are, what organizations’ strengths are, how they could best be utilized, and to then set goals within that understanding.”

Not every organization within the labor movement has the same capacity or willingness to contribute to a campaign. Some will organize members to volunteer extensively while others will lead a candidate education program within their union. Expecting more than can be offered is unhelpful for everyone.

Work with each of your volunteers to set goals they can accomplish and understand that not every volunteer team leader is going to be able to give you the exact same thing. And that’s okay. Asking a volunteer for more than they’re able to give and then getting disappointed when they fall short is not the solution.

Be direct.

“The best thing you can do for the long-term stability of the relationship is to be the honest broker that you would want them to be with you.”

Sometimes, you are going to have to share disappointing news with a volunteer or partner organization. Other times, you will have issues to address—maybe a responsibility wasn’t met or someone acted publicly in a way that doesn’t represent your campaign.

The best way to ensure that these moments of hardship do not turn into a difficult relationship is to be honest and upfront.

Remember: you are the steward of the relationship.

“Being the custodian of the relationship [with a volunteer, activist, labor union etc.] is really important for an organizer to appreciate because you’re the steward of that relationship in that moment. Maybe you’ll keep it, maybe you’ll pass it on, but for a candidate and someone that becomes an elected official, what happens in a campaign really matters. It affects the foundation of how that relationship moves beyond the campaign.”

Labor outreach teams share a mutual goal with the unions they work with: ensure the union and the candidate have an ongoing, strong, beneficial relationship after the candidate wins elected office. So when Nikki and her team work with the labor movement, they know how important it is to keep the relationship strong.

Even if you move on from a race or a movement, the relationship between those you work with and who you represent continues. Act accordingly, remembering that what you do will affect your volunteers’ involvement in the future and taking the responsibility to steward the relationship seriously.

 

Labor outreach in a campaign is closely connected to organizing. Now that you see how similar your work is and how closely aligned the principles behind your work are, talk with your manager about how you can integrate the efforts of your labor outreach team into the organizing and outreach happening in your turf. It will make both of your efforts even stronger.  ∆

Here are Nikki’s tips if you’re interested in working in the labor movement in the future:

  • Get to know the issues that affect labor unions and use your organizing as an opportunity to meet people involved in the movement.
  • Ask unions you work with if they have a membership meeting and attend one.
  • Show support for unions when you can—walk a picket line!

 

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