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Beating Apathy
Updated On: Nov 16, 2021


Do you ever feel like you’re the only one who cares about the union? Like none of your co-workers will lift a finger to help? Like your workplace is bogged down in “apathy?”

It’s a common gripe. We often ask union and non members to make a list of the reasons why people don’t get involved where they work. Typical answers include:

  • Lack of time.
  • No knowledge of how to do it
  • Conflicts between individuals.
  • I feel that nothing will change.
  • They think everyone else is apathetic.
  • They’re looking for individual solutions.
  • And the big one: fear.

Sound familiar?

It might feel like your co-workers don’t care. But push a little bit, and that’s never really true.

Everyone cares about something at work. Just about everyone cares about their wages, for instance. No one’s indifferent to whether their shift is miserable or pleasant. It’s impossible not to care.

Could it be that, for most of your co-workers, everything’s great at work? Maybe they’re completely secure about their jobs, love their supervisors, make excellent money with terrific benefits, have no worries about downsizing or layoffs, face no health hazards on the job, and are confident about their retirement. If so—quit trying to organize and get another hobby!

But it’s more likely that people are scared, or feel powerless and directionless.

They say everything is fine because they don’t believe it can change. Organizing is the antidote.

So when you’re assessing why more people haven’t stepped up to take on the boss, it’s important to look at your situation carefully, and find out what the actual reasons are. You have to diagnose the problem before you can write the prescription. It’s not apathy—but what is it?


Here are some ways to understand what looks like apathy, and to respond to it.

  • No one seems to care.

Everyone cares about something—but the something might not be what you expect. Pick out a few people at work who you’d like to know better. Make a point of talking with them, and find out what’s on their minds.

Maybe the drug testing policy that’s really grinding your gears isn’t at the top of their list because something else is bugging them more: a mean supervisor, a crushing workload, a safety hazard, a toothache and no dental plan, a shift schedule that means they hardly see their kids, being forced to defend a stupid policy to customers… The only way to find out is by listening.

Show them respect and understanding. When they feel that from you, they’re more likely to respect the things you care about.

  • It’s hard to see how things could change.

beating apathy table_0.jpg

Step back from your frustration and look at things from an organizing perspective. This chart shows four common problems and how you can help your co-workers get past them.

Or maybe your co-workers are just as bugged by the drug testing policy as you are, but it seems too big to tackle. The boss has done a good job of putting out the idea that the decision is final—and fighting the inevitable sounds like a frustrating waste of time.

It’s perfectly reasonable that people feel this way, especially if their workplace has always felt powerless and disorganized. People are used to going along to get along. If your co-workers have never felt strength in numbers, or seen a group action change even something small, why would they believe they could change something big?

As an organizer, your job is to inspire your co-workers with a credible plan to win. But this doesn’t mean you have to be a great talker. Actions speak louder than words, and mostly you’ll need to “show, not tell” your co-workers that change is possible—that is, prove it to them, with action.

That usually means starting with small actions and issues at first—things you can win with the people you have so far, taking just a small step out of their comfort zone (farther each time). When it works, more people will be drawn in... and as they participate, their confidence will grow.

Teamsters Local 630 Organizing Dept .       

  • Teamsters Local 630

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