A Salting How-to with Gaelen Ash
“Organize!” is the war cry of the left. All movements require organization. All leftists should be some kind of organizer. But very few people online ever describe how to get into organizing nowadays. This article is meant for just that—how to get into organizing, and, in particular, what “salting” is.
To help fix that, I interviewed Gaelen Ash, a one-time salt for the hotel and service workers’ union UNITE HERE!. UNITE HERE! is a particularly relevant union because it maintains a policy that all of its staff have to start out as a salt before they can be full organizers.
Salting is usually described pretty simply: you get a job somewhere with the intent of unionizing your coworkers. But like a lot of leftist discourse, the actual actions and strategy of salting don’t really get discussed. Even the name—salting—is rarely explained.
To start, the term “salting” comes from the phrase “rubbing salt in the wound”, which is another way to describe agitating a workplace. That phrase is a bit of a misdirection, however, since based off Gaelen’s experience, salts very rarely irritate anyone.
The goal of salts today is to be a sponge. To look completely non-threatening and mundane; to be as friendly and helpful to their coworkers as possible; and to absorb every piece of information they can find. They go to every after-work party and hang-out as much as possible with the other workers. Everything they learn—a workplace’s social dynamics, coworkers, common issues—gets passed along to the organizers as their union prepares its campaign.
This means salting is a never-ending effort. Most salts will have to lie constantly, either outright or by omission. In Gaelen’s case he had to wade through an intense hiring process with a fake name, fake email, a full slate of fake social media, and a fake resume, with friends pretending to be past managers. He had to go to every after-work party and get-together and maintain a completely innocuous and non-threatening personality. He couldn’t avoid boring conversations or coworkers. He could never talk about or show too much interest in politics. He had no time to be with his real friends.
All of that typically has to be maintained for a year or two. If you’re salting a large workplace, a salt could be there for 5-6 years. That’s 5-6 years of tracking down home addresses and phone numbers, seeing what the issues are, seeing who is and isn’t close to the bosses, all as invisibly as possible. All the while gauging support for unionization without ever talking about unions.
Even when a campaign starts, a salt maintains their cover. Organizers can’t let on that they’ve met a salt before. If a salt attends a unionization meeting, everyone has to pretend like it’s the first time they’ve ever met. No one in a workplace should know someone was a salt until the end of a unionization drive.
The upside is that salting is usually successful. According to Gaelen, any organizing campaign in a stadium, hotel, airport, casino, canteen, or cafeteria begins with salting. Any of these workplaces that has successfully unionized has succeeded because of the work of salts. It is exhausting and long-term work—but it is crucial.
So, that’s what salting is. That still leaves us with how to get into salting and organizing in general. Gaelen’s (paraphrased) advice is this:
First and foremost, you have to be doing work that you enjoy. Otherwise, you’re going to burn out. Even if you like the idea of organizing, if you don’t like the work, don’t force yourself to do it. Organize in a workplace you’re going to be able to stay in for a long time.
The first route for organizing is salting, as I’ve described above. There’s been a huge hit to salts due to COVID-19—UNITE HERE! had a ton of salts laid off as stadiums and food service places shut down. But for anyone interested and willing to salt, now, or in the future, the news in Alabama can tell you which workplaces need help, and UNITE HERE! is always looking for more salts.
The second route is to organize an already-unionized workplace. Stagnant and non-militant unions need organizing as much as anywhere else, which can be done by getting militant rank-and-file members elected to union office positions. According to Gaelen, this kind of organizing is the most fun. Workers are pissed about their conditions everywhere, even in a union, and can be agitated, educated, and organized. There’s also no risk. Union leadership can’t do anything to shut you up. You pay dues. You’re nigh-invincible.
If neither of these routes appeal to you, then the last route is to be a paid staff organizer. Many organizations are dismissive of paid organizers and consider them a cop-out, but in Gaelen’s experience a leftist staff organizer can make a huge difference to workers. Most staff organizers are surprisingly just middle-of-the-road liberals. An organizer who will support workers that want to go on strike has a much larger impact than a liberal who might be more timid about direct action. A leftist staff organizer can create militant, truly democratic unions.
None of these routes are be-all, end-all options. If you can’t find a route for yourself in these options, there are many other ways to organize. The one closing bit of caution Gaelen offered was that anyone with a job they love has to be very careful about how they go about pushing for a union. Don’t just start talking to your coworkers about unionizing—reach out as secretively as possible to an already existing union and have an organizer walk you through the process. If you just start talking in the office about organizing you’re going to get fired, and you’re going to get your coworkers fired too.
Currently, Gaelen is following the second route. He’s an active union representative with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 57 and, in direct contrast to salting, can say whatever he wants and still do good organizing work by being part of a militant caucus.
To close off this article, I’ll paraphrase Gaelen one last time (though this time it’s more 75% quote):
Everything can be changed, everything can be improved, and everyone can be radicalized. The main thing the Left needs to understand is that we need to engage more people in struggle. Every workplace has to be involved in some kind of struggle. There needs to be a lot more contention within the labour market, and our society—we need people engaged in more struggle, and that will lead to more radical unions.
This won’t happen overnight. You can’t just join a milquetoast union and tell people to be radical. It takes a lot of work, years of effort and working at it. But eventually it does make a difference.
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