In 1915, songwriter and itinerant worker Joe Hill was a 36-year-old labor activist condemned to die for a murder after a controversial trial in which his credible alibi wasn’t even introduced, when he sent a telegram to union leader Bill Haywood saying, “Don’t waste any time mourning. Organize.”

Over the decades, that’s been shortened to “Don’t mourn. Organize!” (Hill followed that telegram with another wire asking Haywood to “have my body hauled to the state line to be buried. I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.”)

Ironically today, people who need to organize the most may feel indifferent or overwhelmed by a perceived complexity, and such apathy or ignorance can prove to be self-defeating no matter what’s tried.

So it’s good news to see the feisty Labor Notes — a 37-year-old media and organizing project based in Detroit — launch a free, online course to help overcome the “I don’t know and I don’t care” mindset that holds people back. Titled “Beating Apathy,” the informative program couldn’t be timelier when anti-worker sentiment in the country grows like a tumor, and when anti-union forces control all three branches of the federal government.

Personally, I didn’t realize my own ignorance and intimidation until years after my first run-in with an employer who broke labor law. I was a “bag boy” in a supermarket in the mid-1960s when a fellow employee was getting preferential treatment that forced the rest of us to work harder, longer, in less safe circumstances and for less money than our peer. So several bag boys, cashiers and other grocery workers — not unionized — met, listed a few complaints we had about working conditions and hours, and approached one of the store’s co-owners.

I was nervous but outwardly calm, sharing our concerns. We had no demands or even suggestions; we figured he would listen and respond with ideas.

He did. He nodded and then fired us all.

I’d never heard of the National Labor Relations Board, the United Food & Commercial Workers union, or what — years later — I learned was Americans’ right to engage in “concerted activity.”

The National Labor Relations Board says, “Protected concerted activity gives employees the right to act together to try to improve their pay and working conditions, with or without a union. If employees are fired, suspended, or otherwise penalized for taking part in protected group activity, the National Labor Relations Board will fight to restore what was unlawfully taken away. These rights were written into the original 1935 National Labor Relations Act and have been upheld in numerous decisions by appellate courts and by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

I was in a college study group when I ran across the concept and reacted like Johnny Carson, musing, “I did not KNOW that.”

A decade or so later, after bargaining contracts and becoming a full-time union rep in San Diego, such ignorance was obvious in a membership meeting during a protracted stalemate with a newspaper owner. During a discussion about expanding the bargaining unit from the newsroom and distribution department into advertising, a sympathetic salesman said, “You get a good contract and we’ll organize.”

A veteran copy editor stood and quieted the room.

“Wait,” she said. “You’ve got it backward. We have to organize first. THEN we can negotiate a contract.”

Thanks to Labor Notes, organizing becomes not just understandable but achievable, showing how to fight back where you work and win. A step-by-step guide to building power on the job, “Beating Apathy” covers dozens of tips from Labor Notes’ popular book, “Secrets of a Successful Organizer,” using real-life examples, practical suggestions, and hands-on exercises to help apply the insights and know-how of generations of organizers.

Its eight downloadable lessons teach how to identify issues in your workplace, build campaigns to address them, anticipate management’s tricks and traps, and inspire co-workers to stand together despite fear.

Specifically, the eight lessons are: “How to Get Unstuck” (Do you ever feel like your co-workers don’t care?); “How An Organizer Talks ... and Listens” (It all starts with one-on-one conversations); “Assemble Your Dream Team” (To build power you must understand who does what where); “Choose Your Battles” (What makes a good issue to organize around?); “Swing into Action” (Start pushing management to address your goal); “Expect The Unexpected” (How will you cope with backlash and roadblocks?); “Always Be Organizing” (Keep it going beyond a single campaign); and “Putting It All Together” (A real-life case study brings together the secrets).

To start, register online at, after which three lessons will be sent to you, followed by a new lesson every week.

Information can yield awareness and advances, and you’ll never know if you don’t try.

Contact Bill at