[This article was originally written for the Industrial Worker and is part of my series on relationship-based organizing.]
A recent report on unions in the US decried their lack of investment in organizing despite immense and growing assets. Unions have nearly doubled their net assets from $15 billion in 2010 to $29 billion as of 2020 but have also cut their staff by 19% and lost 3.2% of their membership over that period. The report calls for a massive investment of union resources in organizing, including hiring 20,000 more union organizers at an annual cost of $1.4 billion.
Why aren’t unions aggressively organizing if doing so would increase their membership numbers and dues income? Would hiring 20,000 more staff super-charge organizing and lead to a resurgence in labor militancy and victories?
Many union members reading this probably belong to unions that are considering raising dues to pay for more staff. This is a constant conversation among leadership in my mainstream union, and the justification for higher dues and more staff is usually that they are needed to organize for the next big contract campaign or to launch some political initiative.
You can probably sense my lack of enthusiasm for such plans, though I don’t want to reduce the issue to a knee-jerk reaction against paying more dues. How much unions collect in dues, how they spend those dues, and how they use staff raises much more fundamental questions about the union movement.
Is the union movement fundamentally sound as it is? Will adding more staff finally solve all of its problems? What about unions and their 125,000 existing employees have led to such a dramatic decline in membership and power over the last 50 years? Are there alternative ways of building union power that don’t lead to the endlessly self-justifying but dubious logic of the need for more staff to run bigger campaigns to get more members to then hire more staff to run even bigger campaigns, etc…?
It all boils down to the question of where worker power comes from. I argue that power comes from the ability of workers to take collective action in the workplace, and that this is grounded in the relationships workers have with each other. Staff are a contradictory part of the mainstream unions and are better left behind if we want to build a bottom-up and socialist labor movement.
Personal Experiences with Staff
As a worker-organizer myself, i.e., not someone paid to organize for a union but a worker who organizes with coworkers, in a workplace represented by a union, I’ve mostly avoided union staff. I feel confident in my skills and knowledge to not feel the need to call on one of the paid organizers in my union to come in and give us advice. There have been times I have interacted with union staff related directly to organizing in my workplace. It’s gone well when they’ve mostly supported and encouraged what my coworkers and I were already doing, which was organizing with each other to improve working conditions.
It’s gone kind of sideways when the staff came in and got in the way of what we were doing. For example, sometimes staff respond to worker grievances by telling us that we should vote for so-and-so politician or call and email our elected officials to plead that they fix our problems for us (for example, around Covid-19 policies in the pre-vaccine days). This would invariably direct attention away from more creative and immediate solutions being discussed. Even for those coworkers really invested in electoral politics, it’s not difficult for them to see that politicians are not going to be very helpful in fixing the often immediate problems in the workplace. The record of my union’s failures to fix problems by appealing to politicians is tragically rather extensive.
For workers who are newer to organizing and not yet as self-confident with union concepts, are staff more helpful to them? They definitely can be in empowering workers to build power with their coworkers to take collective action and win demands. They can also teach workers to become dependent on union staff, lawyers, or politicians for expertise, knowledge, and directives.
I’ve seen examples of friends and other workers who felt very supported in their union organizing by staff. For example, when a worker is trying to get a union at their workplace, a helpful staff will meet up with the worker periodically to provide support, to answer questions, and to build a generally healthy relationship based on solidarity and trust.
I’ve heard at least as many stories where a staff member was unhelpful or even harmful. A few examples include when a staff urged workers to hold a public meeting about unionizing their workplace, after which the leading workers were then fired; when after having won a unionization vote, the staff tried to get all the workers to spend months drafting bylaws instead of continuing to fight the boss for a first contract and all the momentum for the union subsequently died; where staff told workers that they couldn’t take action because it was illegal, or staff told workers there was nothing the union could do to resolve a grievance because the law said it was ok.
This contradiction, where sometimes staff are helpful and sometimes not, reveals the tensions within the workers movement as a whole. Let’s briefly review the relationship-based organizing theory of where worker power comes from and then investigate why unions and their staff seem to act in such contradictory ways.
Where Does Worker Power Come From?
Worker power comes from workers having relationships with each other that enable them to take collective action to win demands and get their needs met. The workplace is the central location of worker power. First, the workplace is where coworker relationships are formed. Second, it is also where collective action is directed by either withholding labor or directly implementing desirable workplace practices.
One particularly hollow form of unionism has staff create media campaigns, where union power is based entirely on staff’s savvy media tactics or legal wizardry to pressure employers instead of empowering workers to take action themselves. But even for those who believe that the strength of a union rests with its workers, the question remains whether staff can empower workers or inevitably inhibit them.
Contradictions in Mainstream Unions
To break this down, we need to understand the wider context from which unions internalize their contradictions. Under capitalism, people’s participation in the economy is split into two main parts. There are those who earn a living by actively producing goods and services (workers) and those who earn a living by passively owning the capital that is used to produce the goods and services (capitalists). There is an opposition of material interests between workers wanting higher wages, better benefits, and more control over their jobs and capitalists wanting to pay lower wages, provide fewer benefits, and maintain their own control over how jobs are done. The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.
Most workers initially create and join unions to empower themselves, but soon the union becomes separate from the workers themselves, through the creation of full-time and paid elected leadership who then hire full-time and paid organizers, administrators, lobbyists, and lawyers. The union then becomes split into two parts, those who pay dues and those who live off of those dues, and these two parts come to have diverging interests. The co-development of labor law and mainstream union practices have exacerbated these divergences as a means to deradicalize and tame the labor movement.
Paid unionists, employers, and rank-and-file workers all derive their income from the value that the rank-and-file workers create at their jobs, but capitalism affects these parties differently. Rank-and-file workers derive much of their leverage in conflict with employers from being able withhold their labor to stop production. This is at the material expense of the capitalists. However, when workers walk out of the workplace and aren’t collecting wages, paid unionists aren’t collecting dues from workers either. Employers and paid unionists at least have some shared interest then in keeping workers working. Workers on the other hand often have an interest in using their leverage of stopping work to improve their conditions and wages. While this doesn’t mean that all union staff and leadership always side with employers against workers, it does apply a pressure in that direction.
Union Staff and Labor Law
Union staff also internalize the contradictions of capitalism by becoming the enforcers of labor law designed to strengthen capitalism. Labor law has been written in such a way as to minimize disruption and weaken the leverage workers have by heavily regulating how, when, where, and why workers can exercise the power of withholding their labor to stop production.
The Wagner Act of 1935, which remains today the cornerstone of US labor law, has as its stated chief purpose “to eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to the free flow of commerce and to mitigate and eliminate these obstructions when they have occurred.” The logic is that when workers have some union rights, such as the freedom to choose a union and to collectively bargain with employers, they’ll be less likely to erupt in mass strikes that are bad for business and often good for workers. The existing structures that legalize and protect mainstream unions were explicitly created to stabilize capitalism.
Within this legal framework, the primary way that unions mitigate labor disruption is through the no-strike clauses that are ubiquitous in collective bargaining agreements, which deny workers the ability to exercise their leverage except after a contract has expired. No-strike clauses are paired with grievance procedures that direct workers to file written complaints to have their voice heard instead of permitting them the power to exercise their leverage directly with their coworkers through collective action. As union leadership and staff are legally bound to follow labor law and enforce contracts, they are tasked with telling workers that they can’t take disruptive action and they have to do what the boss tells them to do.
Union Staff and Working Conditions
Another way the interests of paid unionists and rank-and-file workers can diverge is over working conditions. Whether working conditions at a company are good or bad doesn’t directly affect capitalists or the paid unionists, but has a large effect on the emotional and physical well-being of workers. Of course, companies often prefer less ideal working conditions for workers because they are often more profitable. Paid unionists also have far less direct incentive to prioritize rank-and-file working conditions than the workers themselves because the paid unionists aren’t directly affected by the working conditions. Through the standardization of management rights clauses in union contracts which cede to bosses near-total control over business operations and labor processes, mainstream unionism has largely deprioritized working conditions and instead focused more narrowly on wages and benefits.
This narrow focus was consolidated most dramatically and influentially with the Treaty of Detroit negotiated in 1950 between the big auto manufacturers and the United Auto Workers, where UAW workers received pension and wage gains in return for dropping demands around working conditions in the factories, especially the speed of the assembly lines. In part, the improved wages were tied directly to the speed-up, as it was called a “productivity pay increase” which Fortune magazine called “the most resounding declaration yet by any big union that the U.S. can grow more prosperous only by producing more.” Fortune concluded that General Motors had “got a bargain” through these contracts. When 100,000 workers conducted wildcat strikes against both GM and the UAW at the signing of the next contract in 1955, it became clear what workers themselves thought of the bargain made between GM and UAW. Their employer and union appeared to be acting in their own shared interests and against their workers. The Treaty of Detroit became the model contract which employers and unions in other industries sought to replicate.
Union Staff and Bosses
Especially for those higher in the union hierarchy and who hold positions in regional and national unions, paid unionists can come to have working conditions and wages much closer to the bosses than to their rank-and-file members. The report on unions referenced above notes how of the 125,000 or so people employed by organized labor, 10,000 earn a net salary over $125,000 as management positions within unions have grown 28% since 2010. Such top unionists come to see capitalism as really not that bad at all and absorb the class consciousness of the bosses they are supposed to be fighting against. In 1955 when the two main union federations, the AFL and CIO, merged after two decades apart, its president George Meany declared, “I believe in the free enterprise system completely” and “I believe in management’s right to manage.”
Working conditions separate the interests of rank-and-file and paid unionists in another way. The job of paid unionists is much easier when they can just follow the status quo way of doing business. The status quo of paid unionists is showing up to the union office and working 9-5 in an office sending emails, holding meetings with workers and employers, and doing light administrative work. This kind of status quo unionism, unsurprisingly, doesn’t do much to actually advance worker power. If staff want to actually empower workers, they have to do a lot more work of building relationships with workers, strategizing, taking risks, and engaging in conflict with employers. Going on strike, for example, never works when staff and leadership are doing the 9-5, and rather the kind of organizing from staff necessary to carry out a successful strike requires tons of extra hours and stress.
This is why many paid unionists are pro-worker in rhetoric only and in their actual lives find it much easier to follow their material interests and just clock out at 5 pm like any other self-interested worker wants to do. Some staff and leaders are willing and even eager to do the extra work, but the divergence of material interests here is undeniable and unavoidable. As long as staff are seen as an important part of union power, the workers want the staff to work more and the staff want to work less.
Union Staff and Dues
Another way this contradiction is realized is by staff wanting workers to pay more dues and workers wanting to pay less dues. The argument goes that having staff enables unions to run contract campaigns that result in higher wages. This benefits worker interests and enables workers to pay enough dues to benefit staff interests simultaneously. But this resolution breaks down when the union is ineffective in getting wage gains in contracts or when wage gains are undemocratically prioritized over other worker needs like better working conditions.
More subtly this resolution excludes outright the possibility of workers designing and running their own unions from the bottom-up without being dependent on a separate layer of paid unionists to run the union for them. Staff have a material interest in justifying and fortifying the form of staff-dependent, capitalist mainstream unionism from which they derive their income. Whatever balance is reached between worker and staff needs, an inherent part of it is the compromise between opposing material interests.
How Union Staff Exacerbate these Contradictions
The point of this editorial is not to claim that union staff are monolithic, but rather to illuminate the role they play within the specific structure of the mainstream union. In the ideal world where unions are perfectly democratic vehicles, staff embody the will of the rank-and-file and their job is to carry out that will. But in light of the contradictions noted above, their freedom to act is not unbounded. No matter their own motivations and guile, their range of behavior is restricted and the actions they take are incentivized in certain directions. There is often a significant discrepancy between the rosy image of union staff as the champions of the workers and the experience of union staff obstructing rank-and-file efforts and sometimes even siding with the bosses.
I’ll draw out examples I’ve seen personally of how staff have navigated and fit themselves and their politics into the role of union staff. On the most status quo side of the spectrum are those more centrist liberal staff who follow the rules of unions and contracts so closely that they never really do anything to help foster worker power. If a staffer spends all their time just explaining contract clauses to workers, they might be of some use in checking employer power when that employer steps too far out of line. But most of the time, these contract drones operate entirely within the status quo of capitalist unionism, trying to find technical, legal, or contractual solutions to problems and compromising with employers as the first choice of action in order to preempt workers from getting mad enough to take action on their own. These kinds of staff channel worker agitation away from collective action into channels of contract grievance procedures, Unfair Labor Practice filings with local labor boards, and individual action. Such staffers are most aggressive in policing union members when they dare to step outside of the bounds of traditional unionism by taking collection action in defiance of no-strike clauses or refusing a boss’ directive in defiance of management rights clauses.
A little further to the left, the most common staff approach to their role is the “progressive” staffer who fits squarely within the ideology common of most unions. They still believe in the efficiency of capitalism but just want workers to be treated fairly and they see unions as the vehicle for achieving this fairness. They talk a good talk and occasionally make a good fight, but only if it comports with the rules of unions and labor law which, to them, are the foundation from which fairness springs. The problem, as they see it, is that employers are always breaking the rules. So the way to make things better for workers is to aggressively push for the legitimacy of the rules and force the employers and workers alike to follow the rules. All kinds of actions, like petitions, rallies, and so on can be applied, and when it’s legal, strikes as well. They’ll push the envelope as far as they can while taking no risks of moving beyond it. The progressive believes entirely in the system and the role they play within it, but in contrast to the previously articulated liberal stance, the progressives will actually put up a fight and try to use the rules to their advantage instead of just passively following the rules.
Union Staff as Strikebreakers
Rank-and-file don’t experience the rules codified in labor law and contract clauses as the iron fist of the capitalist state. Rather, the familiar faces of the union leaders and staff are themselves tasked with enforcing these laws and clauses. Mainstream unions say that these laws and clauses are good and necessary, even when their effect is to disempower workers. Workers most often experience these restrictive laws and clauses through phrases spoken by staff, such as “we don’t do things that way” or “it’s more effective/practical if we do things this other way.” When pushed far enough, the union will bring the lawyer in who will gently explain that “we can’t do that because it’s against the law, but you can do xyz instead.” When workers want to fight the boss outside of the prescribed and often futile channels available to them, the progressive staffer will plead with them to follow the rules, do a petition instead of an unsanctioned work stoppage, and contain their anger until the next contract campaign comes up.
Even if it’s in the kindly voice of the union staff and leaders instead of the blunt edge of a police baton, the effect is mostly the same. Workers are led away from taking action on their own when they have grievances and are told to find nondisruptive ways to try to solve their problems. When, in spite of all the coaxing, workers take action beyond the confines of rule-bound progressive unionism, staffers are all too happy to fold their arms and say “I told you so” if the employer is able to defeat the worker efforts and then more directly and coercively punish workers for their defiance. This is the unfortunate but actual class consciousness of the progressive staffer trapped between wanting to empower workers on the one hand and feeling obliged to follow all the rules of capitalist unionism on the other hand.
The radical staff, the kind who holds socialist beliefs of one kind or another, has to find ways of reconciling their own belief in the illegitimacy of capitalism with their allegiance to capitalist unions and labor laws. Of course, some socialist staffers are socialist in rhetoric only and are in actual behavior as useless and counterproductive as any liberal. But some radical staff genuinely believe that they can overcome the limits placed on them or at least push the limits further than the progressive staffer because of their willingness to go outside of the traditional and legal playbook. Many genuinely radical and intelligent union staffers become oblivious to the compromises they have to make to operate within the system.
For example, I think radical staff underestimate how much of their time trying to create radical change through organizing workers gets wasted instead by getting involved in internal fights among union staff and leaders. When union leaders constantly redirect union energy to ineffective and incompetent strategies, radical staff often are forced to take sides in internal union fights and trying to win over leadership. It’s not that this energy is entirely wasted, but instead of talking with workers directly about how they can build power concretely through action, union staff often spend their energy just arguing with their union bosses and playing politics.
I knew a guy who was a union staffer for the cafeteria workers at the college I attended, and occasionally student activists and union workers collaborated to push for the rights of the workers. The union this staffer worked for had a lot of socialists on staff, and talking to them was kind of surreal for me, as they all believed that this union was how they were going to advance revolutionary politics. Sure, they were fighting the good fight in helping workers get as much as they could, but it’s not like they were pushing the envelope that hard and rather it seemed like a radical gloss applied to some pretty standard mainstream union politics.
Even then I saw these self-ascribed radical staffers compromise their principles to the demands of their union. When the university was putting together a billion-dollar development in the surrounding community to build high scale retail and student housing, a large movement of neighbors and allies mobilized to stop what would certainly be an intense escalation of gentrification. This staffer went to the city council and translated for the cafeteria workers who testified in favor of the development because it would create union jobs. Clearly that was not a radical stance in any way, and played into the age-old boss strategy of turning workers against each other. This wasn’t something that the cafeteria workers themselves thought up on their own, but the union leadership’s narrow self-interest, no matter how destructive their those interests were to the working class community living in the neighborhood around the university, lead them to require their staffers get workers to testify in favor of the university’s plans.
This staffer, despite all the compromises they were willing to make to maintain their position in the union, was fired for raising questions and not enthusiastically backing the leadership’s agenda. I heard they went into a deep depression after that. Years later I learned that they subsequently got a job as a staffer at a different mainstream union and had worked their way up the union career ladder and had become a union staff director. Maybe they figured out a more stable arrangement to balance their political beliefs with the requirements of capitalist unionism, or maybe they were successfully disciplined into abandoning their more radical inclinations.
On a historical level, this dynamic played out most dramatically in the life of the CIO. Born in the militant upsurge of labor action in the 1930s, many of the rank-and-file, leaders, and staff involved in this upsurge were also members of the Communist Party. CIO president John Lewis knew this and was willing to let the best organizers in the movement help him build the unions that he had immense authoritarian control over. But when the tide turned hard against Communists after WWII, the CIO enthusiastically went along with the prevailing winds and purged the union movement of Communist staff and consolidated bureaucratic power in the hands of the most conservative union leaders. No matter how much power you have as a radical staffer within capitalist unionism, you’ll be forced to compromise your political principles in big and small ways or risk being fired.
Union staff are an institutional extension of the mainstream union movement, and its many contradictions, that we have today. Just as a nice boss with radical politics doesn’t undermine capitalism at work, so the radical politics of an individual union staffer doesn’t undermine capitalism either. The structural relationships between capitalist labor law, the separation of unions into those who are paid by dues and those who pay dues, and contract clauses that constrain worker action and workplace democracy necessarily inhibit staffs’ ability to effect radical change.
In Part II, I’ll discuss how worker-organizers operate differently than staff organizers and examine what radical unions of the past have done to resist cooptation and build anti-capitalist power rooted in worker control.
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