The Contradictions of Paid Staff in the Union Movement, Part II

[This article was originally written for the Industrial Worker and is part of my series on relationship-based organizing.]

Staff Organizers vs. Worker Organizers

How staff organizers navigate the contradictions of capitalist unionism, as detailed in Part I, informs how they differ from and interact with worker organizers.

When staff members are sincerely trying to nurture worker power, they build relationships with workers and support them as they navigate organizing in the workplace. However, the relationship between the worker and staffer is inherently supplemental and not the source itself of worker power, as the relationship between the staff and worker isn’t based in the workplace itself. The staff and the worker don’t together take action by withholding their labor or implementing workplace policy through their own control of their collective labor in the workplace. The staff stands outside of the workplace, while workers build and exercise power with each other in the workplace.

Only unions with relatively large memberships can afford paid organizing staff, and thus staff members tend to have a fairly large number of members that they are tasked with organizing. The relationship between staff and workers is one united around shared political goals of what they think is best for the union, but rarely do staff have the capacity to form meaningful relationships with rank-and-file outside of their political relationship. In contrast, worker-organizers spend thousands of hours each year with their coworkers and can come to know them more as whole people. The stronger relationships worker-organizers have with their coworkers makes for a stronger foundation from which to take collective action.

Staff organizers and worker organizers develop different skill sets based on their economic position and daily tasks. While I don’t want to draw out too sharp a line between the two different skill sets, some generalization is informative.

Staff often spend more time around union leadership and other staff with specialized knowledge, like union lawyers, researchers, or lobbyists. Such specialized knowledge often deals with contract language, labor law, social media strategy, industry trends and patterns, and the dynamics of local politics. However, if your vision of worker power is based more in workplace relationships than specialized knowledge, not having such knowledge isn’t much of a disadvantage for worker organizers. Worker organizers tend to have much more experience of and knowledge of actual working conditions in the workplace, which better informs their organizing in the workplace with coworkers.

Staff organizers and worker organizers often do similar kinds of tasks, like having one-on-one conversations or facilitating meetings, but their position inflects how they relate to these tasks. Staff organizers often are more skilled in those areas that relate to common tasks of staff. Such skills include managing large membership lists, leading teams of people to call and survey members or canvass for politicians, rattling off press releases, creating rap sheets, and so on. Worker organizers on the other hand are more adept at relating to coworkers on the job and getting to know them as whole people. They navigate power dynamics in the workplace, and leverage those dynamics to create and execute direct action on the shop floor. 

Most of the best organizers I know are worker organizers, and they’re certainly the ones whose instincts I trust more and whose politics I’m closer to. If your theory of worker power is based in coworker relationships, the typical skill sets of worker organizers are more effective in building strong unions.

How Worker Organizers Relate to Staff

Being that the mainstream unions we have are dependent on staff, worker organizers have to decide on a case-by-case basis whether it’s helpful to interact with them or not. Even if you agree with the arguments in this post about how staff-based unions aren’t ideal, sometimes a staff will have knowledge or experience or will be able to provide support in a way that helps you organize. So in the short-term, I find myself relating to staff in this way, taking what is helpful but otherwise going my own way. 

In the long term, I relate to my coworkers and organizer friends in such a way that we build the networks of experience, skills, and knowledge we need amongst ourselves instead of externalizing those resources in paid staff. For those with a grassroots theory of worker power, there’s no skills or special position that organizing staff have that worker organizers can’t develop on their own. When groups of worker organizers come together and start building their skills, developing knowledge, and gaining experience, they directly manifest worker power instead of indirectly supporting it the way staff organizers do.

If you and your coworkers are successful at building your own base of organizing experience and workplace power, your union leadership and staff will try to integrate you within the structures and staff set-up of the mainstream union. They’ll try to persuade you that you have the same overall objectives and can work together. They’ll try to recruit you for formal and informal union positions. And some of these might be worth doing, but on the whole, I think you’ll be better served by continuing to direct your organizing towards your coworkers in the workplace than being subsumed within staff-led structures.

Unions without Organizing Staff

Capitalism is full of its own internal contradictions (workers vs. bosses and capitalists), which unavoidably bleed into the labor movement (rank-and-file vs. union staff and leaders). Trying to organize against capitalism means you will have to face these contradictions and challenges in one way or another, but unionists have real options as to how to relate to these contradictions. Working within capitalist unions as staff is full of all the problems noted above. But being a worker organizer outside of capitalist unions and trying to build your own anti-capitalist unions within the larger capitalist economy means just choosing a different set of challenges and contradictions. Workers are full of all sorts of contradictions, including the fact that some workers find it easier to just submit to capitalism and try to get as much as they can within the system rather than to try to organize through unions to change it.

But on the whole, I find the long-term path of building worker power outside of capitalist unions and without organizing staff preferable. I am much more comfortable with and hopeful about the capacity of my coworkers to overcome the contradictions of capitalism through their own agency than I am about the capacity of paid staff to overcome their own contradictions and meaningfully aid the growth of radical unionism.

One thing about staff that seems appealing is that they’re just kind of there anyway, so why not make use of them? Every time you talk to staff, it may feel free, but in reality you’re paying some chunk of change out of your paycheck in the form of union dues. For those who see worker organizing as preferable to staff organizing, money that currently goes to staff could instead just go into workers’ pockets and thus give them more resources with which to support their own organizing.

Conversely, on the economics of paid staff from the staff side, staff are only directed to those organizing activities that advance the interests of and maintain the economic priorities of the union. Unions have to care as much about their income and expenses as any other organization, and their economic reality shapes how they use their resources and how they direct their staff. One of the reasons low-wage workers have such low unionization rates is because they don’t make enough money to be able to support the dues necessary to pay for mainstream unions that are dependent on staff. Even though low-wage workers are among those who would benefit most from unions, many unions make the economically prudent decision not to organize low-wage workers because they know it will strain or even break their finances.

Most of my arguments against union staff are directed at full-time and permanent staff organizers. However, I’m more sympathetic to other kinds of staff in unions. I think paying for administrators to do the purely technical work of managing membership lists and bank accounts can often be more desirable than members doing that work themselves. I think paying workers to take leave for temporary assignments in assisting organizing drives can be worthwhile, especially when they return to the workplace after the assignment and don’t become institutionalized as a layer of union professionals permanently separated from the rank-and-file. 

Historical Examples of Grassroots Unionism

One reason that the idea of staff is so normalized is because the history of unions we know is the sanitized, mainstream history. In actuality, many of the most militant worker struggles were won with little or no direction or involvement from professional union staff. 

As Toni Gilpin notes in her book The Long Deep Grudge, as workers organized towards what became the Farm Equipment Workers Union (FE) in the late 1930s and early 40s they placed their “reliance in the organizing campaign on volunteer organizers from within the plants, rather than on salaried organizers.” The corporation they organized against, International Harvester, was at the time one of the largest and most anti-union in the country, but worker organizers were ultimately successful in laying the foundation that unionized most of the company.

Them and Us, by James Matles and James Higgins, is about the building of the United Electrical Workers (UE). It notes how early on in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when organizing conditions were most hostile and before any encouraging labor legislation had been passed, “volunteer organizers” had “established skeleton crews [i.e., organizing committees] in dozens of shops in the machine, metal working, and electrical industry.” As organizing conditions improved in the next couple years, the organizing presence bloomed into “a leadership corps [of worker organizers] in hundreds of shops…. They were on the inside.” 

The early days of what became the United Auto Workers (UAW) was built up by rank-and-file radicals, mostly members of the Communist Party (CP), as narrated in Roger Keeran’s The Communist Party and the Auto Workers’ Unions. In 1928 the CP had “fifteen nuclei [i.e. organizing committees] containing 210 members operat[ing] in the ‘most important automobile plants in Detroit.’” The number of rank-and-file Communists involved in organizing in the plants would fluctuate wildly with the layoffs of the Great Depression and the subsequent upsurges in militancy and strikes, but they remained the central players in the primary episodes of organizing activity.

It would be an exaggeration to claim that all of these militant and radical unions of the 1930s were built only through the efforts of worker organizers and entirely without staff. However, especially early in these particular unions’ histories before they had the resources to pay for staff but also when the organizing was most difficult, they relied mostly on rank-and-file organizers. After resources for staff were forthcoming in the mid- and late-1930s, many worker organizers got staff jobs to continue organizing.

However, I would question whether the later addition of staff to these campaigns and unions strengthened the movement overall or just changed it. If instead of coming to rely increasingly on staff to organize campaigns they had instead built out union structures based on replicating and expanding the use of worker organizers who mostly stayed on the job, I think the movement would have been no less powerful. As mentioned above, the purging of leftists from the staff and elected positions of unions in the late 1940s and 1950s certainly revealed one glaring weakness of depending on radical staff for long-term power.

Other examples illuminate that it’s not just the early stages of a union drive or campaign that can be carried out successfully without staff. The International Longshoremen’s Association on the West Coast in the mid-1930s was another of the strongest unions of the era. Look carefully at this account, in Bruce Nelson’s Workers on the Waterfront, of the union’s power and control in the workplace for the role staff played:

The key link between the leadership group around Bridges and the militant rank and file was the tightly organized system of gang and dock stewards who coordinated the activity of the men. According to employers, this brought about a virtual revolution in the locus of effective power on the waterfront. Gregory Harrison complained that because of the steward system, ‘authority to direct work upon the docks passed from the hands of the foremen into the hands of dock and gang stewards. The dock and gang stewards are appointed by the Union. They have an organization of their own. They meet regularly; they adopt rules; they establish the manner in which, and the speed at which, work is to be performed on the waterfronts of the Pacific Coast.’

The role of staff is conspicuously absent, and rather the network of stewards and their direct connection to their elected leadership provides the base of power that the workers exercised.

In many rank-and-file-oriented unions, steward systems are used as an organizational structure in place of what many more mainstream unions depend on staff to do. Stewards remain in their role as workers on the job and occasionally have some paid time each week to attend to union duties. At their best, the stewards maintain their identity and function as worker organizers, and rank-and-file unions then create structures that facilitate much of the running of the union through these roles. This is in contrast to more mainstream and staff-driven unions where the steward role often becomes merely an extension of a more bureaucratic and top-down style of unionism.

Another instance of such a grassroots steward system is given by Coordinadora, a 13,000-member union of dockworkers in Spain in the 1970s and 1980s, which began as a more informal network of radicals in the decades before Spain’s Fascist leader Francisco Franco died in 1975. Once it established itself more formally, the union was run entirely from the bottom up by a dense network of stewards. American dock worker and worker organizer Stan Weir documented how Coordinadora stewards “must work on the waterfront at least three-quarter time. Twenty-five percent of time off, with pay, is allowed them, providing there are complaints to handle.” Coordinadora had no full-time paid staff and was operated entirely by workers and stewards who remained in the workplace.

I previously noted the role of labor law and no-strike and management rights clauses in binding staff to capitalist unionism. In each of these historical examples where staff were deprioritized in organizing, mainstream labor law and restrictive contract clauses also played marginal roles. The contracts of the UAW, ILA, FE, and UE in this period all contained clauses that enabled workers to strike during the life of the contract itself to contest management policies, and this is in stark contrast to the expansive no-strike clauses that are nearly universal today. Throughout most of its history, the anti-capitalist union the Industrial Workers of the World has prohibited signing contracts with no-strike clauses and has been much less dependent on permanent full-time organizing staff.

It is not surprising that these unions were built and maintained by radical workers and I think this should lead radical unionists of today to think less about channeling their politics into mainstream union staff jobs and more into figuring out what organizational principles and structures would best build a radical workers movement. We’re not the first generation of labor organizers to confront the question of staff, and rather our predecessors help expand our imagination for what rank-and-file-driven unions are capable of and what’s possible today.


Leftists and liberals alike are told all their lives that unions are good. I’d read insightful critiques of unions and their limitations and contradictions, but those were generally drowned out by all the positive and uncritical news coverage of unions that I’d become accustomed to. Then I saw these contradictions up close and stopped implicitly making excuses for and lazily justifying the way staff-driven mainstream unions operate. I started to realize how inherently bound up they are in the capitalist system, and how while in this or that episode they may be helpful or not, on the whole they will act in their own interests and maintain the status quo.

So, as that recent union report recommended, are 20,000 more staff organizers the answer? Hardly. Such an infusion of staffing would probably lead to some immediate wins and growth in unions, but over the long-term I think any number of less desirable outcomes are likely. A growth in union membership without any fundamental change in unions themselves will just mean a strengthening of the capitalist orientation of unions. The more unions use staff, the more dependent unions become on them, and the less agency is built up at the grassroots level of workers themselves. The less agency workers have, the more unions become tools to advance the interests of the layer of staff and leaders who are paid by dues rather than those who pay dues themselves.

I think there’s a reason popular leftist slogans emphasize the masses instead of a vanguard or a professionalized layer of self-described revolutionaries, vis-à-vis “self-emancipation of the working class,” “power to the people,” or “you are the union.” The wording of these phrases aren’t meant to be merely shorthand or naive utopian idealism or wistful metaphor but express the literal meaning of a revolutionary politics that believes in the capacity of masses of people to confront and transform their reality.

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