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

[This post is part of my series on relationship-based organizing. See also Parts I and II.]

A few years ago I was solicited to apply for a staff job in the union I’m a member of and was told that if I applied I’d likely get it. On the one hand, this was a bit of an ego boost to know that I was respected enough for my organizing to get this kind of invitation. Without the job title and the status of being a “professional” organizer that comes with being paid for it, society views your efforts as less serious and merely recreational.

I also knew that if I got the organizer job that my annual income would nearly double. That certainly was appealing in some ways, but it’s not what my politics and beliefs suggested was the best way to build the union movement and create the wider social change that I sought. Being in a position where I didn’t have large financial obligations like lots of debt or needing to be a breadwinner for a family, I could turn down such a salary and stay true to my vision of change. 

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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.

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

[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. 

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The Contested Politics of Racial Capitalism in Táíwò and Kendi

(Táíwò photo credit to Jared Rodriguez. Kendi photo credit to Stephen Voss.)

With the recent publication of his book Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else), Olúfẹmi O. Táíwò is becoming a leading thinker of the theory of racial capitalism. Since the publication of his two best-selling and award winning books, Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi has become the most prominent thinker on race in the US today. Kendi has also recently adopted the concept of racial capitalism to frame his social analysis.

Táíwò and Kendi share a commitment to careful investigation of the dynamics and interrelations of race and class, but in other ways they have sharply contrasting and even opposing politics. Not for the sake of labeling theorists as good and bad nor for trying to draw sharp lines around who belongs in contested political spaces, but for the sake of clearly defining political positions that shape efforts towards liberation, the contours of these contrasting and opposing politics are worth inquiring into.

The hotly debated tradition of racial capitalism theory and the renewed attention to race and class in contemporary social movements provide ample impetus for undertaking an investigative journey through the class politics of Táíwò and Kendi. Táíwò provides analytical tools for discerning the kind of class divides that Kendi tries to harmonize. Táíwò also happens to discuss many of the same historical figures that Kendi does, which enables an ideal opportunity to clearly compare and contrast their diverging class analyses. After briefly reviewing Táíwò’s book and then situating Táíwò’s class politics within the current political landscape, I use his work to pivot towards Kendi and then launch into a textual analysis of Kendi’s class politics.

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Sun People, Moon Spaces, and the Source of Grassroots Power

[This post is part of a series on relationship-based organizing.]

[The featured image shows the Taft Bridge in Washington, D.C. Photo credit to Matt Blaze.]

Artist and organizer Ricardo Levins Morales speaks of sun spaces and moon spaces to explain how power is generated in some spaces but is merely derivative or reflected in others (in pamphlet form here, in a video here). I first heard about the concept when a fellow worker and organizer created a workshop of these ideas and brought them to a picket line where we were both on strike. I’ll apply his brilliant metaphor to relationship-based organizing and develop it in some other directions as well. 

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