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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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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Relationship-Based Organizing: An Introduction

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

The most common refrain in organizing is that “it’s all about relationships.” It rings true enough that everyone accepts it on the surface but is vague enough that each person interprets it according to their own beliefs and the needs of the moment. 

Concealed underneath the words of that phrase are distant and often warring conceptions of what organizing actually is. What role do relationships play in organizing? What kind of relationships do we want as we fight alongside each other for a better world? 

Through my own organizing experience in the workplace and developing ideas with fellow organizers, I’ve realized that relationships play a much different role in organizing than is commonly thought, than is discussed in organizing books and articles, and than is taught in organizing trainings. The role of relationships in most organizing approaches is often instrumentalized in a way that contrasts sharply with what I now see as strong grassroots organizing.

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