[This post is part of a series on relationship-based organizing.]
Despite an increase in buzz and news stories about labor organizing in recent years, actual union membership in the US is continuing its long decline. The most recent statistics show a 10.1% union density in 2022, the lowest on record.
All of the respectable ideas for fixing this problem have been tried and failed. On the fringes of the official labor movement is an idea that doesn’t get much airtime but might have the ingredients of an effective solution: To save the labor movement we have to abandon the Union movement.
I capitalize the U in union deliberately to designate the form of union that has become historically dominant in the US. Such Unions include all of the big-name ones in the AFL-CIO and all of the other prominent unions in the US today. Such Unions have two distinguishing features. First, they contain no-strike clauses that prohibit workers from withholding their labor for the duration of the union contract. Second, they contain management rights clauses that take away union voice and influence from workers over job conditions and that declare management alone has the “right to manage” the workplace. Together, these Union clauses amount to telling workers to shut up and get back to work, something workers now hear as much from their Union reps as from their bosses.
Two worker radicals and writers who posed a different vision of unionism were Stan Weir and Martin Glaberman, authors of, respectively, Singlejack Solidarity (2004) and Punching Out & Other Writings (2002) (out of print and expensive to buy used, but downloadable as a pdf). Both books are collections of the authors’ shorter writings and were published shortly after their authors’ deaths.
[This post is part of my series on relationship-based organizing. If you are new to my blog, I recommend checking out earlier entries in this series first.]
Relationship-based organizing (RBO) is a method of union organizing that centers building social relationships with coworkers. Everyone likes social relations, especially in our hyper-isolating and individualizing and anti-social capitalist society, so RBO is just puppy dogs, lollipops, and rainbows all of the time, right?
Of course not. One of the first things that goes through new organizers’ minds when they think about how to talk to their coworkers and build relationships is the question of those coworkers that aren’t easy to talk to or build relationships with. I’ll call them “thorny coworkers.” Like your biological family or your neighbors, you usually don’t have much control over who your coworkers are and you have to find some way to live with what you got. The first temptation upon realizing this is to think that maybe the organizing can just leave the thorny coworkers out of it. Depending on the grievances and social dynamics of any particular moment, this might be an entirely plausible strategy.
However, as a general approach to organizing your coworkers, leaving the thorny coworkers out of your organizing entirely will likely backfire or severely restrict what you can win. Every coworker you exclude from organizing is another coworker who becomes easy pickings for the boss to turn against you. Every once and a while, you might be at a workplace where just one or two coworkers are thorny and ignoring them doesn’t really create any problems.
[This post is part of my series on relationship-based organizing.]
Unions and organizing are complex things with many parts, dimensions, and dynamics. Major theories of unionism each try to build a worldview that organizes how these concepts fit together in a coherent way and that advances a particular set of union practices. The main theories on left union theory and strategy today include those of Jane McAlevey, Joe Burns, Kim Moody and Labor Notes, and reform caucus unionism. Other left unionisms, dominant at different points in US history but less prominent today, include syndicalism as practiced by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and permeationism as practiced by Marxist-Leninist organizations. These theories are not static nor mutually exclusive, as they often overlap in important aspects, get mixed and matched in practice, and evolve over time.
Different unionisms will tend to weight the importance of the different aspects of unionism differently. Many unionisms tend to highlight one or two parts that are the most central, around which every other part is organized around to support and tie together. While each form of unionism is nuanced and complex, a useful way to survey the landscape of left unionisms is by showing what each one locates as its central concepts. I briefly draw out some of the main features of these union theories as well as some of the critiques of them.
[This post is part of a series on relationship-based organizing.]
Everyone can organize, and everyone’s organizing will be stronger if they drop some popular images of organizing they have in their head. This image often singles one person out as separate from the community they belong to, which already is a mistake. The prototypical organizer in the activist imagination is a charismatic personality, a forceful public speaker, overflowing with confidence, capable of acts of bravery and intensity, spends all of their time glued to pursuing their political vision, and who we all look at with awe. If you have some of these traits, maybe they’ll be helpful for you. At the same time, I think the polar opposite traits are equally effective at organizing if we properly understand what organizing is about.
Union organizing is often portrayed, in popular media as well as union training materials, as really flashy. It occasionally is, but when it’s not flashy newer organizers often feel confused or get stuck trying to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing. Parts of this post are really basic, but in being clear with the simple and basic stuff hopefully we can find better ways to talk to new organizers about what organizing is all about.
I hope to show that the things that make a workplace organizer good are things that everyone already has inside them, which is the ability to relate to others. Sure, it’s something everyone can get better at and do with a certain kind of intention, but the most fundamental and important skill of organizing is just building relationships with those around you.
In my own development as an organizer and in talking with others, I’ve come to realize that the role relationships play in organizing is often different than how that role is talked about. In the intro post on relationship-based organizing, I criticized how relationships are so often instrumentalized in organizing, with the organizer using others for political goals. In this post I want to discuss more broadly the many ways that building relationships is the foundation of strong organizing.
[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.