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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Solidarity Unionism and Dual Carding: A Primer

[This piece was originally written for Regeneration Magazine.]

There’s a dissonance at the heart of the labor movement. On the one hand, contemporary labor unions were built on the back of militant worker struggle. For example, the massive strikes of the 1930s built the backbone of the present-day AFL-CIO. Any particular long-standing union, if you go far enough back in its history, you’ll find strikes that made the union. On the other hand, the labor movement of the present has been in retreat for decades, in large part aided by the passivity and cowardice of union officials and staff who have preferred to make concessionary deals and shy away from direct confrontation.

This dissonance expresses itself most when workers in a unionized workplace want to fight for better treatment and pay but the union leadership itself is either urging compromise with employers or is just ignoring the workers altogether. What are workers in these settings supposed to do? Some fellow workers and organizers of mine have developed the idea of a spectrum of organizing models for how to relate to your mainstream union, which I’m borrowing and putting my own spin on here.

With left groups on the rise across the country, there’s a hunger for ideas about how to relate our new formations to existing ones. While the dichotomy of working within the system versus working outside of it is a helpful starting point, as an ending point it erases an array of strategic options that fall in between. With the assumed goal of doing grassroots, action-oriented workplace organizing, this piece draws out a range of organizing models of how to relate to mainstream unions and factors that might help you choose between them. This article will provide information to help choose the organizing model that best facilitates the kind of workplace organizing given the particular conditions.

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