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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Building Relationships with Coworkers Is the Precondition to All Good Organizing

[This piece belongs to both my blog post series on 1-on-1 organizing conversations and my blog post series on relationship-based organizing.]

There’s one main mistake people make when they start organizing their workplaces that’s responsible for more stumbles, setbacks, and losses than any other: they don’t really get to know people before they try to take direct action with them.

If people don’t know each other, how can they be expected to take risks together, especially when breaches of trust can put everyone in danger? Some coworkers get cold feet, those who are on the fence never really get involved, and those who appear most committed fall off or burn out.

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Educate and the 1-on-1

[This post is part of a series on 1-on-1 organizing conversations. If not familiar, please read the intro post as it describes the basic definition of “educate” and how it fits into AEIOU (agitate-educate-inoculate-organize-uplift), which the writing below builds on.]


If you want to solve a problem in your workplace that you’ve discussed in the agitate step of AEIOU, you need a plan. The educate step of AEIOU is about how to make a plan in talking with a coworker.

Sometimes my writings on this blog are meant to be succinct and hit home a point in a punchy way. Sometimes my writings, as in this post, are messier and more tedious as I wrestle with problems that I haven’t mastered yet, and I want to get my hands dirty.

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