Mostafa Meraji, Vakil Mosque in Shariz, Iran. Big faded brick pillars recede into a dark open hall with an ornately blue and yellow-tiled arching ceiling.

Relationship-Based Organizing with Thorny Coworkers

[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. 

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Notes on Social Relationships in Workplace Organizing

[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. 

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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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