The Union Triad: Representation, Organizing and Community Building*
Organizers need to understand the different components labor activism and their linkage to the culture and character of our movement. We are accustomed to finding the source of cultural differences in the ethnic, racial, gender, sexual, regional or class origin of people, organizations and institutions.
With unions, we also attribute much to the specific occupations, workplaces and communities from which unions arise. More recently “service unionism” and the “organizing model” have been discussed as ideal types to explain how the historic decline in union membership is linked to organizational priorities. While all this remains true, much of the labor movement’s culture and character flows from the actual work done by unions.
Like other social movement organizations, unions pursue multiple agendas and employ various means to reach their goals. Successful unions represent their members and non-member constituencies, organize to engage new members, develop new leaders and build social networks both inside and beyond the workplace. These three domains of activity–representation, organizing, and community building–produce a wide cast of characters, various work methods and styles, and a complicated, contradictory and conflicted organizational culture.
Representation is the most visible and prominent type of union work. Representation covers a range of activities that confronts or engages employers and legislators in an attempt to gain concessions and victories.
Representation gets the lion’s share of resources and is what most people have come to understand as the totality of union activity: negotiating and enforcing contracts, settling grievances, influencing electoral campaigns, filing lawsuits, enforcing legal and safety regulations and, more rarely but more notoriously, leading demonstrations, strikes and job actions.
Representation often demands and certainly encourages command or executive leadership. The executive — usually an elected official or staff director — maps out directions carried out by a structured and efficient political machine consisting of members and staff. Exemplary political leaders are ambitious, articulate and decisive, even charismatic, and have wide contacts and connections. Ideally, these leaders pay close attention to balancing union democracy with expediency and flexibility. At their best, executive-style leaders articulate a vision or plan for the organization, resolve internal conflicts, and clarify and recommend priorities for actions or tactics to members and representative bodies within the union.
Leaders in the executive mode usually prefer to achieve goals using an advocacy method and in practice lead unions to act much like other interest groups. Unions customarily identify specific issues that they wish to change in their contract or in law and bring pressure to bear by changing the terms of the debate with new research and analysis and through member or public education using newsletters, websites or other media. Lobbyists, lawyers, or leaders carry the message to the negotiating table, before the appropriate government body, or to the courts. Members and constituents are called on to sign petitions or send targeted letters, emails, or faxes.
The executive or command model assumes the union is an established institution vested with political power and a legitimate part of the existing system society has created to address inequities. The executive is committed to “getting the job done” or “bring home the bacon” and the concern with timely results tends to trump all other issues including organizing, consciousness raising or community building.
Command leaders are prone to certain shortcomings, primarily tending to act with excessive expediency and failing to delegate. When each contract, crisis or issue is seen as crucial or a test of a leader’s ability, then a reasonable response is to rely on the experienced and trusted old guard and put off incorporating new leaders into important committees or work. There is frequently tension between established and emergent leaders, and the competitive nature common to executive-style leaders can inhibit the participation of new members and damage the organization’s long-term health.
When unions operate like this for long, a few people typically become identified as the union itself, and staff or member leaders become a cadre of experts — easily perceived as separate and apart from the members.
At times, strong leaders make a weak people.
Members can abdicate their responsibly as activists and good citizens, and staff can compromise their independent judgments to become mere political operatives. Leaders deeply engaged in power politics often forget that real power at the bargaining table or City Hall is the number of people the union can educate and organize for concerted action. Clever negotiating tactics, insider contacts, secret negotiations, or actions by small numbers of activists, no matter how well executed, have proven insufficient to rebuild the movement or win lasting victories.
Closed-door power politics also invites scheming, especially if democratic debate is limited or uninformed, or the membership is uninvolved. Not only is palace intrigue an affront to democratic sensibilities but, as King Lear warns, can lead to myopia–fatally distracting leaders and staff from more pressing issues and external threats.
More typically, though, the executive model devolves into reactive crisis-management or a passive, narrowly focused casework approach. As working conditions have declined over the last half-century, many unions are overwhelmed with resolving short-term crises and addressing individual problems and complaints. This reinforces an expedient and spontaneous approach to union work, as short-term demands displace strategic planning and vital resources are depleted.
Despite the problems with representation it is, in many ways, the culmination of union activity. The political strength of unions is realized in tangible and public struggles and without achievements and victories the union loses its reasons for being. Representation does not, however, stand on its own, for it has become painfully obvious that the failure to organize has diminished labor’s ability to successfully conduct executive functions and political activities.
*This essay was originally drafted in 1989-90 during a 10 day building takeover while I was a graduate student at Rutgers University. Initially meant to address the student moment it was revised in summer 2005 to focus more tightly on labor. Later that fall while researching material for an internal organizing campaign, I visited the Communication Workers of America (CWA) website and discovered that the CWA had been using the “Union Triangle” as a conceptual tool to explain their union’s activity to members and to promote activism. While notable difference exist between this essay and the CWA’s approach the affinities are also significant. It is gratifying to know that one of the most vital union in the US labor movement has found this a practical and useful approach and it makes me proud to have been a member of the CWA Local 1032 while a staff member at Rutgers AAUP-AFT.