The Union Triad: Organize!


Many Americans, including many radicals, think that the US has no revolutionary tradition to call its own.  To them I say: Grace Lee Boggs!

Second in the series on the Union Triad


Since the 19th century unionists have been exhorted to “Organize the Unorganized!”  Organizing has been a distinctive and essential element of union culture. Despite the advent and usefulness of modern communications technology the core activity of organizers remains largely unchanged. Organizers build relationships to help people unionize new shops or increase membership where unions already exist. Organizers put people in touch with each other and work with new members to encourage their involvement and exercise their leadership skills.

With desire and a little training nearly everyone can become an effective organizer since it depends primarily on existing relationships and listening skills. A good member-organizer does not have to sign-up hundreds just handfuls. Organizing tends to promote union democracy, group solidarity, and participation in the life of the union.

The primary work of organizing is face-to-face.  Personal outreach raises consciousness and empowers individuals by creating effective local organization. The many forms of outreach — recognition campaigns, tabling, one-on-one visits, small group meetings, phone banking, educational events, petition drives — are based on personal contact and encourage personal relationships. Organizing uses existing friendship groups, social networks and neighborhood ties as conduits for political consciousness and activism.

Organizing works to undermine the persistent “othering” that makes unions appear as strange or threatening and distances them from members and would-be members. Keep in mind that the vast majority of people in the US have had no direct contact with unions and draw their impressions from media and mythology. When organizers initiate face-to-face contact, act with compassion, and willingly accept criticism as necessary for the union’s development, they help to overcome these barriers by putting a human face on the union.

Organizing is also an educational process through which union leaders and staff learn from members and prospective members. It’s a productive way of discovering new perspectives, new issues, and getting a better grasp on the state of everyday popular consciousness. Organizing works as a regular reality check that tempers wild idealism, curbs disembodied radicalism, or may push a lethargic and conservative leadership to catch up with its members.

Unlike the executive, organizers tend to assume not power but powerlessness on the part of the individuals and organization. Power emanates not from existing institutional arrangements but in upsetting those relations by bringing large numbers of new actors, bearing new ideas, on the scene. Organizers tend to discount the power of individuals acting alone, or of logic, facts, or reasoned argument alone. Empowerment is a product of a growing and engaged membership acting collectively around issues that members define as important in ways they choose as useful.

While organizers are certainly drawn toward conflict and confrontation to solve problems, organizers can adopt collegial, cooperative or partnership approaches when those are demanded by the experience and temperament of the members or when the rare enlightened employer allow.

Organizers tend to see those in power as resistant to any demand for improvement or justice that would undermine their power regardless of how reasonable or productive such changes might be. Organizers often assume that partnerships can only be authentic where a rough parity in power exists between the unions and employers. If the asymmetries in power between union and employer are too great partnership becomes paternalism or just another command-and-control technique.

Another distinctive feature of organizing culture can be seen in the emphasis organizers place on members and potential members in the arena of political action. It is the organizers first priority to promote and nurture leadership and cement the solidarity of members and others. That means the community is the primary audience for tactics and programs and only secondarily the employers or holders of power.  First raise the army, then go on the offensive.

It also means organizers must yield, at least provisionally, their own goals, vision and understanding of politics to that of their constituency. Still, organizers aim to raise consciousness. But they do it best, as a good teacher might, from a position just ahead of their constituency’s current understanding. A good organizer is always one step ahead of the members — always one but only one.

Organizing can ring hollow if it is devoid of political principles or a vision of community and democracy. Conventional organizing all too often devolves into simple-minded salesmanship that is concerned only with head counts and dues income. Organizers can easily become crudely pragmatic by using whatever pitch work for the moment, cutting deals with employers, or promising unrealistic results to show short-term progress on the numbers.

At worst, organizing can slip into manipulation by the organizer that shortcuts worker activism and encourages cynicism and withdrawal by the members. More typically, organizers simply burn out, get promoted to managerial positions in the union, or get distracted. In an environment driven by service needs, organizers have a hard time resisting the continual demands that they abandon their slow, long-term projects and take on the seemingly more urgent servicing of existing members.

Given the current state of the labor movement, organizing is unquestionably the most pressing task for the foreseeable future. At present, too few organizers face a large demobilized and demoralized work force to make large-scale organizing successful. Despite the passive appearance of the unorganized, the need runs deep for freedom and democracy in the workplace and for working conditions that lead to decent lives and quality work.

It is important to remember that organizing is not a subculture unto itself but part of a larger body of knowledge and action that includes representation and community building. If unions can represent a growing and engaged membership, show victories or conduct praiseworthy struggles, then a new sense of community may emerge.

Next: Community Building


About Richard Moser

Richard Moser has over 40 years experience as an organizer and activist in the labor, student, peace, and community movements. Moser is the author of "New Winter Soldiers: GI and Veteran Dissent During the Vietnam Era," and co-editor with Van Gosse of "The World the Sixties Made: Politics and Culture in Recent America." Moser lives in Colorado.
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