Evolution to Revolution: Rethinking the Organizing Model


Fifth in the series: On Organizing

The Revolution for US labor is Social Movement Unionism.

The strategic question, as always: how do we get there?

Organizers may detest service unionism but that is the world we are in. Can we organize our way out of the service model?

First, we need to recognize that the social contract culture created over half a century ago is deeply embedded in the minds and methods of many union officials.  The inertia and resistance to change is remarkable given the fact that the corporate and political bosses have given up their end of the bargain long ago and turned instead into labor’s worst enemy.

Despite decades of retreat some of the potentially most powerful unions in the US continue to squander their resources and undermined both their reputation and bargaining power by propping up the political machines of yesteryear.

While meaningful change often occurs gradually it is usually the product of visionary and revolutionary efforts.  Rising expectations shake the status quo, broaden the horizon of the possible and clear the way for fundamental change.  Yet we begin with the sobering reality that our strategy must start where we currently stand.  We should accept good service and efficient bureaucracy as necessary to effective unionism and organizing while we struggle against the political inertia and machine politics that have weakened unions and hurt workers.

Rethinking the Service Unionism/Organizing Model Debate

Rather than replicate the service/organizing duality that has both structured and limited the debate for the last decade perhaps an evolutionary model would allow a better passage toward a more effective union model.

An evolutionary approach, in which characteristics of earlier forms are necessary to and embedded in later forms and serve as references and resources, could move us away from an “Either/Or” choice to entertain the possibility of “Both/And.”  A good union model includes the positive components of all the major species of unions created by the labor movement.

Using the academic labor movement as an example, let me argue that four types of organization: conventional trade unionism, professional unionism, public interest unionism and social movement unionism represent a continuum of union models we can learn from, draw on, and aspire to.

The “Business as Usual” Baseline.

At one end is conventional trade unionism with a social contract culture. The focus is staff delivered service and members are largely consumers or called on during mobilizations that ask them to take fairly easy actions on behalf of decisions made by union officials.  The focus is on the specific workplace and the immediate and material self-interest of existing members. Organizing is devalued and the advice of experts, lobbyists and lawyers holds sway.

Conventional union officials rarely make principled opposition to management and instead seeks “fine-tuning.” They seek “a little more” for workers within the system of managerial power and zero-sum parameters imposed by bosses.  Conventional officials accept tuition increases — as if the students were their only possible source of income.  If pushed by the student movement these “realistic” leaders compromise with the token of “affordability.” Something lost long ago.

The massive ranks of low wage and contingent faculty are also viewed as an inevitable part of the funding formula for top-tier faculty. Once the low wage/high tuition model is accepted, “business as usual” becomes beating an orderly retreat with an eye toward maintaining dues income and budget surpluses for the organization.  If confronted with adjunct activism the conventional response is token leaders and token pay increases.

Much maligned, and often for good reason, the service model was nonetheless proficient at delivering the services and basic representation without which unions would not exist. The creation of professional bureaucratic staff was necessary for the survival of unions in the modern society and professional staff will continue to be indispensable given the size of both unions and corporations. Convention unionism often included a spirited defense of teachers as a special interest group. Many higher education locals go beyond convention unionism and act as professional unions as well.

Professional Unions Professional Ethics

Professional unions have similar characteristics to conventional ones but also act as professional associations that enlarge their purview to include all members of the profession nationally and internationally. Professional unions go beyond narrow self-interest and specific worksites to develop ethical codes and professional standards for the benefit of the whole profession.

Professional unionism includes an educational function that schools it members and does not simply reflect or represent members opinion. Members are expected to live up to ethical codes of conduct.  The leaders of profession unions act like teachers with their own moral compass, not their finger in the wind.

The exploitation of students and low wage faculty and staff can at least be viewed as unethical if not an urgent matter for practical politics.

Professional unionism in higher education is limited however by a belief that academic freedom and shared governance–that is freedom and democracy in the workplace–are unique privileges appropriate only to those that teach and research rather than a standard all working people should aspire to. In the current climate, the exclusivity typical of professional unionism tends to undercut working conditions because its special privileges become easy targets for  “reformers,” corporate-style managers and resentful workers deprived of basic job security or a living wage. Still, the ethical codes of professional unionism are important because they provide a passage beyond narrow self-interest toward issues concerning the common good.

Unions In the Public Interest

There are times when professional unionism shades over into public-interest unionism. Public-interest unionism requires a dramatic enlargement of the discursive and political terrain on which a union is willing to engage. The community being organized extends far beyond a single campus or system.  Arguments about quality teaching and research connect to the interests of students and the larger body politic.

The teachers’ working conditions are recognized as the students’ learning conditions.

Public interest unionism embodies enlightened self-interest and social solidarity and argues that education is essential to well being of the public at large and to democracy.

While not a union itself, the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL) led the way with grassroots resistance against the corporate model of education, linking student welfare to the fate of the faculty. New Faculty Majority and an array of new organizations and organizing drives are moving toward public interest unionism. 

Another  leading example of public-interest unionism is the innovative and important work done by the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education (CFHE).  CFHE bring together leading locals from all unions and provides visionary leadership pulling and pushing more conventional unions in the right direction.

Public interest unionism may begin by highlighting higher educations role in economic development but also introduces ideals such as citizenship into the public debate. Public interest unionism demands a much deeper participation by members who must tap personal contacts and professional expertise. Mobilization efforts are common and involve a high level of activism. Political action goes beyond professional lobbyists to mass lobbying and coalition work with students, alumni, parents, and other unions.

The goal of public interest unionism is to intervene in the public discourse and change public policy. Its success ultimately depends on the creation of a culture of organizing with growing numbers of members involved in direct personal contact with others members and other political actors.

Because Public-interest unionism initiates principled political challenges to management it may move seasoned and committed unions to cross the threshold to social movement unionism and embark on the revolution US labor so badly needs.

Next: Social Movement Unionism



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.
This entry was posted in Movement Culture, Organizing Method, Organizing Strategy, revolutionary strategy, Strategy, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Evolution to Revolution: Rethinking the Organizing Model

  1. VanessaVaile says:

    One of my earliest “adjunct movement” posts was on as an alternative model. Recently, I’ve been collecting links on social justice organizing and social movement unionism as part of series of information/archiving projects. Projects have separate feeds that can be syndicated and subscribed to in feed readers, and html clips or pages with permalinks that update content automatically. I’ll keep you posted.

    Organizing outside the U.S. has always had a stronger social justice component. The combination of globalization and a turn to networked movements is forcing that parochial view to change. This article by Kim Scipes might be of interest, http://digitalcommons.fiu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1046&context=classracecorporatepower

    I’d add the California Part-time Faculty Association (CPFA) to your list of non-union higher education social movement/adjunct labor groups. Although officially part of Colorado AAUP, I would also add Caprice Lawless’ work with the Community Colleges chapter.

    I wish the Ivory Silo™ mindset did not extend to higher ed related organizations but, like the habit of hierarchy, it may be bred into the bone.


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