How the “organising model” went global

Submitted by Matthew on 26 March, 2014 - 2:31

On 29 March 2014, Workers’ Liberty, the University of London branch of the Independent Workers’ union of Great Britain (IWGB), Ruskin College UCU, PCS Independent Left, and Lambeth Activists will host the “New Unionism 2014” conference at the University of London Union.

The conference aims to look at historical and contemporary struggles to transform the labour movement to make it capable of fighting for working-class power. Sessions will include a talk on “the fate of the organising model” by US labour movement activist Kim Moody. Kim was a founder of the rank-and-file journal Labor Notes; below, we reprint an abridged version of article by Erik Forman, which appeared in Labor Notes 409 in April 2013. The article discusses the origins and critiques of the “organising model”.

Erik Forman has been active in the Industrial Workers of the World since 2005, working and organising at Starbucks and Jimmy John’s. He is currently compiling a report on union strategies for organising the food service and retail sectors as a Practitioner Fellow at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labour and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. Follow him at @_erikforman on Twitter.

For more information on the New Unionism 2014 conference, see here.


The United States doesn’t export only Big Macs. We also export the trends of our labour movement. Over the last 15 years — as American management practices have cast a pall over the global economy — unions from the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, and Australia have looked to US unions for survival strategies. They came back with “the organising model”

The term was coined in a 1988 AFL-CIO manual called “Numbers that Count,” which drew a distinction between “the servicing model of local union leadership — trying to help people by solving problems for them” and “the organising model — involving members in solutions.” The fact that this was a new idea speaks volumes.

The organising model’s first port of call overseas was Australia.

Union density there had dropped dramatically: from 51% in 1976 to under 25 in 2000. The decline was caused by labour law changes including prohibition of dues check-off, elimination of government-brokered industry-wide contracts, and a ban on closed shops; decline of industrial jobs; privatization of state enterprises; and dramatic growth of a low-wage service sector.

In 1993 the Australian Confederation of Trade Unions sent a delegation to study organising strategies in the US, reasoning that US unions had been the canaries in the mine of the neoliberal experiment a decade earlier. The ACTU established “Organising Works,” modelled on the AFL-CIO’s Organising Institute, in 1994.

Researchers Bob Carter and Rae Cooper have credited Organising Works with graduating more than 300 new organisers who “infiltrated” every union in Australia, bringing with them new techniques and energy.

Some waged vibrant campaigns that developed new activists and brought thousands of new workers into unions. Others ran smack into an entrenched “servicing” culture.

In some public sector unions, budget cuts and layoffs were generating a growing volume of grievances and a shrinking pool of resources to hire organisers. As their professional staffs dwindled and the labour law framework vanished, unions that had relied heavily on both didn’t know how to fight back.

But rather than involve more rank-and-filers in a social movement against austerity, some unions tried to technocratically “manage” change through recruitment quotas imposed on staff organisers, while leaving representation work to volunteer stewards.

Labour scholar Richard Hurd has called this a “tough servicing” approach to building worker self-organisation, but most workers sensed echoes of the “team” rhetoric they got from corporate bosses — where the company makes the cuts, and the workers figure out how to do more work with fewer people.

Adding insult to injury, workers were excluded from decision-making about how their unions would be restructured to focus on external organising. One organiser said, “We say [to members], ‘So we’re giving you all this work to do,’ and it really rings hollow unless they have more power to make decisions.”

There were many approaches to keeping down “overhead” costs for servicing. One national union opted not to encourage workers to organise themselves through a steward system, but instead opened a call centre to process grievances remotely.

The drive to revive labour as a social movement had rapidly descended into debates about how best to manage union staff in servicing and organising roles.

Despite the organising model’s flaws, its next stop was the UK. In the 1980s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared open season on labour. Bosses smashed the epic 1984-85 miners’ strike. Steel mills and factories shut down. Unions took cuts under the “New Realism.” Union membership declined from 53% in 1979 to less than 30% in 1998.

TUC officers tried a number of gimmicks. But glossy, corporate-style re-branding, union mergers, credit card schemes, and discounts on umbrellas (no joke) weren’t enough.

In 1998, the TUC established an Organising Academy, modelled on the Australian and US training centres. Its goal was to “rediscover the ‘social movement’ origins of labour, by redefining the union as a mobilising structure.” The OA also sought to diversify white and male-dominated staffs.

If numbers were all that counted, the OA would be a modest success story. In its first 10 years, it trained a relatively diverse group of 270 new professional organisers, who are credited with the recruitment of more than 50,000 new members. Membership began to stabilise, hovering around 6 million for the past five years.

But numbers aren’t all that count. Researchers Jane Holgate and Melanie Simms reflected in 2008 that reliance on professional organisers had left out rank-and-file activists, minimising the actual change in union culture.

In response to such criticism, the TUC opened an “Activist Academy” in 2009 for “lay activists” (rank-and-filers and shop stewards). Will this be enough to put the movement back in the UK’s very top-down labour movement?

The organising model as practiced by the TUC, according to Holgate and Simms, has been hollowed out, stripped of its political content, and marketed as a value-neutral set of tools for signing up more members, with little to say about how the unions they join are run. In the TUC, partisans of the organising model coexist with conservatives who favour “partnership” with employers — a concept advanced by the Labour Party that often means accepting cuts and layoffs.

The turn toward organising has increased the level of labour activity in the UK, but few would say it has reinvigorated labour as a social movement. The heavy reliance on professional staff and lack of an overall strategy for shifting the balance of forces limit the impact of these campaigns.

Germany’s massive industrial unions have excited the jealousy of trade unionists elsewhere since the days of Walter Reuther — and, until recently, Germany was spared the worst of the neoliberal tide.

The reigning ideology of West German labour relations was “social partnership.” All employees of a large firm could elect a “works council” that would receive company funding, an office, and the right to be consulted over any major changes to production. Unions were an accepted part of the system: the massive DGB (Germany’s primary labour federation) signed sector-wide agreements with employer associations in each industry.

But by the early 2000s, strange new words began to appear in the German lexicon: “outsourcen,” “das Management,” and “Teamsitzung” (team meeting).

A familiar pattern followed: subcontracting, increased temporary and part-time work, privatization of state services, and the rise of a low-wage service sector.

Since 1990, the DGB has lost half its members and union density has declined from 40 to 19%.

DGB leaders, like their overseas counterparts, looked for a survival strategy. A delegation of officers from ver.di (a service workers union like our Service Employees) traveled to the US in 2004 and returned home dedicated to the organising model. In one of the first campaigns to apply the model, ver.di and SEIU took on a joint project to organise security guards in Hamburg in 2007, resulting in a collective agreement with pay increases, and the establishment of works councils in several firms.

As “Das Organising Model” has spread, some of the same criticisms have surfaced in Germany as elsewhere. Many activists point out that the model is controlled from above. Others say the organising model is depoliticized and avoids deep questions about what kind of economy we want.

One activist found that an official union translation of Saul Alinsky’s classic organising manual, Rules for Radicals, had mysteriously left out a section on “democratizing the labour movement,” reinforcing the perception that officials are interested in turning unions into a “social movement” only when it means more members and dues, not when it means flattening out the hierarchies of the unions themselves.

More than 20 years after the AFL-CIO coined the term “organising model,” it is safe to say the model has produced only limited success. While the shift is certainly necessary, it has not been sufficient to revive labour as a social movement.

Everywhere the organising model has taken root, it has met three pointed critiques. First, the reliance on professional staff often reproduces the problems of the service model, as rank-and-filers remain consumers of unions, rather than producers.

Second, the single-minded focus on signing up new members has too often led to partnership agreements with employers who permit unions to organise in exchange for weak contracts.

Third, the model has obscured deeper questions about labour’s vision and strategy. Even as capitalism destroys the planet and throws more people into misery, unions are looking backward to the structures of the New Deal rather than forward to a new world.

In recent months, we’ve seen the pressures of survival forcing unions to adopt organising methods derived from the grassroots tradition in the labour movement—such as striking for demands before a union is even recognised. The prospect of a new militancy emerging with backing from institutional players is exciting. But history has also shown that unless workers are not only empowered on the job but also fully in control of their unions, the rebirth of labour as a social movement will remain elusive.

Those of us who want to transform the workers’ movement and society have to elaborate our own model for labour renewal, from the bottom up.

US unions since 1988

Activists of my generation are too young to remember, but in the first half of the 1980s, the US labour movement lost a fifth of its membership to union-busting, plant closings, outsourcing, deregulation, automation, two recessions, and the growth of the non-union service sector. Union leaders began looking for ways to stop the bleeding.

The AFL-CIO unveiled its answer in 1988: “internal organising.” The goal was to revive a social movement feeling in unions by bringing the mobilizing techniques used in external organising drives into existing bargaining units. Activists, who had seen US unions ossify into bureaucratic dinosaurs, welcomed the focus on rank-and-file participation. The manual, “Numbers that Count,” rapidly became one of the AFL-CIO’s most-requested publications.

At the same time, AFL-CIO leaders began to push for affiliated unions to organise the unorganised. In 1989 they established an Organising Institute to train members and staffs in the craft.

However, the connection between these two forms of “organising” — building more participatory locals and recruiting new members — remained murky.

Union density hit a new low of 14.9% in 1995, convincing many that these steps were not enough. The New Voice slate led by the Service Employees’ (SEIU) John Sweeney ran on an “organising” platform and won leadership of the AFL-CIO.

The new officers increased the Institute’s budget and released a blueprint titled “Organising for Change, Changing to Organise.” They called on affiliates to throw more staff, money (30% of their budgets), planning, and member activity into organising new shops.

If the US labour movement briefly seemed united behind organising, it didn’t last long. Many officers thought 30% was too much money. Some saw the new agenda as the AFL-CIO meddling in their internal politics. The shift of resources away from “servicing” members created tensions among officers, staffs, and members — between those energized by the prospect of expanding labour’s ranks and those who wanted to focus on enforcing contracts in existing locals.

Despite these contradictions, most unions got on board with the new agenda, at least on paper, but another split began to emerge over how to do external organising. “Movement builders” favoured a rank-and-file approach, where union members volunteered or got paid lost time to help non-union workers organise, or where volunteers took jobs in non-union shops to organise them from inside (called “salting”). “Capacity builders,” on the other hand, placed campaigns in the hands of professional organisers, who would fly in for house-visit “blitzes.” This debate continues today.

Even as the organising model was beginning to disintegrate, Sweeney announced in 2000 that AFL-CIO affiliates would organise a million new members per year. Few unions hit the numbers they committed to, but the pressure to meet numerical goals encouraged them to pick soft targets, often far removed from their traditional industries.

By the early 2000s, the continued pressures of declining membership had thoroughly cracked the previous consensus around organising. Unions whose leaders still wanted to reallocate greater resources to organising formed a coalition of the willing called “Change to Win”— including SEIU, UNITE HERE, Carpenters, Teamsters, Food and Commercial Workers, and the Labourers — and left the AFL-CIO, touching off a new spate of rivalries.

But membership kept dropping. Today, aside from a few bright spots, the US labour movement is shrinking and largely ineffective at winning gains from employers. Why did unions in other countries want to emulate it?

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