Organizing, yes, but for what? Network member, author, organizer, activist, and historian  Richard Moser presents an intriguing summary of the current state of work and unionism in the U.S.. He argues that unions have tended towards an organizational culture which is resistant to change and unaccustomed to democracy. He traces the evolution of this process, mapping it against changes in work and society. Unions must develop a culture of organizing if they are to renew their influence and reconnect with their members. He then presents some recommendations on organizing, exploring the contradictory but creative tensions that animate union activity. These are the challenges faced by those who want to put the movement back into labor.

Part I

Organizing and the Fate of the US Labor Movement

Richard Moser

It’s all about organizing and that’s good news.  Good news because it’s in our hands.  Good news because if we attend to the core mission of organizing we can become the authors of a new labor history—and it is a far, far better thing to be the author of your own world than a critic of the existing one. There are good reasons to believe that we can develop the capacity for renewal if we tap sources now nearly forgotten or largely unknown: the traditions of organizing and the transformative potential organizing still holds for the labor movement. Opportunity knocks, but, even the best of opportunities must be taken.[i]

Organizing should be our top priority.  Why?  It is our most achievable major goal and fundamental to labor’s entire mission.

Of all the most important reasons for US labor’s stagnation—job loss and capital flight associated with globalization, aggressive resistance from employers, a hostile government and legal system, long-term demographic changes—we have the greatest  control over the activity, character, and direction of our organizations.[ii]

Barack Obama’s unlikely presidential campaign displayed the power of organizing for anyone wishing to see it.  His organization ran a strong face-to-face campaign on the ground that ceded no political terrain to his opponents.  Obama created a distinctive narrative that was not merely a subtext of his opposition’s platform.  His rhetorical strategy went beyond mere criticism of the existing order to propose a positive vision for change that tapped into the hopes and aspirations of a new public created by the social movements of the mid 20th century.[iii] We should learn this too.

In true organizer fashion, we need to rebuild starting with the means at our disposal: ourselves, our unions, coalitions and associations, and our communities. It is unlikely that we can restore the labor’s health, without a movement capable of refreshing itself with the ideas and energy of millions of members and millions of new members and supporters.

Why then hasn’t organizing taken hold? Why have only a handful of unions dedicating significant resources to organizing?  Why can’t we manage to spend 10% let alone 30% of our resources to organizing work? How is it, after almost a decade of training efforts, national programs, and hard work in the trenches can sympathetic and trusted observers declare organizing a failure?[iv]

To begin with, we don’t embrace organizing because that would force us into an uncomfortable confrontation with ourselves and our true place in the world. Yet we have no choice but to start from where we stand.

Beginning from our day-to-day organizing experience we learn that workers in the U.S. tend to be insecure, fearful, and often skeptical about unions and collective activity generally.  While ideological opposition to unionism does exist, workers are more commonly doubtful about activism or forming unions due the failure of the labor movement to live up to its potential.  Withdrawal and passivity are understandable responses to unions that are not effective or democratic just as fear and cautiousness are reasonable responses to the authoritarian and arbitrary world of work. Organizing forces us to hear criticism, face up to shortcomings, and recognize that, as workers, we have limited power and freedom.

Despite our vaunted civic values and freedoms, despite the size, wealth and aspirations of our unions, Americans are the least free people, at work, of any in the democratic world. The historic exemption of the workplace from the Bill of Rights, the enduring legacy of slavery on all forms of labor, the extraordinary political and economic success and creativity of capitalism, the absence of an effective opposition party, and many other factors has resulted in an “at will” employment regime that leaves workers exposed and feeling so.

The current legal and political environment actually encourages employers to break the law, suppress union activity and workplace democracy. Labor’s plight is a measure of the health of our democracy and we are not well. Yet, research and experience suggests that millions of workers would get active in some way including joining unions if a good opportunity arose and we know that people the world over want a voice in determining their own lives. How can we fix our movement and begin to create a more democratic workplace, economy, and labor movement?

The best heard voices for reform—those associated with a series of dissident coalitions that eventually split the AFL-CIO in 2005 and regrouped as “Change to Win” —claim that the fault lies in the organizational structure of the labor movement.[v] The “Restoring the American Dream Proposal” made growth the central goal of the movement and proposes to dedicate plentiful resources to the job. But, while the renewed focus on membership is an important starting point, the structural reorganization proposed does not adequately address the causes of the problem.

The root causes of labor’s decline are much deeper and are to be found, I believe, in the culture of our unions–a culture that has changed little since the late 1940’s.[vi] To understand our problems we must look beyond questions of structure, strategy, resources, mergers and acquisitions, and jurisdictional disputes, as important as they are, to the ways in which the labor movement has created organizational cultures resistant to change, unaccustomed to democracy, and disinterested in organizing.

In the decades after WII the labor movement fell in love with power and understandably so. With a world war won, millions of new members and increasing material wealth for almost all sectors of the American working-class, labor took its place alongside business and government as guarantor of the nation’s welfare.  This tripartite régime, called the labor/capital accord or the mid-century social contract was based on a grand social division of labor in which corporations, governmental bodies, political parties, and unions cooperated but also held in check each other’s influence.

Unions advocated well for the benefit of their members, but within a legal and political framework that limited their tactical means and curtailed their ability to seek universal social benefits beyond what had been granted by the New Deal or envisioned by the Democratic Party.

Management’s right to make all meaningful decisions in the workplace remained unchallenged.  Nonetheless, labor leaders and union managers became important and powerful people and worked hard at the legal, lobbying, electoral, and service missions of unions. But the emphasis on the executive functions of the union came at the expense of organizing and community building efforts and resulted in a distinctive form of union consciousness and culture that corresponded to the social contract of 1945-1975. This type of conventional unionism came to be known as the service model.

The problem with the service model is not that necessary services were performed, of course, but that the purchase, delivery, and consumption of services became the union’s main work. Those activities encouraged a union culture based on narrow self-interest, managerial methods, and a clubbish, members-only attitude.

The social contract culture masked hidden weaknesses and the seeds of labor’s decline were sown during the peak of its power.  In the 1930s a massive rank and file upsurge created a culture of organizing and founded industrial unionism to fulfill a depression-driven desire for workplace and economic democracy. But, once grown up labor literally lost the sense it was born with.  All seemed well enough on the surface because the mid-20th century was also the time of labors’ greatest power, prestige, and influence.  Although many labor leaders and union members found political power appealing, the mid-century social contract and labors exalted position in it was nonetheless a historical anomaly and short lived. We have paid the price of denial ever since.

As early as the 1960s, the density and numerical strength of the movement began to slip. Over the next three decades the unions were hollowed out, gradually losing the capacity to act effectively on behalf of its members, let along organize millions of new members.  Beneath these symptoms lay the real problem; unions were deprived of the distinctive and critical knowledge that comes with organizing, thereby losing access to an indispensable source for the renewal and transformation of movement culture.

The decades-long decline in new organizing or the lack of grassroots mobilization efforts among the already organized meant that significant numbers of staff and leaders have never personally experienced the humbling, gut-wrenching but potentially transformative experience of organizing one’s own workplace. Once the organizing experience ceased to be at the center of labor’s vision we lost our bearings.

The social contract culture of unions was predicated on a world that was fast disappearing by the late 1970’s and labor was unprepared for the challenges. Faced with harsh new economic realities and unsavory choices unions began to accept concessions and two-tiered arrangements that institutionalized class differences and class discrimination within unions and the work force.  By amplifying conflicts of interest rather than building communities of interest, multi-tiered settlements and the dual labor markets they allowed were a kind of planned obsolescence for solidarity.

By the mid-1980s the loss of political power was palpable.  Despite the fact that these failures were part of global economic restructuring, a renewed antiunion offensive by government and business, and linked to the decay of a legal system designed for times long gone, unions continued to act as if nothing has changed.  We continued to assume we had power where little actually existed. Leaders and staff continued to act as generals not noticing the army had deserted. And, we avoided organizing and community activism.

To the degree that organizing no longer shaped and modeled behavior, the traits of labor’s “partners” in business and government provided influential examples of how powerful people acted.  The executive, manager, politician, lawyer, or lobbyist shaped individual leadership profiles while the client and consumer became the default models for union members. Union executive boards often manage in the style of a government or corporate body issuing orders to staff or stewards rather than engaging in activism as a social movement organization might and should.

These leadership types and organizational styles tended to show a preference for individual and technical solutions to political problems.  At best, the service model translated into due process protections and efficient solutions for real human problems faced on the job. At worst, it meant a passive membership inclined to complain rather than act and an entrenched leadership inclined to employ quick fixes and back-room deals, always living in dread of competitive elections or “surprises” at membership meetings and conventions.

Despite the hopeful rhetoric and good intentions of the recent debate, the social contract culture has enormous inertia. On the local level, where most organizing still occurs, union leaders remain wary of change and protective of the status quo. Organizing is inherently risky: failure is expensive and success may upset the existing structure of power in the union as new leaders and constituencies emerge.  It is easier, politically safer, and more predictable to service members, lobby legislators, and rely on experts to provide savvy at the bargaining table.

The movement’s commitment to organizing can be clearly seen in union budgets, and in the working conditions endured by organizers. Organizing remains under funded and organizers continue to be overworked, stressed out, marginalized and at the bottom of the chain of command.

The social contract culture pushed the leadership models of the citizen, organizer, and activist to the periphery.  Some of the most interesting and potentially progressive work of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s occurred on the margins of the labor movement. Rank and file groups and dissidents were often viewed with hostility by local leaders and national unions.  The organizer as a movement type came into being in community organizing and the other social movements of the mid-20th century.[vii] While this weakness could be turned to strength the marginalization of organizers continues.

Real renewal will require changing deeply imbedded work patterns and attitudes of leaders and staff. This is no small matter and means nothing short of transforming the culture associated with unions for the past half century. As the decline of the labor movement suggests, such changes may well be inevitable. It will happen through collapse or renewal or some combination of the two.

To its credit, much of the current debate addresses the problems but organizing is too often seen simply in terms of getting more members and more votes rather than as a source of cultural transformation.

Parts II and III below consider organizing and the issues that drive organizing as a source for the reconstruction of union consciousness and culture.  My project is to make visible and explicit the knowledge already present in the work that organizers do. If we want to get the movement back into labor, then the first task at hand is to dramatically improve the quantity and quality of organizing work. In ten years our goal should be to mobilize five percent of the 16 million union members into an army of 300,000 organizers—both rank and file and professional—each with a decade of experience.

Until very recently organizing was seen almost exclusively as a practice. It was, and is still, learned largely through direct experience in the field. Trade secrets are passed on as artisanal craft from one organizer to the next. The pressing need for hundreds of thousands of effective organizers now demands that we reflect on our work and make more ambitious efforts to educate activists.

The AFL-CIO, “Change to Win” and their affiliates sponsor training for organizers most notable in the Organizing Institute and programs offered at the George Meany Center.   These efforts complement a longstanding tradition of independent organizing schools such as Highlander School or Midwest Academy, and university courses on organizing taught in labor studies or social work departments. A number of books are available that provide important tool kits for organizers.[viii] All do a good job of training in the nuts and bolts of organizing and help people to develop the issues and better understand the basics of tactics and strategy.

On the other hand there is a theoretical and analytical literature created by scholars from labor studies, sociology, political science, history or social work and the radical intellectuals loosely affiliated with the World Social Forum. Then there is the more recent grand strategic discussion generated by union leaders and staff regarding the fate of the labor movement.  The scholarly works and political discussion are important sources for organizers in as much as they provide essential analysis on strategy and tactics, exemplars from the past, and the current context for organizing.  The scholarly literature and political discourse also make it abundantly clear the urgency and necessity of a renewed emphasis on organizing.[ix]

[i]I would like to thank Rudy Bell, Lisa Klein and the Rutgers Council of AAUP-AFT chapters for their generosity in allowing me to take sabattical leave earned at the National AAUP.  Without leave from my organizing duties this project would have never been completed.  I have learned from so many activists and organizers over the past 35 years it would be impossible to list them.  Since 1998 I have worked with scores of faculty activists dedicated to addressing the problems of contingent work.  I have learned much from their courage, vision and tenacity.  Special thanks to Joe Berry for reading and commenting on the entire essay. I am deeply indebted to my old friend and veteran journalist Paul Gottlieb who reworked my tangled prose helping me better find my own voice—a talent only the most gifted editors posses.

[ii] Dan Clawson and Mary Ann Clawson, What has happened to the US Labor Movement?  Union Decline and Renewal, Annual Review Sociology 199  25:95-119

[iii] For more on the new alternative pubic and its relation to the “Sixties” see Richard Moser’s introduction  “Was It the End or Just a Beginning? American Storytelling Traditions and the 1960s” in Van Gosse and Richard Moser eds. The World the Sixties Made: Politics and Culture in Recent America, (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2003).

[iv] Richard Hurd “The Failure of Organizing, the New Unity Partnership and the Future of the Labor Movement,” Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society, Vol 8 No 1 September 2004 pp5-25.  Kate Bronfenbrenner and Robert Hickey, “Changing to Organize: A National Assessment of Union Strategies” in Ruth Milkman and Kim Voss, Rebuilding Labor: Organizing and Organizers in the New Union Movement (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2004)


[vi] For a description of the current labor culture at its birth see C. Wright Mills, The New Men of Power: America’s Labor Leaders, first published in 1948.

[vii] A 1997 study found that innovative locals commonly had “organizers with social movement experience gained outside the labor movement.” Voss and Sherman “Putting the “move” Back in the Labor Movement: Tactical Innovation and Contemporary American Unions.  Presented at Annual meeting of the American Sociological Assn., Toronto, 1997. Cited in Clawson p.107.

[viii] In addition to the training manuals produced by the AFL-CIO see, Jane Slaughter ed.,A Troublemaker’s Handbook 2: How to Fight Back Where You Work–And Win, (Labor Notes May 2005); Martha Gruelle and Mike Parker, Democracy is Power Rebuilding Unions from the Bottom Up (labor Notes) Jan Barry, A Citizen’s Guide to Grassroots Campaigns, Rutgers University Press, 2000. Two works that focus exclusively on organizers and their practice are outside of labor but also very useful. See, Jacqueline B. Mondros and Scott M. Wilson, Organizing for Power and Empowerment (Columbia University Press, New York 1994). Kristin Layng Szakos and Joe Szakos, We Make Change: Community Organizers Talk About What They Do–And Why, (Vanderbilt University Press, 2007)

[ix] The best known example are Bronfenbrenner, Friedman S, Hurd RW, Oswald RA, Seeber RL eds,. Organizing to Win: New Research on Union Strategies, (Ithaca NY: ILR Cornell University Press, 1998) and Bruce Nissen, Which Direction for Organized Labor?: Essays on Organizing, Outreach, and Internal Transformations  (Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1999) Kim Moody,U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition: The Failure of Reform from Above, The Promise of Revival from Below (Verso, 2007).  See also Ruth Milkman and Kim Voss, Rebuilding Labor: Organizing and Organizers in the New Labor Movement (Ithaca NY: ILR Cornell University Press, 2004); Mike Miller and Michael Eisenscher, Renewing Labor: A Report from the Field, Working USA Fall 2001 p. 131-154; Michael Eisenscher Leadership Development and Organizing: For What Kind of Unions?, Labor Studies Journal; Summer 1999 Vol 24, Issue 2 p.3; Brofenbrenner and Robert Hickey, Winning is Possible, Multinational Monitor June 2003 p. 9.; Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, (Berkeley University of California Press, 1995).