Union organizing is a process workers undertake to come together, sometimes under adversarial conditions, and bring positive, meaningful change to their workplace. Since this process is resource-intensive, organizing constantly competes for the limited resources unions have at their disposal, and this can cause conflict when approached only as a revenue generating growth strategy.
Unions often apply unsophisticated “return-on-investment” models to their organizing with the hope that any money invested will be returned as part of future dues from new members. This model can lead to organizing efforts that tend to skip steps and take short-cuts to speed up the process.
This business unionism model ignores the realities of the organizing process and its methods which require a concerted effort to talk to every single worker and increase collective awareness within the workplace and community. Anything short of this effort (which often entails thousands of hours of one-on-one conversations) may yield short-term gains, but builds unstable foundations.
Building worker power: an essential goal, not an unattainable ideal.
The gap between the ideal of organizing workers and the real experiences of organizing under restrictive labour legislation and employer interference can be substantial. These constraints on the process of democratic organizing often lead to an ever increasingly complex set of challenges to overcome during a single union drive. These struggles manifest themselves in the planning stages as organizers try to plan for every possibility upfront.
However, in the majority of cases the most effective strategy for developing local worker power is inherently uncomplicated. It can happen within a single shift, department, or lunch room. Building a union means first, taking on your own boss, not the government’s policies and all the forces of capitalism. Winning in these cases is measured in the ability to shift who has the power to make decisions and how, especially at the local level. Most organizing efforts can avoid much of the overbearing complexities of modern unionism by focusing on the expression of that power.
Organizing requires as much independence from short-term institutional political priorities as possible.
Unions are inherently political organizations, both internally and externally. As such, resource-allocation is often based on current short-term political priorities. However, for organizing to be successful, resources and macro-level planning cannot be short-term. Like any investment, the temporal aspect of organizing means focusing on immediate financial and political measures that often undermine long-term success. The challenge with considering organizing targets as political prizes is that they may not be considered a priority long enough to yield positive results. If building a sustained, structured and disciplined organizing program, this organizing must be given political cover and requires leadership to understand the process as well as the careful balance of the many factors at stake.
Building an organizing program requires money but, just as important, it requires a structure that facilitates conditions in which organizing can be successful beyond a single department or community.
Organizing works best when strategy development is put into the hands of workers.
“Strategic” is the recent buzz word that, when included in a sentence, seeks to rhetorically raise the level of conversation about organizing: we’re not just organizing, we’re organizing “strategically”. It hints to higher thinking, to analysis, and to a plan put together and implemented by other people who are good at doing those things. Strategic something sounds better than unstrategic anything.
The problem is that even if a comprehensive strategy is developed, that is not the same thing as being ready – it is possible to over-think organizing. Further, strategy means nothing if it isn’t based on a solid foundation of facts and an understanding of those facts and the strategy by the workers who are in the process of unionizing.
Over-planning without correct information and/or based on generalizations is neither strategic nor productive.
If the “strategic” organizing plan for a drive is not articulated, understood, or brought forward by those most concerned by the outcome (the workers), then it will be very hard to have those very same people actualize the strength of their own collective power. The drive becomes institutional manoeuvring.
Only by helping workers to reach their collective potential can we build a movement where they are empowered in their workplace, community, and the larger movement.
So, while we all like thinking about organizing, talking about organizing, wishing for organizing, hoping for organizing, and being “strategic” about organizing, it all comes down to doing the actual work required to develop worker understanding, and through that understand, worker power.