Unions, Organizing, and Democracy: Living in One’s Time, Building for the Future

Unions, Organizing, and Democracy: Living in One’s Time, Building for the Future

The bastardized curse “may you live in interesting times” has a special poignancy for any organizer living in uninteresting ones. An “interesting time,” for better or worse, is one of upheaval—a period when large movements of ordinary people can create sweeping changes that would otherwise take decades. No organizer can create interesting times. Yet every organizer struggles to be prepared—and to prepare the way—for them.

This contradiction—having to live and organize without a movement yet struggling to prepare for one—is especially acute for labor organizers today. The revitalized American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) has set its sights on nothing short of movement building. Inspired by the militancy and industry wide drives of the 1930s, the federation and its affiliates are pouring millions of dollars into rebuilding organizing capacity in workplaces and in communities. Yet underpinning labor’s hope and vast investment of funds is the belief that the lowly staff organizer can not only make all this happen, but—since union density continues to fall and there is no time to waste—she or he can make it happen now: before the money runs out, before backlash sets in, before the forces of complacency reassert themselves.

But because making it happen now—which is usually equated with winning National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections—takes immense resources, certain tasks are postponed: developing rank-and-file leadership, member education, building the kind of enduring local union organizations that can give workers real power and change their lives. Organizers’ primary responsibility runs less to the people they are organizing than to the campaign. Where winning is impossible, the union walks away to devote scarce resources to other efforts. Even successful campaigns may see resources shifted to other struggles—perhaps to key targets elsewhere in an industry—before fledgling local organizations can be consolidated.

The irony of this prevalent, though not universal, approach is the contradictions it creates for the deeply shared goal of movement building. Workers develop a healthy fear of abandonment. Organizers burn out. Maintaining the continuity and depth needed for building leadership and real capacity for social change becomes more, not less, difficult.

The problem is compounded by the fact that, despite changes in the economy that should by now have lifted all bets on the shape unions will take in the twenty first century, most organizers are still sent into campaigns not only with a model of organizing that workers are asked to accept, but often with a predetermined strategy. The fact that so many organizers are still white and male, in addition to being outsiders with a plan, ensures that race, gender, and especially class hierarchies reassert themselves and block the full sharing of information and ideas needed for long term su...