“Mate, what do you think of the ‘Organizing Model’? That’s an American thing, isn’t it?”
During a break at an IWW organizer training in London, the question caught me off guard. There were many organizing models, right? I chalked it up to U.S.-U.K. cultural misunderstanding. But a few weeks later in Cologne, Germany, I got the same question. I decided to do some digging.
It turns out the United States doesn’t export only Justin Bieber and Big Macs. We also export the trends of our labor movement. Over the last 15 years—as American management practices have cast a pall over the global economy—unions from the U.K., the Netherlands, Germany, and Australia have looked to U.S. unions for survival strategies. They came back with “the organizing model” (see sidebar).
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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 organizing model—involving members in solutions.” The fact that this was a new idea speaks volumes.
The organizing model down under
The organizing model’s first port of call overseas was Australia.
Union density there had dropped dramatically: from 51 percent in 1976 to under 25 in 2000. The decline was caused by labor 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 organizing strategies in the U.S., reasoning that U.S. unions had been the canaries in the mine of the neoliberal experiment a decade earlier. The ACTU established “Organizing Works,” modeled on the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute, in 1994.
Researchers Bob Carter and Rae Cooper have credited Organizing Works with graduating more than 300 new organizers 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 organizers. As their professional staffs dwindled and the labor 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 organizers, while leaving representation work to volunteer stewards.
Labor scholar Richard Hurd has called this a “tough servicing” approach to building worker self-organization, 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 organizing. One organizer 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 organize themselves through a steward system, but instead opened a call center to process grievances remotely.
The drive to revive labor as a social movement had rapidly descended into debates about how best to manage union staff in servicing and organizing roles.
Organising in the U.K.
Despite the organizing model’s flaws, its next stop was the U.K.
In the 1980s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared open season on labor. Bosses smashed the epic 1984-85 miners’ strike. Steel mills and factories shut down. Unions took cuts under the “New Realism.”
British Trades Union Council membership declined from 53 percent in 1979 to less than 30 percent 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, modeled on the Australian and U.S. training centers. Its goal was to “rediscover the ‘social movement’ origins of labour, by redefining the union as a mobilizing 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 organizers, who are credited with the recruitment of more than 50,000 new members. Membership began to stabilize, 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 organizers had left out rank-and-file activists, minimizing 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 U.K.’s very top-down labor movement?
The organizing 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 organizing model coexist with conservatives who favor “partnership” with employers—a concept advanced by the Labour Party that often means accepting cuts and layoffs.
The turn toward organizing has increased the level of labor activity in the U.K., but few would say it has reinvigorated labor 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.
Das organizing model
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 labor 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 labor 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 percent.
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 U.S. in 2004 and returned home dedicated to the organizing model. In one of the first campaigns to apply the model, ver.di and SEIU took on a joint project to organize 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 Organizing 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 organizing 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 organizing manual, Rules for Radicals, had mysteriously left out a section on “democratizing the labor 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.
Beyond the organizing model
More than 20 years after the AFL-CIO coined the term “organizing 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 labor as a social movement.
Everywhere the organizing 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 organize in exchange for weak contracts.
Third, the model has obscured deeper questions about labor’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 organizing methods derived from the grassroots tradition in the labor movement—such as striking for demands before a union is even recognized. 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 labor 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 labor renewal, from the bottom up.