New Organizer Recruits Recognize Flaws in Staff-Centered Organizing Model

Jeff Lacher makes some compelling arguments in his "Members as Organizers Build Stronger Unions." But Lacher relies on a false dichotomy between member involvement and paid organizing staff. We could spend hours debating the correct percentage of organizing that should be done by members versus paid staff, but that is not the real issue.

Most organizing campaigns can benefit from full-time staff, whether they are members on lost time or full-time union staffers. The crux of this debate about “organizing models” should be about how labor’s reliance on staff organizers (and its related failure to develop member-leaders) impacts union democracy.

As someone who studies retention of union organizers and as a former AFL-CIO Organizing Institute staffer, I take issue with three of Lacher’s points. First, he says that most OI graduates have “been recruited from college campuses despite having little or no work or union experience.” In interviews I conducted with over 40 OI graduates and staff, I met not a single person who had not worked prior to becoming an organizer.

PRIOR WORK EXPERIENCE

In fact, most OI recruits come to the labor movement with years of experience in jobs such as food service, hotels, nursing homes, child care, retail, and messengers. Labor should welcome these veterans of the service sector as uniquely positioned to draw upon their own work experience when organizing service sector workers (and beyond).

Second, Lacher’s statement that few OI graduates have been union members prior to entering the OI is certainly more accurate than his first, but it’s an unfair criticism. Unions represent less than 14% of the workforce!

Although I don’t think that it’s fair to reject all potential organizers recruited from outside the membership ranks, I do agree with an argument that seems to be buried deeper in Lacher’s piece. He argues that organizers who don’t come from the rank and file tend to present an inaccurate or overly optimistic vision of unions to potential members. Member-organizers, he argues, are more honest and more effective.

My own experience bolsters this argument. When organizing my co-workers at the University of California now, as a volunteer in my graduate student union, I am a more confident, better-informed, and more realistic organizer than I was prior to being a union member.

On the flip side, I am a much more engaged, critical, and effective member-organizer for having worked in the labor movement prior to coming to the university. In short, having been an organizer makes me a better union member and vice versa. The scores of unionized graduate students, social workers, legal aid attorneys, community organizers, health care workers, and child care providers I have met who first worked in the labor movement and later became union activists indicate that this is not a limited phenomenon.

LONG-TERM CARE

Third, Lacher describes an “external recruit” who, when he encountered her six months after a campaign, seemed to show no interest in what happened in first-contract negotiations. I take issue with this portrayal of OI-trained organizers as having no real commitment to building strong unions or bargaining good contracts.

Although many of the organizers I interviewed were shipped out immediately after (or in some cases before) the election, they developed a deep emotional connection with and long-term commitment to the workers they organized. They were deeply invested in the long-term viability of the organizations they were helping to build, even if the logic of the “blitz model” (where organizers are sent in for a quick, intense campaign) prevented them from staying in town.

One OI graduate was shipped out of town the day before the election. He describes his reaction to hearing the outcome: “[When] she said that the union lost by 13 votes, my heart went boom and I cried…I knew the hell that these workers were going to catch when they went back [to work]…Some of the workers had become so bold, so brave.”

Another OI graduate describes the connection he maintained with workers for years after their drive failed: “I had really bonded with some of the workers and I was not going to abandon them…I told them that if they want to have another election next summer, I’ll drop what I am doing and come back and work on it with them.”

CRITICAL OF BLITZ MODEL

A majority of the organizers I interviewed had sophisticated criticisms of their unions’ failure to recruit and train member-organizers. They understand their role in the blitz model, and many are highly critical of it. Said one OI graduate, “[The union] thinks of us as cheap labor, and that’s bullshit.” Another seasoned organizer argues: “Unions are just interested in warm bodies. They don’t really care about the training, they just want someone who they can…mold however they want.”

Debating the value of internal versus external recruits distracts us from the more important questions: what role staff should play in recruiting and training members to take a more active role in their unions, how union members and staff share decision-making equally and fairly, and why some unions resist the active involvement of their members.

Staff organizers are not going to disappear. More likely their numbers will increase. It is shortsighted to reject OI graduates as uncritical participants in the “blitz model.”

Instead, I urge Labor Notes readers to think seriously about how to engage these new recruits in a struggle to make organizing more effective, more democratic, and a more sustainable occupation. They are potential allies in efforts to re-position the labor movement as a democratic instrument of change in American society.

Daisy Rooks, a graduate student at UCLA, is a member of UAW Local 2865.