Members as Organizers Build Stronger Unions

The leadership of the AFL-CIO has emphasized the importance of organizing the unorganized and has brought much needed energy and youth to the movement. But the speed at which organizing programs have expanded has resulted in over-reliance on a staff-intensive, “organize-from-the-outside” model. And the AFL-CIO appears to be promoting this model by championing campaigns that use it.

This approach defines the goal of organizing as simply to increase the size of the union. Despite official rhetoric that “the workers are the union,” too few unions use their existing members to organize. Instead they rely heavily on graduates of the Organizing Institute who’ve been recruited from college campuses despite having little or no work or union experience. The result is organizing programs far removed from the membership and left instead in the hands of eager and committed but relatively inexperienced new staffers.


The young recruits are flown to a city far from home and perform endless hours of house-visits under the guidance of a (slightly) more experienced organizer. During the house-visit, they describe the union, inoculate the workers about the impending management anti-union campaign, and collect cards. For the next several weeks, they continue to visit employees to make sure they’re still on board for the union, until the day after the election, when they hop on a plane bound for the next city and a new campaign.

In an organizing drive several years ago that had CWA competing against another union, this model was contrasted dramatically with the CWA’s “member-organizer model.”

A CWA member called his own local to ask how we could help unionize his wife’s workplace. Several members of CWA met with a group of workers and started to build an organizing committee. Over the next few months, the organizing committee, representing the diversity of the workplace, was educated about the union, the process to form one, and about the fight for the first contract they would ultimately have to lead.

Then the committee divided the workforce among themselves and set out inside the workplace to meet one-on-one with their co-workers. In two weeks they managed to get signed cards from 450 of the 700 workers (64%) and filed a petition.

An organizer from what I’ll call The Other Union (TOU) apparently saw the petition on the docket at the NLRB office and determined that since the workplace was on a list of possible targets her union had developed, she had better get involved. Twenty-two young organizers were rounded up and flown to town. They were put up in a local hotel and supplied with rental cars. The young organizers set out with abundant energy to meet every worker, encourage them to sign cards for TOU, and discourage support for CWA.

The organizers found their way into the workplace and met workers in every room, hallway, and office they could. The workers were duly impressed by the aggressiveness of the young organizers. This continued over the next three months as the petition crawled its way through the NLRB. Meanwhile CWA filed an Article XXI charge-the clause in the AFL-CIO constitution meant to prevent competition between unions-and that charge crawled through the AFL-CIO.

Ultimately, the AFL-CIO umpire ruled that both unions should remain on the ballot. Part of the rationale was, ironically, the vast commitment of resources TOU had devoted to the campaign.

In the end, TOU won the vote by a two-thirds margin.


If the story ended there, it would be a sad tale about the failures of Article XXI, but a success story of unions committed to growth, because 700 new members were brought into the labor movement. The story, however, doesn’t end there.

About six months later, I ran into the lead organizer for TOU at an AFL-CIO event. In the spirit of solidarity, I asked how bargaining was going for their first contract at that company. Her response floored me: “Oh, I have no idea, I flew out the next morning.” She might as well have added, “And I don’t care.” It was clear that her concern and her job as an organizer was to get the workers into TOU, and from there it really didn’t matter.

But it does matter. The relationships built between individual CWA members who volunteered on the campaign and members of the internal organizing committee meant that they stayed in touch with one another long after CWA lost the election. What CWA folks learned was that bargaining didn’t start for several months, that the demands and bargaining were staff-driven, and that members were complaining that the union didn’t seem anxious to get a contract.

The members were upset that the union was no longer aggressive, as the organizers had been during the campaign. This was, of course, because the organizers had totally replaced the inside organizing committee. By doing so they had failed to develop the leadership within the ranks who could have driven the mobilization for the first contract. Rather, when the organizers left town, so did “the union”-at least the concept of the union that the organizers had instilled. The union was something else-it was not the workers. It was as management had said it would be, a third party.

After a year and a half a decent contract was signed, but the workers were never empowered, they never took on leadership, they never got active in the union, and they would be unlikely to help organize another shop if asked. In essence, they were represented by a union, but not in any way part of a labor movement.


The outcome should have been obvious. A stranger from another state who arrives at someone’s doorstep, who tries to persuade them to make a commitment, who describes an unfamiliar vision of how much better things could be, who answers their questions with canned replies, and who anticipates every possible objection, can be described as nothing other than a travelling salesperson-or at least, that is the impression the worker gets. Despite the best intentions of these organizers, they are presenting the union as a product.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of this model is the staffers’ role as “leaders” of the campaign. The staff organizers essentially replaced the workers’ in-house organizing committee by making all the important campaign decisions and doing most of the one-on-one contacts that are essential to building real ownership of the union.

If the employer had run an anti-union campaign (in the above example, management was strangely well-behaved), any of the workers’ doubts or suspicions would only have been reinforced. Management propaganda usually calls the union “outsiders,” “with nothing to lose by your failure,” “who want to make up for falling membership,” “who need your dues to survive,” who are “a bunch of paid organizers who pack up and leave when they’re done.” All of these arguments will ring true to the worker whose own experience with the union revolves around the organizer on their doorstep.


In the member-based organizing model, unions use their greatest resource, rank-and-file members, to make initial contacts and help build the in-house organizing committee.

In a health care campaign, for instance, a lab technician from the lab across town not only has felt the strength of the union during its battles with management and understands the work of the lab techs she is helping to organize, but her future and their futures are intimately connected. If the organizing campaign wins, she and the workers she assisted will be part of the same local and struggling side by side with their respective employers. The new members may be inspired by the example the member-organizer sets: of active participation in building her union.

Even if the campaign ends in defeat, she and they will continue to live in the same community and work in the same industry. The mutual reliance and trust that develops is the foundation of any union building. It is what will lead to a successful campaign in the future.

The member-based model has advantages even if the cost of the campaign were the main consideration. The resources needed to train a member to organize are much less than those needed to train a cadre of staff organizers, because the member already knows what unions are about. A further cost advantage is not having to hire, house, feed, and fly staff organizers around the country.


The choice of models, however, illustrates a much larger concern about the labor movement. Union leaders who choose the staff-based model often claim it is because current members are apathetic about the union, and therefore the only way to build is by hiring outside recruiters. The folks who make this claim should take a hard look at their unions’ structure and effectiveness before seeking to increase its size.

First of all, if members themselves don’t feel the union is something worth building and strengthening, why should anyone else want to join it? Second, how is adding new members going to change the culture of apathy of the current membership? Aren’t new members likely to fall into the same rut? Yes, the union may be bigger, but is it stronger, more active, or more effective as a result? Did we increase the strength of the labor movement, or did we simply add a few names to a list?

The staff-intensive “electioneering” strategy exploits the idealism and energy of the youth who most want to help. Judging from the number of Organizing Institute grads who remain in the labor movement beyond a few years (very few), it is clear that it results in premature burn-out or disaffection from the labor movement. Young people with energy and new ideas have an essential role to play in the labor movement, but it should not be one of replacing the role of rank-and-file union members in building their own organizations. By getting jobs and organizing at their own workplaces, or by building student/labor/community coalitions to bring public pressure to bear on employers, young labor sympathizers can provide essential support without supplanting members’ activity.



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If more unions used the resources they are now shifting to organizing to recruit, train, and develop their own members in local union organizing committees, this would serve to strengthen the labor movement rather than merely to increase the size of the membership list.

Jeff Lacher works in upstate New York and the District Organizing Coordinator of CWA District 1.