VIDEO: What If Unions Took to Heart the Need to Organize Their Own Members?

Too often when we start talking about organizing, we immediately focus on workers outside of unions. Labor Notes Director Mark Brenner spoke at a January 15 conference on the labor movement's future. Video: Albert Shanker Institute.

Recently I was invited to speak at the Albert Shanker Institute, the think tank run by the American Federation of Teachers. I know, it kind of makes your head explode, right?

Heavyweights from across the country gathered there in January to discuss the future of our movement. After I got past the suits and lingering hot air, I was struck by just how far the discussion—even in official circles—has swung towards labor’s troublemaking wing.

AFL-CIO Vice-President Tefere Gebre, for example, made a point of saying we can’t do anything without rank-and-file members at the center. Speaker after speaker said our power comes from our ability to disrupt. And to my pleasant surprise, more than one raised the thorny topic of union democracy.

Although actions speak louder than words, I tried to sharpen the discussion without throwing any elbows. (You can watch the full video of my talk, at left.) A few points I think bear repeating:


Our goal is power for working-class people—so we have more control over our lives, on and off the job.

As a young activist I was taught there’s only two kinds of power: organized money and organized people. The bankers, billionaires, and corporate execs win every time if we try to compete on their terms.

Labor’s power is organized people.

But too often when we start talking about organizing people, we immediately focus on workers outside of unions. Even worse, we forget that our numbers only represent potential power.

That’s why we need to organize the members we’ve already got before we can recruit new folks on any scale.


When I first signed a union card 20 years ago, the veterans told me we needed one steward for every 10 members. How’s your union doing by that yardstick?



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Scratch the surface of any of labor’s recent victories—from teachers in Portland to Cablevision techs in Brooklyn—and you’ll find a union that took internal organizing to heart.

Imagine if every union put the one-to-10 principle into practice. We’d have 1.3 million cadre, ready to carry the union gospel into open shops and promote a different common sense on everything from health care to the tax code.

We’ve got to exponentially expand the number of members who have the skills and confidence to act like the union—and give them the authority to do it.


In most unions, that means an overhaul of the relationship between members and the officers and staff down at the union hall.

For decades unionists have debated which model is best: servicing or organizing? But this dichotomy cloaks the fact that what most unions call organizing is really mobilizing. Members are just being moved from Point A to Point B, like turning a faucet on or off.

Organizing is all about self-activity. It’s about meeting members where they’re at, and moving somewhere different together.

It’s about more than paying dues and voting. Unions have to create the space for rank and filers to strategize and plan. Democracy can be a hot mess—but there’s no shortcut around building leaders who know what they’re fighting for.

The best leaders trust the members. They have faith that their co-workers, when presented with the same information and analysis they have, will reach the same conclusions.

Their job is to get the ball rolling and get out of the way.

Mark Brenner is the former director of Labor Notes and is currently an instructor at the University of Oregon's Labor Education & Research Center.