The Organizing Model: As American as Apple Pie

Erik Forman

A short­er ver­sion of this piece orig­i­nal­ly ran in Labor Notes.

Mate, what do you think of the Orga­niz­ing Mod­el’? That’s an Amer­i­can thing, isn’t it?”

I was sort­ing my notes dur­ing a short break at an IWW train­ing in Lon­don. The ques­tion took me off guard.

Umm… which orga­niz­ing mod­el?” I replied quizzi­cal­ly. There were mul­ti­ple orga­niz­ing mod­els, right? Alin­sky, ACORN, SEIU, mem­ber-to-mem­ber, staff-dri­ven, Sol­i­dar­i­ty… and so on. I chalked it up to U.S.-UK cul­tur­al misunderstanding.

But a few weeks lat­er, at anoth­er train­ing in Cologne, Ger­many, some­one asked – Das Orga­niz­ing Mod­el’ ist in den USA sehr beliebt, oder?”

Here it was again. In Ger­man. I decid­ed to do some digging.

As I got deep­er in Google search­es, aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nals, and labor move­ment archives, I real­ized that I was slow­ly unearthing a con­cept so foun­da­tion­al to the con­tem­po­rary labor move­ment that most activists of my gen­er­a­tion hard­ly real­ize it is there. It turns out the Unit­ed States doesn’t only export Back­street Boys and Big Macs, we also export the trends of our unions. Over the last 15 years, as Amer­i­can man­age­ment prac­tices cast a pall over the glob­al econ­o­my, unions in the UK, the Nether­lands, Ger­many, Aus­tralia, and beyond have looked to the Unit­ed States for sur­vival strate­gies, and came back with the Orga­niz­ing Model.’

What is the Orga­niz­ing Model’?

In the first half of the 1980s, the U.S. labor move­ment lost a fifth of its mem­ber­ship to union-bust­ing, plant clos­ings, out­sourc­ing, dereg­u­la­tion, automa­tion, two reces­sions, and the growth of the non-union ser­vice sec­tor. Union lead­ers began look­ing for ways to stop the bleeding.

The AFL-CIO unveiled its answer in 1988: inter­nal orga­niz­ing.” The goal was to revive a social move­ment feel­ing in unions by bring­ing the mobi­liz­ing tech­niques used in exter­nal orga­niz­ing dri­ves into exist­ing bar­gain­ing units. Activists, who had seen U.S. unions ossi­fy into bureau­crat­ic dinosaurs, wel­comed the focus on rank-and-file par­tic­i­pa­tion. The man­u­al, Num­bers that Count,” rapid­ly became one of the AFL-CIO’s most request­ed publications.

From the Orga­niz­ing Mod­el to Exter­nal Organizing

At the same time, AFL-CIO lead­ers began to push for affil­i­at­ed unions to orga­nize the unor­ga­nized. In 1989 they estab­lished an Orga­niz­ing Insti­tute to train mem­bers and staff in the craft.

How­ev­er, the con­nec­tion between these two forms of orga­niz­ing” — build­ing more par­tic­i­pa­to­ry locals and recruit­ing new mem­bers — remained murky, and com­mit­ment to orga­niz­ing amongst unions was uneven. Some union offi­cers even thought that fight­ing hard­er against employ­ers would only give boss­es more rea­sons to resist unions.

Union den­si­ty hit a new low of 14.9 per­cent in 1995, con­vinc­ing many that the mea­sures tak­en by the AFL-CIO were not just too late, but too lit­tle. Frus­tra­tion boiled over, pro­pelling the New Voice” slate to vic­to­ry in the AFL-CIO’s exec­u­tive board elec­tions with a pledge to push for orga­niz­ing. The new offi­cers increased the bud­get of the Orga­niz­ing Insti­tute and released a blue­print enti­tled Orga­niz­ing for Change, Chang­ing to Orga­nize.” They called on AFL-CIO affil­i­ates to put some mus­cle on the Orga­niz­ing Mod­el by throw­ing more pro­fes­sion­al staff, more mon­ey (30 per­cent of their bud­gets), more plan­ning, and more mem­ber activ­i­ty into orga­niz­ing new shops.

New voice, new contradictions

If the U.S. labor move­ment briefly seemed unit­ed behind orga­niz­ing, it didn’t last long. Many offi­cers thought 30 per­cent was too much mon­ey to ded­i­cate to it. Some saw the new agen­da as the AFL-CIO med­dling in their inter­nal pol­i­tics. The shift of resources away from ser­vic­ing” mem­bers cre­at­ed ten­sions among offi­cers, staffs, and mem­bers — between those ener­gized by the prospect of expand­ing labor’s ranks and those who want­ed to focus on enforc­ing con­tracts in exist­ing locals.

How­ev­er, even amongst those who endorsed Change to Orga­nize, a split began to devel­op. Some union­ists favored a move­ment build­ing’ approach to exter­nal orga­niz­ing, where rank-and-file mem­bers vol­un­teered or were paid lost time’ to work on exter­nal cam­paigns, or took jobs in non-union shops in order to orga­nize them from inside (called salt­ing’). Anoth­er wing of the labor move­ment believed in staffing up,’ rely­ing heav­i­ly on staff orga­niz­ers flown in from across the coun­try for house vis­it blitzes,’ build­ing lit­tle work­er lead­er­ship of cam­paigns. This debate con­tin­ues today.

Crit­ics also began to argue that the focus on exter­nal orga­niz­ing ignored the movement’s deep­er weak­ness­es. Bring­ing in mil­lions of new work­ers is impor­tant,” orga­niz­er Peter Olney wrote in New Labor Forum in 2002, but the qual­i­ty of that orga­niz­ing and the fate of those work­ers once orga­nized is the key to build­ing power.”

Labor schol­ar Stan­ley Aronowitz wrote that changes in union den­si­ty alone were not enough to either explain or alle­vi­ate labor’s hard times. Declin­ing den­si­ty, he wrote in WorkingUSA in 2005, was a con­se­quence of unions’ accep­tance of con­ces­sions, automa­tion, and lay­offs; over­re­liance on the NLRB’s legal frame­work; and an under­ly­ing unwill­ing­ness to ques­tion cap­i­tal­ism stem­ming from unions’ col­lab­o­ra­tion with the gov­ern­ment to purge rad­i­cals in the McCarthy­ist 1950s, and accep­tance of Taft-Hart­ley restric­tions on work­er sol­i­dar­i­ty. A push to orga­nize more work­ers into exist­ing unions would not solve these problems.

Even as the orga­niz­ing mod­el was begin­ning to dis­in­te­grate, Sweeney announced in 2000 that AFL-CIO affil­i­ates would orga­nize a mil­lion new mem­bers per year. Few unions hit the num­bers they com­mit­ted to, but the pres­sure to meet numer­i­cal goals encour­aged them to pick soft tar­gets, often far removed from their tra­di­tion­al industries.

By the ear­ly 2000s, the con­tin­ued pres­sures of declin­ing mem­ber­ship had thor­ough­ly cracked the pre­vi­ous con­sen­sus around orga­niz­ing. Unions whose lead­ers still want­ed to real­lo­cate greater resources to orga­niz­ing formed a coali­tion of the will­ing called Change to Win” — includ­ing SEIU, UNITE HERE, Car­pen­ters, Team­sters, Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers, and the Labor­ers — and left the AFL-CIO, touch­ing off a new spate of rivalries.

But mem­ber­ship kept drop­ping. Today, aside from a few bright spots, the U.S. labor move­ment is shrink­ing and large­ly inef­fec­tive at win­ning gains from employ­ers. Why did unions in oth­er coun­tries want to emu­late it?

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, 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 Coun­cil 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 Organ­is­ing 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.

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. In one par­tic­u­lar­ly depress­ing exam­ple, a 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 between bureau­crats about how best to man­age union staff in ser­vic­ing and orga­niz­ing roles.

From Orga­niz­ing Mod­el to Organ­is­ing Model

Despite the orga­niz­ing model’s flaws, its next stop was the U.K. And for good rea­son — the sto­ry of labor in the UK par­al­lels that of the U.S.

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,” while the gov­ern­ment gut­ted wel­fare benefits.

Trades Union Con­gress mem­ber­ship declined from 53 per­cent in 1979 to less than 30 per­cent in 1998.

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 the count. Reflect­ing on 10 years of the Organ­is­ing Acad­e­my in 2008, researchers Jane Hol­gate and Melanie Simms not­ed that although orga­niz­ing activ­i­ty has increased, the unin­tend­ed con­se­quence of the deci­sion to cre­ate spe­cial­ist [exter­nal] organ­is­ers is that orga­niz­ing and ser­vic­ing roles are insti­tu­tion­al­ly sep­a­rat­ed, caus­ing per­ceived prob­lems for organ­is­ers in inte­grat­ing their activ­i­ties and ideas with­in the wider cul­ture of their employ­ing unions.”

The reliance on pro­fes­sion­al orga­niz­ers had left rank-and-file activists out, min­i­miz­ing the actu­al change in union cul­ture. In response to such crit­i­cism, the TUC opened a new Activist Acad­e­my’ in 2009 for lay activists’ [rank-and-fil­ers]. It remains to be seen if this will be enough to put the move­ment’ back in the UK’s very top-down labor move­ment? There is rea­son for skepticism.

In a 2010 arti­cle titled Organ­is­ing for what? Where is the debate on the pol­i­tics of organ­is­ing?” Simms and Hol­gate explain that in order to win sup­port for Orga­niz­ing Mod­el posi­tions in the TUC, the con­cept has been hol­lowed out, stripped of its polit­i­cal con­tent, and mar­ket­ed as a val­ue-neu­tral set of tools for sign­ing up more mem­bers. They write, the TUC active­ly encour­aged orga­niz­ing to become a tool­box’ of tac­tics rather than a polit­i­cal project. The sub­se­quent depoliti­ciza­tion of organ­is­ing is a not only a prob­lem because it allows organ­is­ing to be every­thing and noth­ing,’ but also because it deprives the British labor move­ment of a vision for renewal.”

In fact, in the TUC par­ti­sans of the orga­niz­ing mod­el coex­ist with con­ser­v­a­tives who envi­sion part­ner­ship” with employ­ers — a con­cept advanced by the Labour Par­ty that often means accept­ing cuts and layoffs.

As in the US and Aus­tralia, the turn to orga­niz­ing has increased the lev­el of labor activ­i­ty in the UK, but few would say has it has suc­cess­ful­ly rein­vig­o­rat­ed labor as a social move­ment. The heavy reliance on pro­fes­sion­al staff, lack of an over­all strat­e­gy for shift­ing the bal­ance of class forces, and absence of a vision for a dif­fer­ent eco­nom­ic sys­tem 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. Through­out the 1980s, West Ger­many was forced to com­pete with state social­ist East Ger­many for the hearts and minds of the work­ing class, lead­ing to a bet­ter deal for work­ers in both countries.

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,” and over a decade since the con­cept began to spread across the globe in the foot­steps of neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism, 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.

How can labor sur­mount these short­com­ings? While there is no blue­print we can pull off the shelf, we can look to labor’s past for inspi­ra­tion. Dur­ing the search for a way out of labor’s cri­sis of the last three decades, many dif­fer­ent actors invoked the tra­di­tion of the CIO to ground their argu­ments. Odd­ly enough, few have looked very close­ly at what made the mas­sive growth of the CIO and oth­er unions in the 1930s possible.

The suc­cess of the CIO dri­ves and oth­er strug­gles of the era was built on a foun­da­tion of long-term, grass­roots orga­niz­ing by small cells of mil­i­tant work­ers, often explic­it­ly com­mit­ted to var­i­ous rev­o­lu­tion­ary social­ist visions. Over months or even years of patient con­ver­sa­tions and small-scale work­place actions, their embed­ded orga­niz­ing laid the basis for the gen­er­al strikes of 1934 in Min­neapo­lis, Tole­do, and San Fran­cis­co. The fol­low­ing year the CIO struck a Faus­t­ian bar­gain with the rad­i­cals, pro­vid­ing them with resources to scale up their insur­gent orga­niz­ing into nation­al cam­paigns that led to the union­iza­tion of auto, steel, rub­ber, and many oth­er indus­tries. These vic­to­ries cement­ed the New Deal, estab­lish­ing a social struc­ture that would endure until the mid-1970s, when it began to be washed away by the neolib­er­al tide.

In recent months, we’ve seen the pres­sures of sur­vival forc­ing unions to adopt orga­niz­ing meth­ods derived from this same grass­roots tra­di­tion in the labor move­ment — such as strik­ing for demands before a union is rec­og­nized. The prospect of a new mil­i­tan­cy emerg­ing with back­ing from insti­tu­tion­al play­ers is excit­ing. But his­to­ry has 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.

Erik For­man has been active in the labor move­ment for over a decade as a rank-and-file orga­niz­er, at the fore­front of cam­paigns to union­ize the U.S. fast food indus­try. He cur­rent­ly works as a labor edu­ca­tor in New York City and is pur­su­ing a Ph.D. in cul­tur­al anthro­pol­o­gy at the Grad­u­ate Cen­ter of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Fol­low him at twit​ter​.com/​_​e​r​i​k​f​orman.
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