Some ideas for union renewal

In order to create a better world we, the working class, need power.  Such power can only come through collective organisation around the one thing that unites all members of our class – work.  But trade unions, the bodies with which we socialists attempt to create such collective organisation, are in decline.  If we are serious about building trade unions and winning them to socialist ideas then we need to come to the table with ideas of how to reverse this downward trend.

The traditional left wing approach has often been to argue for greater militancy, an approach which has been discussed elsewhere on this blog.  However there are other less obvious but perhaps even more important possibilities for trade union renewal.

Recruit or organise?

One of the obvious places to look for ideas for union renewal is the few success cases of today.  One of the few unions that has grown substantially in the past 10 years is the American behemoth the SEIU.  over the past decade it has succeeded in nearly doubling its membership to a staggering 2.1 million.  This has been in spite of the incredibly hostile conditions of industrial relations within the USA.

So how did the SEIU achieve this against-the-odds success? It looked to the Australian movement the organising methodology it had adopted to raise its own membership figures, the organising model.  Now both the left and the trade union movement in the UK like to talk about organising.  For the trade unions “organising” often simply means recruitment, handing out union membership forms, whilst for the far left “organising” only really seems to translate as party or front building.

The organisng model on the other hand sets up organising as an approach that is rather different to traditional union “servicing” and recruitment.   The approach of this model is to map workplaces and conduct surveys to find out what issues the workers there are most concerned about.  An issue is then selected and a campaign run to get a victory.  Through building by starting small and working up the self confidence of the workers and the standing of the union can be steadily improved.

What’s more the organising model can be far more confrontational than the servicing/recruitment approach, with strikes (such as the successful Sodexo workers strike resulting from UNISON’s attempt to implement the model) a fairly common tactic to gain results.  With such demonstrable effectiveness and the possibility for militant outcomes you’d think the far left would be raving about this new approach, yet the far left has virtually nothing to say on this new methodology.

This is in part the fault of the far left for not taking sufficient interest in workplace issues.   Such an attitude has left as the sole champions of organising certain factions with the union bureaucracies and consequently a conservative vision and practice of organising dominates.  Whilst using militant tactics might be a great way to force reluctant employers to recognise your union and to build your membership numbers, once you’ve done a deal with that employer you don’t want pesky members messing it up by trying to win more.

In order to prevent this being the reality of organsing the left needs to engage with and learn this new model.  Of course as many lefties will point out large elements of the model aren’t new, they’re a historical rediscovery of how unions used to work.  This is only part of the picture though, old-school militancy has been complemented by modern organising techniques, making the organising model a powerful tool.

Union culture

Larkin loved a good picnic

Another incredibly useful tool is that of trade union culture. When the union is the centre-point of cultural and social activities for its members it will be rendered far stronger.  After all your much more likely to go down and support the picket line if your mate Bob, who you met through the union football tournament is one of those on strike.  The central importance of the union as a social institution was realised by Jim Larkin, who as leader of Ireland’s syndicalist union, the ITGWU, organised union picnics and other cultural activities that greatly contributed to the early successes of this new union.

Another syndicalist union, the CGT in France, used similar tactics.  Through its Bourse Du Travail localised structures the union would provide services and a social space to working class communities, building up popular support for the union and encouraging members to socialise together.  Sadly such locality based organising is more difficult today as workers in one workplace are unlikely to all live in the same locality, however in spite of this the comrades in the Comités Syndicalistes Révolutionnaires are having some success at reconstructing a local CGT presence.

Whilst on the left we often regret the demise of union clubs and the centrality of unionism in working class life we would do well to head  the old socialist adage: don’t mourn, organise!  This social infrastructure can be rebuilt, starting small and building up, but it is up to us to ensure that this happens.

If the working class is to stand a chance it must be organised thoroughly to assert its collective power.  The techniques of the organsing model and the strengthened social bonds that come through a trade union culture are two vital tools in this task.


4 responses to “Some ideas for union renewal

  1. You need to be careful with the SEIU. The figures look impressive but much of the increase came through amalgamations. The SEIU is probably best known for Janitors for Justice campaign. There was some excellent campaigning but it wasn’t under the control of the membership and it was common for the SEIU to close down and rearrange branches in order to maintain control from the top. (See and )

    The SEIU pursued partnership with the private health companies in the states, and its approach was exemplified by the case of staff in a call centre who were on a bonus measured by the number of people who they persuaded not to come into a hospital!

    In California civil war opened up in the SEIU when Andy Stern decided to break up the branch which was leading opposition to his methods. Out of that came the National Union of Healthcare workers with an approach based on membership control. See

  2. Yea the stuff about the SEIU was really just a quick overview, I was gonna put in something about NUHW but had to take it out for sake of brevity. As I said above the way the “organising model” is being implemented right now is top-down and anti-democratic, but I dont think it has to be that way.

  3. I think this article misunderstands how most U.S. labor unions work. Usually membership is not voluntary, so recruiting in the sense you are describing here is unusual. The way it works is, once a union is established in a workplace, it will sign a contract with the employer. A standard clause in a contract is a no strike pledge, in which the union agrees to suppress all strikes for the duration of the contract. In the U.S. union contracts are legally enforceable – if you strike while a union contract covers you a judge can jail you without trial. Another standard clause is the union shop & dues checkoff, in which the employer agrees to make membership in the union mandatory and to directly deduct union dues from workers’ paychecks and give it to the union. Most union members do not participate in the union, many have never met a union official, and some don’t even know they are members of a union. The contract usually also has language about pay and working conditions, but it doesn’t necessarily improve things. I know people who make less than the legal minimum wage because of the union dues deducted from their paycheck.

    The SEIU’s contracts are often worse than this. They frequently go beyond a no strike pledge and forbid other types of activity an employer wouldn’t like. At my workplace, the dining staff are covered by an SEIU contract that forbids them from criticizing their employer (Sodexho). There are SEIU contracts that provide no improvements for workers, just dues for the union and labor peace for the boss. The SEIU can be very militant towards employers that refuse to sign a contract with them, but once a contract is in place they are equally militant about maintaining industrial peace. Having lots of numbers doesn’t mean they’re actually doing much for the average worker. Also, they have engaged in extensive raiding of other unions, which is where some of their membership numbers come from. Most of the far left and the majority of active unionists in the U.S. regard the SEIU experience as problematic at best. IMHO, the SEIU is basically a scab.

  4. I wouldn’t be rushing to brand the membership of SEIU as scabs… as you point out contracts banning strike action are the norm in the US. That’s not to say they’re a good thing, and I’m sure there are examples of exceptionally bad contract causes from SEIU, but I don’t think that means we can’t learn from them.

    Unions get up to all sorts of hijinks but I think the SEIU’s growth at the end of the day is worth investigating and understanding. What they’re exporting abroad (and having some success at doing so) is the more positive side of what they are up to, as I point out in the post, the victorious Sodexo strike was a direct result of SEIU’s exported methodology.

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