Real Organizing

by Jim Smith

(This paper is presented as an alternative to fad and foibles, such as "the blitz" and the mobilization model, now current in the labor movement. The writer has complied a 92 percent win rate in board elections by using the following techniques.)


The self-organization of workers under capitalism is one of the ways in which socialism develops out of capitalism. It lays the basis for us to be able to run society under socialism and changes the working class into a "class-for-itself." Unions are the most fundamental form of self-organization of workers (other forms include political parties and community organizations). Therefore, socialists should support organizing the unorganized and the full development of democracy within the labor movement as matters of principle and of the highest priority.

As socialists, we should take a working class view of organizing and not just the limited or "special interest" perspective of a particular union. We also should look at the impact of organizing from the point of view of unorganized workers who are by far the largest group in the working class.

1. Union density (percentage of unionization) continues to slide. At the same time, surveys continue to show that a majority of workers would like to belong to a union. Why is there a contradiction? Does the fault lie with the workers, the union leadership, the NLRB?

2. In order to organize a significant proportion of the working class, unions must recruit millions of workers. This can not be done simply by offering improved insurance packages, a raise or grievance procedure but rather by turning organized labor into a social movement. Workers must see unions as organizations that speak in their interest and are run by their members. A working-class culture that reinforces class consciousness must be built as an alternative to the corporate commercial culture.

3. Organizing campaigns, like contract battles, often can be won only by building strong community coalitions. By reaching out to the community, organizing campaigns are pushed to address broader social issues than they would if they were contained within the workplace. The organizing campaign should be seen by the community as a struggle for democratic rights to organize, to live without fear, to health care, etc.

4. Organizing is a struggle for democracy in the workplace. As Marx comments in Capital, the facade of equality ends when the threshold of the workplace is crossed. One "equal" becomes the capitalist and boss, the other becomes a wage slave. The organizing campaign is both a revolution and a reform. The campaign is a revolution-in-miniature where the relations of production in the shop and social relations between workers undergo a change. Workers learn the value of solidarity. They can no longer be fired on whim and they can demand a share of surplus value. Organizing is also a fight for democratic reform. It brings the Bill of Rights and due process into the workplace. Workers win the right to free speech, freedom of the press, the right against self-incrimination and other constitutional guarantees that unorganized workers are deprived of for nearly half of their waking lives.

5. Organizing brings enthusiastic new members into unions that are often not equipped to deal with them in a democratic manner. Some unions and leaders see organizing, not as a way to benefit unorganized workers, but as a means of increasing membership and dues money.

6. Unions often see themselves are representing and responsible for only those workers who are members under a collective bargaining agreement or where recognition has been achieved. When unions see themselves as the voice for all workers - organized and unorganized - within their industrial jurisdiction, they are moving toward a class perspective. Non-socialist union leaders do not educate their members to analyze organizing from a class perspective. Instead they take an "economist" position that organizing is good because it will help raise the wages of the workers in unorganized and competitive shops and add more dues payers.

7. Activists and organizing committee members have learned through the organizing campaign to be involved in decision-making processes. After they win representation, they are often shunted aside by staff reps, negotiators and union leaders. If new members attempt to participate in the running of the union it creates a clash with existing leaders. Political battles, trusteeship or a cut off of funding for organizing can be the result. Successful organizing can only exist in a union that fully embraces the "organizing model" and is thoroughly democratic.

8. When an organizing committee is formed, the union begins to exists. It is the "concerted activity" of the workers, not recognition by the employer, that creates the union. A union may exist in a shop for years without gaining recognition. International unions generally do not support this type of organizing since they usually do not receive dues income until after recognition and a contract are achieved. However, building non-recognized unions is an important strategy for organizing non-traditional, contingent and informal workers, such as, independent contractors, temps, employees of small employers and sub-contractors, etc.

9. Organizing committees are the heart and soul of every union campaign. The organizing committee is sometimes the first place where workers have a real say in decision making in their social and political lives. The organizing committee brings together workers by race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc. who may not otherwise interact with each other. Organizing committees, and unions in general, are among the few organizations that break down the social and structural barriers against multi-racial cooperation. The organizing committee teaches leadership skills and democratic principles to workers in a society that discourages their development.

10. Immigrant workers are becoming an increasingly important segment of many industries. In California alone, by 2000 there will be 2 million recent immigrants. Their presence has enabled unions to successfully organize shops in manufacturing and service industries, such as American Racing and thousands of drywallers and janitors. A number of new immigrants bring with them union experience and/or ideological development more advanced than other workers. Unions have the opportunity to become among the only organizations that make immigrants feel "at home." At the same time, labor must address a broad range of non-work related problems, such as citizenship, police brutality, La Migra, decent housing and services. Organized labor should also be supportive of independent organizations of immigrants and other workers.

11. Organizing committees can serve as the model for running the entire union. By necessity, organizing committees must meet frequently and be interesting and substantial enough to bring workers back for the next meeting. Their meetings, again by necessity, must be conducted in the languages of the participants and conform to the cultures of those represented.

12. Unions often fail to win a first contract after a successful organizing campaign. In some cases, staff organizers are withdrawn and reps or negotiators who do not share the same rapport with the newly organized workers are brought in. Funding is often severely curtained after the recognition victory and before the contract is achieved. Most unions do not see the contract campaign as a continuation of the organizing campaign.

13. "Bottom-up" or grassroots unionism is a departure from and alternative to the current AFL-CIO model. In grassroots unionism, workers decide when and where to organize. Established unions lend support and resources. This is the opposite of organizing campaigns driven by the needs or interests of internationals and justified on the basis of strategic targeting.

14. Jurisdictional disputes and raids against independent unions are counter-productive. Clear jurisdictional lines should be set for each union. In the best case, the AFL-CIO would be reformed with 10 - 15 sub-divisions each representing a different industry. Combined with democratic structural reforms such as local union representation at AFL-CIO conventions, direct election of officers, etc., labor would be better able to organize entire industries. Ideological and structural problems go hand-in-hand. The development of class consciousness and democratic structural reforms are both necessary to advance the organized sector of the working class.

15. The "New Voices" led by John Sweeney lack an important ingredient that brought success to John L. Lewis and the CIO - a mass upsurge led by class conscious workers. Without mass pressure from below, the top leadership will get lost in short cuts such as "blitzes" and internal power struggles. As socialists, we have an obligation to build an organized mass base, and quickly.


A version of this document was presented as the discussion paper at the organizing workshop of the Committee of Correspondence, Labor Task Force Conference, entitled The Role of Socialist in the Labor Movement, held in Chicago, Sept. 25-27.