Liberation Road

A Note to Socialist Union Staffers: Build Working Class Power!

The crowd cheers as President Barack Obama addresses the Milwaukee Laborfest at Henry Maier Festival Park in Milwaukee, Wisc., Sept. 6, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Many of our friends and members hold staff positions in unions.  In some cases, comrades who were rank and file union members lost their jobs due to plant closures and layoffs and migrated into staff jobs.  In the 1990s, the AFL-CIO and some of its affiliate unions launched a recruitment drive for young progressives and leftists to become staff organizers.  They started an Organizing Institute which recruited heavily on college campuses.  Young socialists continue to become staff organizers as a way of earning a living and making a contribution to the labor movement. Unions have also recruited new staff from among their rank and file.  Sometimes union staff have become radicalized by the experience of organizing workers under extreme opposition, both in workplaces and in the legislative arena.

But too often, when socialists become union staffers, they reduce their practice to just being hard working trade unionists.  They devote themselves to trying to defend union members’ rights at work or organizing more workers into the union. They start to adopt the prejudices and narrowness of their particular union. They shrug their shoulders about the broader attack on workers and stop reading and studying about Marxism, labor history, social justice movements, international politics, etc. As they retreat into the demands of their jobs and their personal lives, their leftist politics become muted or disappear.

Part of the reason for socialists staffers’ tendency to retreat can be found inside the unions. To its detriment, the dominant culture within most unions works to stifle new voices, drive out people with initiative and raise petty rivalries above genuine differences. In the worst cases, socialist union staff respond by abandoning their politics and becoming opportunistic, cynical operatives of the unions that they may have once tried to transform.  This tendency is a deeply problematic one that we have to confront if we want to succeed at radically transforming the labor movement.  Another part of the reason for the retreat of socialist staffers can be found in the state of the U.S. left. It has been several decades since there was a large scale left project in the labor movement. Absent such a project, individual socialists become frustrated by the condition of the unions and tend to become isolated.

We continue to view the transformation of unions and advancing social justice unionism1as one of the most important tasks for building toward working class revolution. So our hope is that for union staffers who strive to maintain their principles and engage in genuine revolutionary practice, the following ideas will be of use.

The Union Staff Role: Building Workers’ Power

Our most important task as union organizers is to build the capacity of workers to take on and win struggles in their own workplaces and in society. “Leadership development unionism” is an approach inspired by Ella Baker which requires that we put the highest priority on developing class-conscious leaders in our unions.  These are leaders who can think critically and independently, develop strategy and tactics, who see the goals of the movement as a whole as well as the immediate challenge, and who can move others. As union staff, we should focus on identifying the natural leaders in the workplace and building their power and leadership, not our own.

There are some contradictions in the work involving our relationships with workers and union leaders that union staff need to constantly struggle with. Often, though not always, union staff can earn higher salaries than the workers who we are assigned to organize and represent. Sometimes rank and filers who take staff positions experience a sudden increase in their pay and status that puts up a class divide between themselves and their former coworkers. Even where union staff earn less than rank and file workers, there’s an inherent power imbalance that, if we’re not careful, can undermine unity and solidarity between staff and members. Union staff should always look for ways to transfer power and genuine decision-making into the hands of workers, which is where it ultimately belongs. This doesn’t mean negating our own views or opinions or the importance of our role. But it means focusing on intentionally developing workplace leaders’ skills and deeper politics, and encouraging them to take the helm of workplace and community struggles wherever possible. The contradictions with leadership will be addressed later.

1. Be Strategic about Where to Work

Unless you are part of a left organization that’s involved in a collective project, your impact on the direction of the labor movement—or even on an individual union—will necessarily be limited. We recommend that you join a socialist organization if you can find one that reflects your politics and vision. This will enable you to continue studying and making connections between union work and other social movements, resisting the drift toward narrow or sectarian union thinking. At a minimum, find out what work other leftists are already doing and what unions they tend to work for or be members of. Building or adding to already existing good work should be a priority, because it maximizes our impact. If you can figure out how to get hired by a union where comrades already have jobs as rank and file members or elected leaders, then you’ll have a better chance of making a strategic contribution than you could do individually.

There are a wide variety of union staff jobs, and also a variety of local and national unions and federations to work for. The job titles used by different unions can tell you something about their politics. For example, in some unions, the leader is called a “business manager” and representational staff are called “business agents.” In more progressive unions, the job titles are more likely to be “organizer” or “union representative.” There are a variety of clerical, research, political and communication jobs within unions, too. Most union staff postings can be found on Think about the skills and talents that you bring to the table, and what kind of contribution you want to make. Again, the most important impact that you can have won’t be individually, but as part of a broader left project. Depending on the project, it might be helpful for you to take a job with a local union or a national union (usually called “international unions” for historic reasons). If you’re hired by a local, you may have the opportunity to work for an extended period with more or less the same members, staff and leaders. But you might decide that it’s more strategic to work for a national union or federation, where you could eventually be in a position to direct staff and resources to strategic projects.2

We all need to earn a living, but union staff should try to live a modest lifestyle and avoid making our salary and “perks” the primary consideration for where we work. One of the main pitfalls we’ve seen for union staff and leaders is that they become more focused on their own advancement and job security than the advancement of the workers’ struggle. They take advantage of all the perks, get lazy regarding the work, and justify it by pointing to backwardness of leadership. Regardless of the behavior of union leadership, staff should always respect the fact that it’s members’ dues that pay 100% of our salary and benefits. To the extent possible, we have a responsibility to make sure that these resources are well spent.

It may go without saying, but working for a union is demanding and hard work. Physical demands are minimal, but it requires a willingness to engage in conflict, both within the union and against powerful adversaries on a daily basis. We should remember that people died to build unions and that no workers’ victories have come easily in the U.S. But as we work hard, staff should be wary of unreasonable demands placed on them by union leadership. Organizers are sometimes sent far from home and expected to prioritize the union’s needs above our friends, family, and all other interests and concerns. This invariably leads to staff burnout and a high turnover rate. Everyone has a different work style and tolerance for long hours, so figure out what is sustainable for you. It’s important to defend our rights as staff and demand respect, which may include organizing or joining a staff union. But it’s also important to be conscious of the pitfall of overemphasizing our personal interests over broader working class interests.

2. Eyes Open, Mouth Shut for 6 Months

Part of our advice for socialists who accept jobs as rank and file workers, this lesson—which many of us learned the hard way—applies equally to union staff. Even for experienced staff, when we enter a new position, it takes time to figure out the internal dynamics of a union and also to gain competence on the job. It may be obvious, but some of us have discovered that rushing in with ideas and plans about how to change the union’s culture is unlikely to win friends and influence people. Try to take a “test period” of at least 6 months to a year after landing a new job to prove your value as a trustworthy, hard-working member of the staff. Even with a solid track record from other unions, everyone will want to see first-hand evidence of what you can accomplish over time before they’ll be ready to give serious attention to your ideas. Try to be patient, follow directions, and be accountable. Give full, accurate reports of your work, even when nobody asks for them. This test period also gives you important time to assess the state of the union and make determinations about the following:

a) How to Do the Job of Organizing Workers on a Day-to-Day Basis: Being a staff organizer offers the possibility of meeting, learning from, and helping to build power for a wide variety of workers. You might be assigned to work with “professionals” who don’t naturally identify as workers. Or you might be organizing workers from the “lowest and deepest” sectors of the working class, who understand much more clearly the inherent conflict between themselves and the boss. There isn’t one message, tactic or strategy that works best for all workers or all conditions, and it takes time to get to know and identify with the workers you’ll be organizing, and also to get to know the industry they work for. Try to be humble and non-judgmental. Listen to how workers describe their own concerns. Guide them toward collective solutions instead of the individual, legalistic solutions that workers gravitate to under capitalism. If they blame coworkers for their problems, try to direct their anger toward the real source of illegitimate power in the workplace. Always treat workers with respect. Avoid overusing email, text messaging, and social media to communicate. Face-to-face discussions and phone conversations are best.

Ask open-ended questions, including agitational questions, and always make sure that it’s workers who do most of the talking. Agitational questions are ones that expose the root of class conflict. Whether they’re hiring union busters, cutting pay/benefits/hours, unfairly disciplining and firing workers, implementing a bad contract, advancing bad laws, or doing any of the other myriad of things that bosses do to advance their own interests, by asking the right questions, we can expose the conflict that’s at the heart of workers’ problems. We can also help them to see themselves as the solution. You might ask: “Why do you think your boss is doing that?” and then: “So what are you prepared to do about it?” Looking beyond the workplace, you might ask: “If workers are the majority, why don’t we have power in this city/state/country?” Instead of rushing to offer solutions, organizers should ask workers how they might imagine coming together to confront the boss and solve problems collectively. Building workers’ power obviously requires that staff avoid “short cuts” like offering ourselves as a mediator or broker between workers and their bosses or political leaders.

Resisting workers’ tendency to see the union as a 3rd party, staff should stress to workers that the union isn’t something that exists somewhere behind a desk in a union office. Often, this means counteracting years of workers seeing the union as a legal service or insurance broker, and bad training they may have gotten from other union staff and leaders. It’s important to be patient and take time to develop trust before you try too hard to move workers to see what collective power looks like. It’s all part of transferring power to workers. As you resist the tendency for workers to see the union as a 3rd party, make sure that you aren’t positioning yourself as a 3rd party either. In some unions, staff have the ability to join the union they work for— in other words, the same union as the workers who they’re organizing and representing. In these unions, staff can identify as fellow union members who share a stake in advancing the interests of the union and the broader class struggle. No matter what our role in the union—member, staff, and/or leader—we should understand that, as socialists, the working class is our home and our first priority should be the workers.

b) How to Fight White Supremacy (Racism) and Patriarchy as Union Staff: Part of assessing the state of the union is understanding the concrete ways that white supremacy and patriarchy manifest within the union and in workplaces. Reflecting racist, male supremacist structures in society, U.S. unions have a troubling history of excluding women and people of color. But a “hidden history” reveals that some of labor’s most militant fights have been led by people of color and women. Leftists have always been at the forefront of struggles to turn unions into vehicles for fighting white supremacy and patriarchy. These struggles are central to advancing class struggle and moving down the path toward a transformed revolutionary society.

There are ways that union staff can contribute. Organizers should consciously identify and recruit rank and file leaders who reflect the composition of the workforce. Often, white male workers are in the highest-paid job classifications and are overrepresented as shop stewards and on union committees. Organizers can encourage women and people of color to actively participate in meetings and assert their voices within the union. We can seek training opportunities that open up opportunities for women and people of color, both in the workplace and in the union. Socialist staff ought to be models of anti-racist, feminist organizing practice ourselves. We should make information available in all languages spoken by members and use processes for meetings and decision-making that are accessible to all workers. If Roberts’ Rules of Order must be used for meetings, then staff should insist on trainings so that everyone can participate, and provide simultaneous interpretation if needed. We should push union leadership to use affirmative action principles when hiring and promoting staff. Union staff can, and have, done all of these things.

In our experience, more advanced strategies for fighting white supremacy and patriarchy will succeed only with a commitment from union leadership. Formulating new demands and building alliances with movements for racial justice and gender equality are steps that staff can rarely take without leadership’s support. Changing a union’s culture is very difficult from a staff position. But staff can conduct our own research on issues related to race and gender and be prepared to move proposals whenever openings present themselves.

c) How to Orient to Existing Leaders, both Elected and Staff: Whether we like it or not, union leaders are the ones who determine a lot of what we can do as staff. As our piece “Get a Rank and File Job!” states, we believe that unity with union leaders and staff is a tactical, not a strategic question.3 When working for a union, you should take time to get to know and assess the leadership before you decide how to orient to them and to your fellow union staff. Assess how much support union leaders have among the members, and who among the leaders is elected vs. appointed. Also assess their ideological orientation. Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Fernando Gapasin, authors of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Towards Social Justice, have outlined three ideological trends in unions: leftist, pragmatist, and traditionalist. They suggest that unionists can be assessed by their answers to three questions:

(1) What are the constituencies of the union movement?
(2) Who are the friends, allies, and enemies of the union movement? and
(3) What is the geographic scope of our concern for the working class?

Leftists see a broad definition of working class people as the constituency, not just in the U.S. but globally. On the other end, traditionalists’ narrow definition of their constituency includes only their own union’s members. They prioritize working with employers and see progressives and leftists as a threat. They see their interests as tied directly to the success of U.S. corporations at home and abroad. Pragmatists have been changing their views based on changing conditions. As union density declines, pragmatists have embraced a broader view of labor’s potential constituencies. Pragmatists are open to alliances with workers overseas as a means of preserving U.S. unions. They are more open to alliances with leftists and progressives than traditionalists are, but anyone who threatens their power or institutional leadership is seen as an enemy.

Unfortunately, assessing the politics of union leadership doesn’t lead to a simple “A, B, C” of how to work with them, but can provide a context for how we orient to them. In rare situations, union leaders are progressives or leftists who embrace aspects of social justice unionism. In these instances, socialist staff can make a contribution simply by helping to implement the transformative vision of union leadership. But we should recognize that in most cases, union leaders are more traditionalist or pragmatist in their orientation. Even if they were once leftists, they’ve become unaccustomed to conflict and are nervous about encouraging workers to engage in struggle with their employers or other powerful corporate or political interests. They might genuinely identify more with employers than with the workers who we’re trying to organize. Or they may have decided that trying to build workers’ power is futile, and that compromise and accommodation are the only way for the union to survive. They may fear that the membership is conservative, and that if they support nontraditional organizing projects or are associated with leftists, they’ll get voted out of office.

3. “Organizing Up” to Advance Social Justice Unionism

It’s worth using our best organizing skills when assessing the motivations of these union leaders and attempting to move their practice to the left whenever possible. A set of tactics called “organizing up” or “managing from below” can help create space for staff to effectively organize workers and transform unions. These two approaches may be useful:

a) Be open about differences and try to move leadership. Once you have (ideally) worked for 6 months to a year, try approaching union leadership in a manner similar to how you would approach a worker who has misplaced loyalties or is scared to take risks. Put yourself in their shoes, listen to their concerns and objections, and make sure that you understand them fully before you try to move them. Respectfully, make your best case for why you think it’s important to take on a workers’ struggle or commit to a new program. If they’ve voted for a progressive convention resolution or national union platform, you can remind them of that as you try and expand their view about the role for the union. By being patient and trying out different ideas, you might find one that leadership will readily support.

b) Find mentors in the union who will support and protect your work. Most unions are rigidly hierarchical organizations, and it’s helpful if you respect their internal “chain of command” when you want to propose new things. But if you don’t see eye-to-eye with your direct supervisor, it can be helpful to find other mentors, especially if they have politics to the left of your supervisor and/or have influence with leadership. Part of the reason for keeping a low profile and not ruffling feathers too much during the test period is so that you can understand the power dynamics, friendships and rivalries that may exist among union leaders and staff.

“Organizing up” tactics challenge us to use the skills we’ve learned as organizers to move the union leadership in a more left, worker-centered direction. These tactics can also protect union staff from being disciplined and fired for “going rogue” or being “off program.”

4. What to Do When Union Leaders Undermine Working Class Interests

We’ve seen too many examples in recent years when union leaders have made decisions that most of us on the left strongly disagree with. Whether it’s letting corporations erode standards without a fight, putting locals under trusteeship for illegitimate reasons, undermining democracy, engaging in raids (where unions fight each other over workers), or supporting projects that jeopardize the environment, many recent decisions of union leaders have been rightfully criticized by leftists. When union leaders move in directions that damage working class interests and give fodder to anti-union forces, it puts socialist union staffers in a real bind. Do we stand up for our beliefs and risk getting fired and/or blacklisted? Or do we hold our tongues and “live to fight another day”?

In deciding how to respond strategically, it’s important first to make a clear-headed assessment of the particulars. Often, union leaders do things that we disagree with, and almost always they operate from a different set of politics and principles than we do. If we constantly threaten to resign our positions or expose them publicly when we disagree, we’re unlikely to accomplish very much. But there are occasions when resigning is the only way to protect our integrity. One benefit of working as part of a collective left project is that these difficult decisions don’t have to be made individually or in a vacuum!

Another possibility when we strongly disagree with union leadership is that we can support insurgent candidates for union office. If you’re able to join the union you work for, then you may be eligible to run for union office, too. Check the bylaws. It’s always better if insurgent candidates run as a group, either as a formal slate or otherwise, with a clearly agreed-upon vision of how they want to change the union. This isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. If you’re an “at will employee,” then you can be legally fired for supporting an opposition candidate, caucus or slate of candidates. Some unions have policies that explicitly ban staff from getting involved in elections. Even if you aren’t disciplined or fired, union leadership can make your life miserable and even make it difficult for you to be effective in your work if you challenge them and lose. Nevertheless, the union movement has examples of reform movements that have gained traction not only from rank and file members, but also from staff, and succeeded.

5. Always Replace Yourself

You may consider taking the skills you have learned into a rank and file job where they will be transferrable and useful to the working class, as we encourage people to do. The most important message for socialist staffers is that every day, organizers and leaders should each be striving to “organize ourselves out of a job.” Workers must be prepared to lead their own organizations—unions, community groups, and parties of the working class—and we should avoid creating relationships of dependency, where the success of an organization depends on our leadership. Our focus should always be on identifying natural leaders among the rank and file and preparing workers to take the helm wherever possible. If we succeed, each generation of workers will emerge better prepared to advance the struggle.

1. These five features define social justice unionism: speaking for the entire working class, aiming to win social and economic justice in the workplace and in society, practicing global solidarity, transforming unions into organizations run and shaped by members, and building strong alliances with social movements.

2. A number of unions are currently supporting exciting, non-traditional organizing projects on a national scale. They focus on low-wage, private sector jobs staffed by women, immigrants, and people of color. Along with upsurges like Occupy Wall Street, these union-backed projects have focused popular attention on obscene inequality of wealth and income and superexploitation of workers which are hallmarks of this era. There are local and national unions, along with the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, that have committed staff and other resources to helping build working class organizations that extend beyond the workplace and into the communities where workers live. While these campaigns may provide opportunities for socialist staff to advance social justice unionism, there is a risk that union leaders can decide to “pull the plug” and abandon them at any moment, assigning staff to more traditional roles or laying them off. These considerations should all be part of determining what is a strategic program for socialists within the unions.

There are also some local unions that have supported the growth of “Working People’s Assemblies”—or broad alliances aimed at building workers’ power in geographic regions. Socialist staff can offer important support to these WPAs. We also believe that defending the public sector and organizing workers in the South are critical strategic areas for socialists in the labor movement, so it’s worth exploring staff jobs that enable us to advance those broad goals. Popular education programs led by unions can play an important role in breaking neoliberal hegemony, so it’s helpful to have socialist staff who are in a position to support and implement these programs. In 1997, it was left staffers who gave traction to the “Common Sense Economics” training program that was initiated by the now defunct AFL-CIO education department. Soon, it will be given a revival, and will give union staff the opportunity to dialogue with members about the economic reasons for organizing and engaging in political action and about how capitalism hurts workers.

3. Our publication entitled “A Note to Young Activists: Get a Rank and File Job!” explains why we continue to encourage members and friends to take that time honored path of joining the rank and file. In many ways, it is more strategic to change the labor movement from the rank and file, and many comrades have made an important contribution in this way.