A Theory of Empowerment Organizing

by dannymitch

It has been my observation, after 40+ years as a rank and file organizer and activist, that many of the unions of today in no way resemble the models of unionism upon which they were founded.  I’m talking about the unions that were formed by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) during the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, not the unions of the Knights of Labor.  They have their own history of corruption.  The CIO’s model saw the union as an institution of social reform and their staff were proponents of industrial democracy and political independence.  The Unions of today’s AFL-CIO have been reduced to the status of a special interest group whose power rests in the amount of PAC money they can place in the hands of politicians.

In the early days the CIO unions were designed to give working people control over their working lives.  They did this by allowing workers, through their committees, to make real decisions about their working conditions, the political legislation they wanted to support, etc.  Unions established themselves in the community as the moral and political voice of the working men and women.  They were the embodiment of working class people’s rightful place in a democratic society.  The members truly did run their unions.

The staff of the CIO understood their union, its members and the importance of the democratic process.  There were power struggles for control of the union, but for the most part, they were settled at the ballot box.  Different cliques did emerge as the dominant leaders but they only ruled by the will of the membership.  With the “loyal opposition” ready to pounce on their every move, overall it was a healthy rivalry that kept the union honest and democratic.

Gradually, both the companies and the government began to grow weary of rank and file democracy, it was hard to beat the solidarity.  So the companies began to support certain factions within the unions that they felt were easier to work with.  They also negotiated a dues check-off clause in their contracts.  This was aided by the government’s passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRB).  The NLRB began to channel worker’s grievances into the court system instead of settling them on the shop floor.  While the dues check-off clause made it easier for union leaders to get their hands on the money, without having to earn it.

With the company controlling the money and the NLRB settling grievances, union members were put at a severe disadvantage.  This collusion by corporations and the government has corrupted most unions and makes it difficult, but not impossible, to maintain a democratic, rank and file run union today.  This corruption has transformed our present day unions into the undemocratic and overly centralized bureaucracies we are faced with in the 21st century.

Today’s union leadership, for the most part, is career bureaucrats who lead from the top-down.  Combined with a limited or diluted understanding of democracy, it has led them to believe that only by taking control of all the decision making processes, like being chair of all committees, can a union be run efficiently.  They are afraid to establish a democratic relationship with their members or even let them participate in the defense of their grievances.

They have even developed top-down methods for organizing.  One is called the “blitz”, in which an energetic staff organizer runs around getting workers in a shop to sign a union card.  Once they’ve signed up a majority of people, they file for an election with the NLRB.  Then they start holding mass meetings to convince people to vote for the union.  At no point in the campaign does the organizer teach people about the stewards system or hold election for the first officers of the new union.  They just agitate about the low wages or health and safety problems and convince people that the union will take care of everything, after they win the NLRB election.

There are other top-down models that I won’t mention hear but they all have one thing in common, they put democracy and building the basic union structure as the last thing on the agenda.  I refer to these models of organizing as “junk bond” organizing.  They are a short term solution to the decline in membership and they are short sighted in understanding the goals of building a union movement.

I believe there is a better way to build unions and that is from the bottom-up, using community based, empowerment organizing.  This model is based on the old idea of industry-wide organizing committees in the early days of the CIO.  What’s new is the fact that in today’s political and social environment it can become a much more effective way to get the union’s message out to workers who are not organized.  Especially if these committees are sponsored by a political party, an American Labor Party, rather than individual unions.  I’m not just talking about labor schools but aggressive organizing committees that are actively seeking out unorganized workers who want to learn how to run a democratic union.

In the early days of the CIO, most unions were built out of community based organizing committees whose goal was to organize all the workers in an industry in that town.  It would take 2 or 3 years to win a union drive, because they had to teach people how to act together, in a democratic way.  They learned how to run their unions and to keep the faith and support of their members, as they did battle against the companies and the political system.  They succeeded because they made sure that the members and not some organizer ran the campaign.  This important element of giving the rank and file control over their own destiny is the main reason for the growth of the union in the ‘30’s,’40’s and ‘50’s.

If you look at the struggles of other social reform movements in America, like the civil rights movement of the ‘60’s, you can see this same type of community based organizing at work.  Long before any laws were passed or blacks were elected to office, the strategies of organizations like the NAACP, SNCC, SCLC and CORE were to educate people about their rights.  In many cases they even had to teach people how to read and write.  Eventually, they began to form the necessary democratic organizations they needed to begin to make progress on the issues.  Teaching their staff how to work “with” people instead of doing it “for” people was one of their biggest obstacles.

Unlike the “blitz” strategy, a community based, empowerment organizing committee (EOC) doesn’t only focus on winning an election.  An election campaign doesn’t teach people about democratic decision making, working together or solidarity with other workers in other shops.  An election campaign in no way can prepare people for contract negotiations, a strike or handling grievances.   These are the very next problems they will be facing, if they do win that election.  An EOC can prepare people better by educating them and giving them some practical experiences in leadership.  This experience or confidence building is what is meant by the term “empowerment organizing.”

Unlike the “blitz” model that gives an organizer a deadline, like 90 days, to get a majority of cards signed or move on, it is essential that empowerment organizers have a long term commitment to the rank and file and the community.  With an in-shop EOC, you will move away from just winning an NLRB election to a campaign to build a working union in the shop, before union recognition is achieved.  The election will become a secondary goal and “acting like a union” will become the focus of the EOC.

Eventually, when the in-shop EOC gets big enough to start a card signing campaign, they can decide how and when they will sign people up.  They may do it in the shop, after work or at a rally; it really doesn’t matter, as long as they decide what to do and how to do it democratically.

The EOC model that I have attempted to present is not the only “new” way to organize the unorganized, but it is an alternative to the top-down models that have dominated the American labor movement recently.  Trade Unions must return to democratic, rank and file unionism that is based in the idea of involving the members in deciding their own destiny.  Empowerment Organizing and a Labor Party to promote it are my idea of bottom-up unionism that can save labor movement from the enslavement of corruption and the impotence of the two party dictatorship we have now.