Despite what you might think from David Morris’ polemic (Solidarity 459), I am in favour of unions employing full-time organisers to unionise new areas.
I am in favour of that, just as I am in favour of unions employing lawyers, running websites, publishing union journals or newspapers.
And better hard-working union officials than “lethargic, cautious, self-serving and incompetent” ones.
All that, however, does not add up to the three cheers David gives for the US SEIU and its version of an “organising agenda”, as documented by the Australian union official Michael Crosby.
Scarcely even the most conservative unions these days present themselves as only “servicing” individual members (commercial discounts, cheap insurance, legal services). Almost all talk of “the organising model”.
And the difference in “organising models” is not just between the lazy and the hard-working. The problem with the SEIU-Crosby model is more than the slight spots on the sun which David concedes (“serious deficiencies with regard to... lay leadership”).
The SEIU-Crosby model calls for a cadre of full-time organisers who make whole long careers accountable only to the top leadership and not at all to the membership. They are moved on from each area to another as soon as they have filled their membership sign-up quotas.
It calls for those unaccountable organisers specifically to seek cooperation with management, to squeeze out “loudmouth” (combative) workplace representatives, to go slow on worker grievances, and to keep workplace reps “busy” with consensual campaigns like switching off unnecessary lights or encouraging blood donations.
The record of the SEIU-Crosby “organising model” is not good, even by its preferred criterion of raw membership numbers, in abstraction from enabling workers to win better pay or conditions or to acquire a democratic movement of their own.
The SEIU split the US trade-union movement in 2005 to form a new “TUC”, rival to the old-established AFL-CIO. The chief advertised case for the split was that the split-off group, called Change To Win, would pursue the “organising agenda” better than the AFL-CIO.
Since then Change To Win affiliated membership has declined from 5.4 million to 3.5 million. The membership of the old and undynamic AFL-CIO has increased, partly by unions switching back from CTW to AFL-CIO. SEIU membership has been static since 2010.
In 2008, the SEIU mobilised 200 full-time organisers and members to invade and disrupt the Labor Notes conference of rank-and-file union activists. The Labor Notes staff commented that they had often clashed with and been condemned by conservative union leaders, but “in our 29 year history we have never [before] had a group of protesters storm our conference, or assault the brothers and sisters who attend it”.
In 2009 many thousand more democratic-minded SEIU members split from it to form the new National Union of Healthcare Workers, after the SEIU put their giant union local (branch) into trusteeship, i.e. shut it down.
From 2012 — towards the end of a 40-year-plus career of hopping from one union-leader post to another, after four youthful years as a Catholic monk — Crosby led United Voice, in Australia. That shows no great triumph. It now reports its membership as “over 120,000”, the same figure as the old Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union cited before it was renamed United Voice in 2011.
Unite, the British union which makes most noise about “the organising agenda”, has — to judge from the figures of ballot papers issued in its recent general secretary election — a sharper fall in membership than many other British unions, and at a time when workforce participation rates have hit record highs.
The union movement needs organising and organisers. But on a democratic and class-struggle basis.