Agitation and accommodation: the union "organising agenda"

Submitted by martin on 7 March, 2010 - 10:51 Author: Martin Thomas

Review of " Power at work: Rebuilding the Australian union movement", by Michael Crosby. Federation Press, Sydney, 2005.

In later writing, Crosby has described a union-organising campaign which he considers a model as "unashamedly top-down". This book is the view from "the top" of the "organising agenda" which US, Australian, British and other unions have adopted since the late 1990s.

Crosby is a former Australian union leader who became director of the ACTU [Australian TUC] Organising Centre; then went to work for SEIU, the US union which has most pushed the "organising agenda"; and is now director of the European Organising Centre, in Amsterdam, for the US union federation of which the SEIU is part, Change to Win.

The back cover of his book carries a recommendation from Greg Combet, secretary of the ACTU until 2007 and now an Australian Labor government minister, and the text praises Jeff Lawrence, Combet's successor as ACTU secretary and leader, when the book was written, of Australia's foremost "organising-agenda" union, the Liquor, Hospitality, and Miscellaneous Union (LHMU).

At first sight socialists might want unequivocally to welcome the book's approach, and criticise Combet, Lawrence, and Andy Stern of the SEIU only or mainly for not carrying it through fully enough.

Unions should stop trying to sustain themselves in hard times by a focus on "servicing" members - offering cheap insurance, legal advice, and so on. Instead they should focus on building "power at work".

But what sort of power, built how? A closer look at Crosby's prescriptions sheds light on why the ACTU under Combet and Lawrence has performed much the same as the ACTU under Combet's right-wing predecessor Bill Kelty, and how the SEIU came to organise two or three hundred of its officials and activists to disrupt the April 2008 conference of the US rank-and-file unionists' network Labor Notes.

Crosby is clear and candid about his "organising agenda" as being driven by the top leaders of unions.

The leaders should start by increasing union dues; merging union organisations to get economies of scale in administration and servicing; and thus freeing resources to employ an army of "external" organisers who will "think about nothing else other than building the union's power in non-member workplaces".

In approaching non-union workplaces, those organisers should be cunning and tenacious. Starting with one or two contacts - maybe workers who were union members elsewhere, and have kept up their union membership on transferring to the new workplace - they should assemble a list of names and addresses of workers, and systematically visit them at home.

Once they have sufficient numbers from home visits, they should construct a "map" of the workplace, enabling them to organise and monitor a process of spreading the union message from one worker to another in each section, on each shift, and to key "opinion-formers" among the workers.

Collective union activity in the workplace should generally start with low-key actions focused on low-key demands winnable from even the nastiest employers. Bit by bit they should build up to winning union recognition.

Once the union is recognised, it should ease off the pressure, and shift organisers to new areas.

The union must not "abuse its agreement to act cooperatively by pursuing ongoing industrial action to settle disputes…" "The union office… will not normally be assessing grievances, looking for opportunities to organise and agitate workers to build power".

The aim is "to persuade employers that it is in their commercial self-interest to allow their employees to make a rational judgement about collective representation free of the intimidatory behaviour advocated by Big Business's political wing… [to] reach a mutually beneficial accommodation with employers".

Crosby cautiously distances himself a bit from the policy stated by many British unions, of "partnership" with employers and government, but shares its axioms.

Dismissing a class-struggle alternative by caricaturing it, Crosby states: "We cannot win… if we are suggesting that the endpoint of organising is the construction of a workers' soviet which will deliver edicts to management backed up by ongoing collective action… [And] workers won't tolerate a state of permanent revolution…"

Crosby wants union activists in the workplaces, but with a carefully controlled level of activism. He advises full-time union officials, when "picking" delegates [shop stewards], to avoid "the loudest", "delegates… behaving badly, table-thumping, unreasonable demands, a refusal to be constructive in sorting out workplace problems". He bases this advice on complaints from managers who, he assures us, "were not anti-union", but had been put off by loudmouth union delegates.

Unions should not fight "unfair dismissal" cases where the member's case is too shaky. Doing so uses resources which should instead be directed to organising new sites.

Once a workplace has been organised, unions should look for alternative ways for "workplace leaders" to "build the collective consciousness of the workers". He suggests "organising a blood-bank collection drive… [or] activities designed to build solidarity with workers in other countries". Another option currently pushed by one of the unions which Crosby praises, the Queensland Public Services Union, is a campaign called "Climate Connectors", which mobilises union activists to "green" workplaces by switching off unnecessary lights, economising on use of paper, turning up air-conditioning temperatures, etc.

Crosby praises the SEIU's mobilisation of its workplace activists to campaign for the Democrats in the USA in 2004, urging other unions to follow the SEIU in rewarding such activism with jackets, mobile phones, and ballyhoo.

His recommendations on unions' political activity explicitly dismiss the idea of mobilising more union activists to use the positions to which unions are entitled in the Australian Labor Party. Instead, unions should mobilise activists for electoral and political campaigns on the SEIU model, and have their leaders use the influence which that demonstrated "power" gives them with the politicians.

He emphasises education within the unions, but sees it as top-down. "The vast bulk of our 1.8 million members haven't got a clue about what is happening in their society", so it falls to the top leaders to give them that "clue".

"In the vast majority of unions", writes Crosby, "the leader has the ability to determine the future of every staff member there". His call is not to change that hierarchy but to use it more efficiently.

He recommends less election of union officials, and stricter "performance management" of the officials by the union's top leaders. As a model here he cites an Australian professional-engineers' union which hires a "chief executive" instead of electing a general secretary.

His case for fewer elections is based on three arguments. First, that election of officials makes it harder for women to get top positions, since women union officials are more likely to take years out from their union-official career to look after small children. Second, that directly-elected leaders can use their electoral mandate as a rival authority to that of elected union committees. Thirdly, that elected officials are likely to be tied to the "constituency" of workers who elected them, and thus less manoeuvrable for purposes of organising new areas.

The "organising agenda" offers more possibilities than the "servicing" approach of the late 1980s or early 1990s, but it is not a preliminary or undeveloped version of a class-struggle policy for rebuilding trade unions.

Almost all Crosby's arguments have some grain of good sense. When organising a new workplace in hostile conditions, for example, it usually is advisable to start with action on small, maybe very small, but winnable issues.

But all are warped by his "top-down" approach and orientation to "mutually-beneficial accommodation". A class-struggle approach requires more than amending Crosby's scheme in this or that detail. It requires a fundamental shift in viewpoint.

With some caricature, a Crosby-model union can be described as having five parts:

  • a membership paying higher dues;
  • a corps of workplace activists settled in "mutually beneficial accommodation with employers" but meanwhile keeping busy by organising among workers for blood donations, switching off unnecessary lights, etc.;
  • one corps of full-time officials sitting in a call-centre dealing with members' individual grievances as efficiently as possible;
  • another corps of full-time officials who are geared to "think about nothing" but recruitment in fresh workplaces, and who are constantly moved on from area to area so that they have no long-term accountability (even informal) to organised workers; and
  • a union leader who can "determine the future of every staff member" and will get rid of the laggards and misfits among the officials.

It is a caricature because Crosby concedes that some bosses require not only one-off, but also repeated, pressure to nudge them into "mutually beneficial accommodation", and that unions must offer some democracy. But Crosby does want to push unions as far towards the caricature model as possible.

Missing from Crosby's vision is the idea of unions organising sustained, militant cross-industry campaigns for positive demands, responsive to and accountable to rank-and-file workers.

That sort of campaign has not been seen in the British union movement since the successful campaign in 1979 by the (right-wing) engineering unions for the 39 hour week. But it was the core of the organising strategy of the IWW in its heroic period, and is the core of what's needed now. Such a strategy would include unions employing full-time organisers, but in a very different framework.


Submitted by martin on Sun, 07/03/2010 - 17:15

Michael Crosby is a typical power-hungry, elitist, undemocratic, inexperienced, know-it-all union bureaucrat. Workers would certainly have a better opportunity of successful on-the-job organizing by following a recipe from Nigella Lawson than Crosby's version of trade union organization.

The whole fundamental outlook of trade unionism is to build a better long-lasting democratic organization so working people can live better and more meaningful and gentler lives.... and one day be freed from the shackles of capitalism. It is not the role of unions to recruit hundreds of unelected clones (so called organizers) to deliver up to workers union contracts that on the face of it deliver little more except more money into the coffers of massive unaccountable union bureaucracies.

How dare Crosby criticise the "loudmouth" shop steward/union delegate? Being the epitome of that type of delegate/shop steward, I know what gets results in the rough and tumble of union negotiations, particularly in the blue collar world of unionism. It is not done by spending your time pleasing the boss by acting like a well mannered chimpanzee.

The type of unions Crosby thinks are illuminating are not examples of unionism at its best. Unions have to commit themselves to developing a fighting outlook, not an outlook of class peace and co-operation. The Crosby model is one of a controlled workforce, and is not one that any democratically minded union man or woman should have a bar of.

There are better models about, and we should try to develop them and let Crosby start explaining how less democracy and accountability can be a good thing for working people.

Bob Carnegie

Submitted by mick on Sun, 07/03/2010 - 18:41

If you are reading Crosby for guidance on the political approach of unions you are reading the wrong book. He is not very left wing.
What he is good at is reorganising unions to be able to do the job of fighting back. Read this for guidance on how to do this and it is a very good book.
Of course it is from the viewpoint of the officialdom. That is who he is and who he is trying to convince.
There are a couple of points in Martin's review that may be honest mistakes or may be disingenuous. I don't know:
Martin states that once organizers have succeeded in helping a workforce win recognition they move on as though this is a bad thing. The whole point is to develop workplace power. Once the workforce has achieved recognition, has taken successful action against the employer, has elected and trained reps, has developed its structures and routines etc it needs to start to stand firmly on its own two feet. The organisers should be moved on to somewhere else that needs help.
The point about unions employing more people being bad - especially if some of them come from University is a poor one. Unite for example employs hundreds of secretaries, officers, national officers, assistant general secretaries, researchers, political officers, regional secretaries, press officers, canteen staff... It employs about 80 organisers - far more than any other UK trade union but not enough. There are whole sectors and millions of workers unorganised. It acheived that - through grim opposition - by redirecting resources away from these other areas. Quite bloody right! I cant think of any of Unite's organisers having come straight from Uni. I can think of one or two who have come from Uni via another union or something but most are from campaigns we have worked on or were reps somewhere - car-workers, chicken processors, cleaners, migrant support workers, baggage handlers...
Odd that we should be almost silent about the millions spent and the hundreds employed in cautious, slow, conservative servicing but make loud, often poorly understood criticism of unions spending resources on organising.
A minor point on Bob's comment - Crosby criticises "loud mouth" delegates not for speaking up. he is talking about people who dominate meetings and don't allow fellow workers to get involved and take power into their hands too. He is pointing out that often the genuine leader in a workplace is not the person with the big gob (normally a bloke) but it may be the serious woman at the back of the meeting who can get her workmates to take action.

Submitted by martin on Mon, 08/03/2010 - 21:06

Politics bad, but "very good" at "reorganising unions to fight back"?

I don't think that combination is possible. "Reorganising unions to be able to do the job of fighting back" is not something to which politics are irrelevant.

Crosby has bad "politics" precisely on the issue of workers fighting back.

It is not possible to have those class-collaborationist politics on industrial issues and yet be "very good" on "reorganising unions to be able to do the job of fighting back".

Nothing in my review opposes unions employing full-time organisers. But it matters who controls those organisers and what their political strategy is.

Of course a full-time organiser in a new area should try to get the workplace organisation standing on its own two feet, and then move on to new tasks. Crosby apparently thinks that goes more or less without saying, and doesn't argue it particularly.

What he does argue, and I mention in my review, is something different: that once a workplace is organised the union should "ease off" and discourage combativity.

To quote again, Crosby argues that: "The union must not 'abuse its agreement to act cooperatively by pursuing ongoing industrial action to settle disputes...' 'The union office... will not normally be assessing grievances, looking for opportunities to organise and agitate workers to build power'."

The aim is "[to] reach a mutually beneficial accommodation with employers".

The right-wing politics here is not something separate from and irrelevant to "reorganising unions to be able to do the job of fighting back".

Crosby's objection to "loud" delegates and shop stewards is not as Mick states, about them allegedly "dominating meetings and not allowing fellow workers to get involved". His objection is explicitly about delegates whom managers see as "behaving badly, table-thumping, [making] unreasonable demands, [showing] a refusal to be constructive in sorting out workplace problems".

Why doesn't he want delegates who will be aggressive with management? Because he believes that unions should ease off once they win recognition, that they should avoid "ongoing industrial action", that they should not look to mobilise over grievances, that their aim should be "mutually beneficial accommodation with employers".

His argument here is also part of a whole with his idea that officials should try to keep workplace delegates and shop stewards busy with activities which will not bother management, like organising workers to be blood donors.

Of course unions should employ full-time organisers. They should probably employ some organisers who come into the union from outside.

Of course we are highly critical of the "hundreds employed in cautious, slow, conservative servicing". There is a general problem with the steady rise in the ratio of full-time officials to members in Britain's unions.

But there is a problem with unions developing larger and larger armies of officials who have no "constituency" of organised workers to whom they are accountable, formally or even informally, and are entirely dependent for their "career" on how they please the senior officials above them. Especially so when those senior officials think like Crosby.

There is a problem with "union official" increasingly becoming a "career" which people go into from university (maybe via a spell with an NGO, or something similar) or when their job prospects elsewhere turn sour, and which they then pursue by moving from union to union and up the union-official ladder.

There were plenty of problems with the old-type union official, who almost always became a full-time official after workplace activism in the industry. But the "career official" adds new ones.

In fact, there is a possible time-bomb here. A further problem with the "organising agenda" is that it sucks young people who are potential workplace activists away from working among other workers and into union officialdom. A lot of the new full-time organisers are fairly young and fresh and radical-minded. Or at least, for now they are. What will they be like in 20 years' time? In 20 years' time, will we see the unions run entirely by "career officials", who have never worked among the workers they represent, who owe their "careers" entirely to the promotions they've received from the senior officials above them, and who by then will be entirely incapable of seeing issues as workers' issues rather than "managerial" issues for the union "managers" they are?

A project of "staffing up" the unions, increasing the weight of the full-time official layer relative to the working membership, under a leadership committed to class collaboration, cannot be greeted with the assessment: oh, the politics are not too good, but never mind, this is a "very good" scheme for "reorganising unions to be able to do the job of fighting back".

Martin Thomas

Submitted by martin on Wed, 10/03/2010 - 06:55

Bob Carnegie has alerted me to a recent news report which, he says, represents a logical extrapolation from Crosby's approach. If the core of the answer on organising is to employ a corps of organisers, recruited (mostly) from outside the union, without elections, and specifically required not to develop any long-term relation with any group of members of the union, then why not "outsource" the whole thing?

The Australian, March 10, 2010

"Unions employ ultimate in outsourcing

UNIONS are paying a private company to recruit thousands of members in workplaces, including schools, under a contentious scheme criticised by some leading officials as outsourcing core union business to the private sector.

Work Partners, run by former ALP activist Stuart McGill, has a workforce of 90 employed on common law contracts who have been recruiting new members on behalf of unions, including the Victorian branches of the Australian Education Union and the Community and Public Sector Union.

The AEU's Victorian secretary, Brian Henderson, revealed yesterday his union pays $500 for each new member recruited by Work Partners. The company had brought in 7000 new members from schools, TAFE colleges and early childhood centres over the past two years.

Communications Electrical and Plumbing Union national president Ed Husic said his union had paid the company to recruit members in Telstra and Australia Post.

Some union officials yesterday criticised the unions for "contracting out" a traditional core union service.

By paying a fee per member, unions are effectively forgoing the first year in union dues and hoping the new member stays longer than 12 months. Use of the company has caused disputes among unions where they are competing for new members. The issue is on the agenda for a meeting of ACTU affiliates on Friday.

Australian Workers Union national secretary Paul Howes said he was opposed to the use of Work Partners. "We don't use them. We are not going to use them as we don't think you can outsource core union work," he said.

Other officials said the recruitment strategy was a "bad look" and a questionable way of addressing declining union membership.

Mr McGill, a former staffer with NSW Labor senator Doug Cameron, attracted controversy briefly in 2008 when he recruited members to ALP branches in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney.

He said yesterday Work Partners was a professional services and marketing firm that employed recruiters on behalf of unions to enter workplaces and sell the benefits of unionism to employees.

While Mr Henderson said the AEU paid $500 for each new member, Mr McGill and other union officials said their fee arrangement was commercially confidential.

Mr McGill said his full-time workforce had grown to about 90 and staff were employed on letters of agreement - common law contracts - that paid over the award. He said he would consider reaching a collective agreement with his staff.

Under the school recruitment scheme, individual school principals are approached to allow recruiters to speak one on one to non-unionists.

While Mr McGill said the recruiters talk up how unions can offer job protection and pay rises, union critics said the recruiters over-emphasised "gimmick" programs like Union Shopper, which offers discounts on goods and accommodation.

Mr Henderson, whose branch membership has grown by 20 per cent to 35,000, denied the AEU had outsourced recruitment, saying the use of Work Partners was in addition to the union's own recruiters. "Our membership is growing . . . at a spectacular rate," he said. "Why would we stop doing that given what the ACTU wants is faster growing union membership?'

Mr Husic said Work Partners delivered a consistent focus on recruitment in contrast to full-time union employees, who had sometimes "dropped the ball " on recruitment. "This is a model that we are prepared to embrace, and it is something new."

Mr Husic said he accepted there had been "teething problems" in workplaces where unions contested coverage. "If the ACTU wants to broker protocols, we'd welcome it," he said.
Karen Batt, the CPSU's Victorian secretary, said the use of Work Partners supplemented the union's recruitment strategy and was a "breath of fresh air".

Ms Batt said unions used external professionals to provide a range of other services, including legal and communications, and asked "what is sacrosanct about recruitment?".
ACTU assistant secretary Tim Lyons said the union body did not have a relationship with Work Partners, and there had been mixed reports about its success".

Is this "outsourcing" just a peculiarity of old-fashioned, right-wing, "servicing-model" unions who haven't caught up with the "organising model"?

No. The AEU Victoria is usually considered "left"; so is the CEPU; so is the union which Doug Cameron led before going into politics, the AMWU. The AWU, the union criticising the "outsourcing", has long been the bulwark of the old right in the Australian trade-union movement (and I suspect its criticism is more to do with chagrin about contested coverage than about principle).

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