Union organising: how to be a Troublemaker

Submitted by Matthew on 1 February, 2012 - 12:26

Kim Moody is a writer and activist in the labour movement. His books include Workers In a Lean World and US Labor in Trouble and Transition. In 1979, he helped found Labor Notes, an independent trade union magazine that has gone on to become one of the most important focuses for rank-and-file organising in the American trade union movement. Now based in Britain, Kim is involved in Trade Union Solidarity magazine. He spoke to us about the Labor Notes publication The Troublemaker’s Handbook, a guide to militant organising at work. On Saturday 18 February, Kim will lead a workshop on using the Handbook at the AWL event “New Unionism: How workers can fight back.”


There are two Troublemaker’s Handbooks (TMH), the first published in 1991, the more recent one in 2005.

The first TMH was the result of a “Workplace Strategies School” which Labor Notes (LN) held in 1989. This was based mainly on union members relating experiences of using tactics or ways of organising that worked — i.e., won. There were about 100 workers from a variety of unions and industries at the weekend-long school, and about 25 workshops on different issues, but mostly focused on the workplace.

The “stories” were so great that we had the idea of pulling them together in a book. We (LN) hired Dan La Botz, an experienced socialist, activist and writer, to do this. As he worked on it, he ran across even more “stories” and ideas about workplace struggle. So the first TMH ended up being quite long.

Although Dan edited it, it involved dozens of rank-and-file union activists, helping to solidify the network we always hoped to build. The LN staff also helped out, so it was a very collective effort.

I think it did help a number of the workers involved see the bigger class picture, because it involved people from all kinds of jobs facing similar problem and using collective means to fight back.

The second version of the TMH was edited by LN staffer Jane Slaughter, and involved the same collective process. By the time we did the newer one, LN had held several conferences, drawing up to a thousand union activists, and five weekend schools dealing with lean production and new management methods. So the experience was even richer.

TMH is used mainly by workplace activists, stewards, and reps, but it also serves as an educational tool for many union locals [branches]. A few “official” unions have used it in their training programs, such as the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (before merging several times with other, more conservative, unions); the United Electrical Workers; sometimes the Communications Workers of America. Various labour education programmes or individual union tutors in the US use it, typically by reproducing pages or chapters of it. Mostly, though, it is individual activists, groups of militants, or local unions that use it. The first version sold about 15,000 copies, the second probably more.

Its success inspired LN to organise “Troublemakers’ Schools”. These are one-day schools that have been held in about 20 cities in the last couple of years. LN staff initiate them, but it is local people who put them together, select the workshop leaders, etc. These schools, too, have helped to create a growing (admittedly very loose) network of workplace activists across the country. One result was that the last LN conference in 2010 drew 1,200 people — the biggest yet.

These conferences are not one-day rallies, but weekend educational events with about 50 workshops and a number of plenary sessions. People are encouraged to use the weekend to make links with others or even to form rank-and-file networks in their own unions. They typically draw about 100 immigrant workers and many international participants.

TMH has been used by reform groups [rank-and-file campaigns for democratic reform within particular unions or union branches] such as Teamsters for a Democratic Union, New Directions in the Transport Workers Union Local 100, and many smaller, local ones.

It brings people with diverse views on many questions together and teaches them how to look at their problem collectively in an era when the powers-that-be want us to think in individual terms. It allow reformers, militants, and radicals to bring more conservatively-minded workers together to get a bigger view of what conflict at work is really about, and to see things across the entire working class. It’s political in that it deals with a wide variety of issues, including race, gender, and international connections, but puts them in a class context and proposes collective ways to fight back. Struggle is the force that overcomes conservative views, and TMH provides practical ways to conduct struggle.

TMH can do this in part because it and LN are viewed as being independent of both the union bureaucracy and of any particular political group, even though some of the staff and close supporters are known socialists.

Despite being embedded in the US (and, to a lesser extent, Canadian) industrial relations systems, which are quite different from the UK, I think TMH is particularly relevant today because you now have a situation here where stewards and activists are buried alive in “casework”; i.e., individual grievances, tribunals, etc.

Since that has long been the case in the US, TMH attempts to address this by finding ways to turn individual grievances into collective actions whenever possible.

Here in the UK, we are in a situation where most of our high-level leaders, even the most left-wing of them, can’t seem to think beyond one-day strikes. For its part, too much of the revolutionary left sees union activity in terms of running for high office, as though that was a shortcut to mobilisation and grassroots organisation. Changing things or reviving our unions involves more than ritualistic calls for a general strike or running for places on National Executives. It means building from the base in the workplace or on-the-job, activating people collectively, and expanding consciousness through struggle. TMH is one of many tools for doing that.

One-day strikes are just not effective in most cases. A problem here, of course, is that to strike legally there must be a ballot beforehand, which means it’s harder to catch the employer off-balance. However, once the ballot has been taken the union can decide when and where to strike, so rolling, selective and repetitive strikes are possibilities. There are also various “inside strategies”, like work-to-rule or additional harassment tactics like “quickie” stoppages on the job, mass grievances, everyone coming to work late by a few minutes, etc. This kind of thing is in both editions of TMH. In the final analysis, however, the open-ended [indefinite] strike is workers’ most powerful weapon if well-prepared and conducted. This means various efforts at activating and mobilising members before the strike, again using some of the tactics you can find in TMH.

It’s also worth keeping mind that several groups of workers have simply defied the law in the last few years and gotten away with it.

For the government to come down hard on a large, strategically important, group like the engineering construction workers is somewhat risky. So, they turn the other way and pretend nothing happened. This wouldn’t necessarily work for all workers, but if enough people did it, it might bring aspects of the anti-union laws into public debate.

In fact, it’s already in public debate. The Tories want to make it harder to strike at all. A little “civil disobedience” might well be in order.

I think something like LN, adapted to British conditions, would be extremely useful for getting the trade union movement going again. We have a problem with turning points that don’t turn. There’s a big strike or occupation, but no follow-up.

A UK version of LN could help build a cross-union network that could provide some continuity. It would provide access to various strategies and tactics, a network of workplace reps and activists to spread these kind of ideas and, when possible, organise for them. We hope the re-launched Trade Union Solidarity magazine can play this role.

Of course, it takes time to build up a network across union lines. A UK TMH is a great idea, one that Sheila Cohen of Trade Union Solidarity [and author of Ramparts of Resistance] has been suggesting for some time.

It is a big project, however. Like the first one we did in the US, you need to build up the “stories” and tactics by extending and deepening the network. Perhaps some “schools”, where people tell what kind of tactics worked for them, would be a way to start.

* Labor Notes Troublemaker’s Handbook 2

* Trade Union Solidarity magazine

Capturing the wisdom

Martin Donohue reviews the Troublemaker’s Handbook. This review first appeared in Solidarity 154, 25 June 2009.

Founded in the USA in 1979, Labor Notes is a rank-and-file union organising project and best known for its monthly newsletter. It also organises conferences attracting over 1,000 rank-and-file union stewards, and publishes pamphlets and books.

The continued survival and success of such a democratic, living and vibrant project in the belly of world capitalism holds up an unflattering mirror to our experience in the UK. Since the demise of the excellent Trade Union News we have had nothing remotely similar.

The Troublemaker’s Handbook (TMH) is simply essential. Every union rep and activist should have a copy of this book, and it is invaluable as an exciting and involving primer for younger socialists with less experience of unions.

The TMH contains page after page of first hand accounts of genuinely organising in the workplace. “Organising”, or the “organising agenda”, has replaced partnership as the buzzword/cliché within the union movement. But “organising” means all things to all people. This book serves as a welcome reminder of what organising should mean [for us]. Organising is not something that needs to be done for us by “professionals”; it is the means by which the rank and file can struggle to win back power in the workplace.

Chapters include: shop floor and creative tactics, reforming your branch, and bringing immigrants into the movement. There is a wealth of bitterly won, first-hand experience here. Don’t reinvent the wheel! Read it, and give yourself and your union brothers and sisters and a head start over management. So much of rank-and-file union wisdom is oral, and often lost to the wind. This book provides an invaluable service to the movement in capturing and collecting this information and presenting it in an inspiring way.

Hopefully by now you’ve already decided to buy the TMH (or better, to get your union branch to buy a few copies), so I can safely add a word of warning. This is a book written from the American experience, so there are differences of terminology and more. For example some locals (branches) in the States have tens of thousands of members, so sections on running your “local” read a little different from one written here.

This should not detract from the book, but highlights the lack of a similar book made specific to UK realities.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.