Building radical unionism: Providing services without creating service unionism

Recomposition’s newest post is “Building radical unionism: Providing services without creating service unionism,” by Adam W. This wasn’t intentional when the article was initially put in the list of material to publish on the blog, but the piece speaks to themes in the recent series of posts on leadership. In a way, this post continues that series.

Building radical unionism: Providing services without creating service unionism
By Adam W.

In the IWW many of us have a critique of the service unionism of most of the large, mainstream unions. This is where the union is seen as a service that workers pay for with dues. The service the union offers is representation with and protection from the boss.

On the Organizing Department email list a small debate arose over how services relate to our organizing. How do we not become the service unionism we criticize? Opposing service unionism is an important critique about unions and social movements in general, but whatever we may call them, services can play a useful role in building radical unionism and social movements.

We need to understand what service unionism is. It is usually defined as a passive relationship where workers expect union staff, outside representatives or even shop stewards to “fix things” for them. The model is prevalent throughout the US labor movement and can even occur in professed radical unions like the IWW. Unions promote this type of thinking through offering services such as credit cards, discounts or similar benefits. Slogans such as “Union membership pays!” suggest that the benefits of being a union member are like the advantages of signing up with Bank of American instead of Wells Fargo.

The part of service unionism we are trying to avoid is a relationship of expert and worker who needs help or leadership. What we want to create are services that are member to member and build leadership of workers. Such services play a role in integrating members into the larger union and the theory and practice of class struggle. Our consciousness around class struggle provides us with an important contrast to the mostly apolitical service unionism. We are trying to build a different world than the adherents of service unionism are. We try to make a concrete link between our ideas and the way we fight the bosses.

Service unionism creates vertical relationships where workers look to politicians, the government, lawyers, experts and even the bosses to get what they need. What we are trying to create are horizontal relationships between workers where workers look to each other, people in their communities or other workers around the world to address their needs. We often use terms like “solidarity” or “mutual aid” to describe this. This also doesn’t mean we will never use labor lawyers to support our fights. We will use them to support our organizing but we do not rely on a legal strategy and courts to do our work for us. Some of our fellow workers won’t take on leadership or expert roles. We seek to ensure that these roles do not become permanent and try to teach skills to as many people as possible. We want everyone to become a leader.

An example of this is the IWW’s Organizer Training Program, which is somewhat based on an expert-like relationship. What doesn’t make this service unionism is that we encourage participants to share their experiences. We build on those experiences during the trainings. Overall goal is that participants take these tools, put them into practice and they become the future trainers.

There are a number of other examples in the union. Many of our campaigns actively recruit workers sympathetic to our goals and help them with their resume and references to get a job in the industry they are organizing. In New York, Spanish speaking immigrant Mexican members working in food warehouses meet with English speaking members and they learn each others language from one another. Also recognizing that the fight of immigrant workers is the fight of all workers, New York members are referred to local immigration support services. The Chicago Couriers Union has a program that allows members to borrow a loaner bike if their own is suddenly damaged. The defunct South Street Workers Union in Philadelphia would organize clinics where the workers they were organizing. This allowed low wage retail and service workers without health insurance to get health screening and a check up by a nurse. They even had a member who was an accountant showing them how to get a rebate on their taxes many low-income workers do not know about (the Earned Income Tax Credit).

There are countless other examples of these currently throughout the union but also in history. The influence of late nineteenth century anarchist mutualists on the workers movement in Mexico is very strong. North of the US border, small towns made up of Mexican workers were run through various associations. Also practiced throughout the Mexican labor movement are worker run savings programs, banks, discounted food stores and health services. These can be important programs that help workers in the short run, reduce their dependency on capitalist institutions and allow them to gain experience with cooperatively run institutions.

The choice between providing services as a union and not providing them is a false choice. We need to keep the critique of service unionism. But we also need to provide services for our members by developing member-to-member relationships, building leadership and supporting programs that meet our needs. This will integrate workers into the union and connect them to the class struggle.

(This articel appeared in the Industrial Worker in January 2009.)


6 Responses to “Building radical unionism: Providing services without creating service unionism”

  1. (full disclosure, I’m a part of the recomposition editorial group). I agree broadly with the framing the author has of wanting to build member-member relationships, but I think the language of services can be distorting and potentially facilitate a populist understanding of workers organization. The workers’ movement needs to address real issues that arise for our communities under capitalism. These solutions need to be collective and based on our class orientation. This is different from services. If workers want to learn new languages, we can come together and use our resources to find solutions that are not being provided. To understand that in terms of serving one and another is to reinforce an orientation of the workers organization as an external entity selling organization to people, marketing itself, giving benefits and reasons to be a part of it, etc. The author is clear about why that is a mistake, but I think it’s worth restating, and personally I would have abandoned the idea of services all together.

  2. Todd, no disrespect intended but you sound here like you’re mostly hung up on the terminology, I know that’s not your intent, but I think it’d be good if you said more about the specifics of what you’re for and against in practice. I mean – I agree with you in not wanting “orientation of the workers organization as an external entity selling organization to people, marketing itself, giving benefits and reasons to be a part of it, etc.” But presumably there *are* some reasons and benefits to be involved in an organization some of the time for some people, right? Otherwise, why are people involved?

    I think the key bit here is the “external” and the “selling” bit — we can and should do stuff collectively together to meet our needs when we need to, and this shouldn’t be selling anything. I don’t see why we can’t do all that without saying “this is a service.” To put it another way – clearly you have a bigger objection than just the name: you object to a certain practice whether it has the name “service” or not. You also are for a certain practice — you say “we can come together and use our resources to find solutions that are not being provided” — and it doesn’t matter if it’s called “service” or not.

  3. Nate, disrespect intended!

    Fair enough. It’s a framing issue which is totally minor, and I think the author agrees. Your framing of my objection is good though, I think the externality is maybe the issue. Its one thing if the horizontal relationships the author proposes is internal, another if it’s external. At the same time even inside an organization you could be trying to continually market services to retain members, which is different from having the collective capacity to solve problems together. There’s some space between those two that’s hard to tease out in language, but important in practice.

  4. Frank Edgewick Says:

    I think this gets back to the ticklish of leadership and organic (emergent) authority to some degree. An experienced organiser meets frightened, inexperienced people who need guidance and assistance. Sometimes this requires convincing people (the selling part) that they are better off organized and that you are the person who can help them with that. Once that gets started, it can’t be wished away. So, there has to be some way to deal with it. I see this as a transition towards horizontal relationships as a goal and an immediate practice, but it is not yet a reality as a description of the relationship. If you are organizing, it’s really unlikely that you never find yourself as an authority to some with whom you work.

    This makes the question of service interesting. Obviously we do things together to make our lives better, but combined with the emergent authority of organizing situations, this can lead to disaster. It is a recipe for clientelism – I do things for you and you give me your obedience. If my power to get things done for you depends on your obedience, then even if I want to help you, I end up dominating you even if that was not my goal. (Think of the afl-cio type ‘toe the line or we can’t help’ type conversation to rebellious workers). Therefore, we need to undermine (our own) emergent authority as quickly as possible by sharing skills and horizontalising information flow. This is the sense of service we need to avoid: ‘doing for’ rather than ‘doing with’. By winning with people we erode our advantage and undermine our authority by raising our coworkers up. But by avoiding providing benefits, we do avoid emergent authority, but we also avoid building up our coworkers.

  5. hi Frank,

    I found this comment very clarifying, thanks for this, I want to riff on this a bit. I think I agree with all of the substance of what you’re saying, especially in terms of what we’d really like to see happen. But I want to quibble on phrasing on two points in part to help get the wheels turning in my head.

    One, I wouldn’t call it “selling,” personally. Two, I don’t know that’d I’d say “we need to undermine (our own) emergent authority as quickly as possible” — I wouldn’t put it as “as quickly as possible.” I see this as a matter of balancing the goal of developing people with the goal of winning the fight (understood in the terms understood by most of the participants). I think sometimes the stakes are high enough that we should do for people more than do with people but this should only ever be viewed as at best a necessary evil. I also think that if we minimize use of paid staff, particularly permanent paid staff, that will help. To use your phrase, which I like very much, we should avoid having ’emergent authority’ center on people paid to work for the organization. I think over the long term reliance on volunteers helps provide an incentive toward mentorship and training, because by replacing one’s self one doesn’t have the same sort of burdens to shoulder. I also think that in thinking about particulars of what we expect to happen we should think good and long about the… for lack of a better phrase, the potential development effects of the activities we have planned, and should as much as possible maximize distributing those in a democratic way that narrows distance between people along the lines you’re describing — narrows emegent authority. One specific example is public speaking – in my opinion organizers should as much as possible try to avoid public speaking in favor of getting other people to do public speaking. The same holds across the board here.

    To use a different metaphor, I think we can see particular aspects of the experiences of struggle are a sort of wealth (a few years ago Todd and I wrote a piece calling this “compositional power”). It seems to me that emergent authority reflects a current uneven distribution of this wealth, which can sometimes lead to a relative monopoly over the products of that wealth (one example of this that comes to mind are objections I’ve heard were made by women within the US New Left along the lines of “why is it we do all the copying and the men do all the thinking and policy-setting?”). This relative monopoly in turn can reinforce or intensify emergent authority. This reminds me of a Debs quote that I like, “I want to rise with the ranks, not from the ranks.” This can apply to wealth of experiences and knowledge as well. As communists our approach to this kind of wealth should be the same as any other, collectivize it (as quickly as is feasible, as you said). Like I said I think de-linking this sort of wealth from monetary wealth via staff provides structures that are more likely to do so (as opposed to just relying on our own virtuousness and smarts…).

    take care,

  6. Thank you for an interesting post on an important topic. I wanted to share a few thoughts, starting off from this statement:

    “The part of service unionism we are trying to avoid is a relationship of expert and worker who needs help or leadership. What we want to create are services that are member to member and build leadership of workers.”

    and also from Frank’s comment:

    “If you are organizing, it’s really unlikely that you never find yourself as an authority to some with whom you work.”

    It seems to me that these relationships of authority and expertise that organizers find themselves in are of two different kinds. They often overlap, but it is useful to distinguish between them because the problems they create call for different solutions. The first kind arises because in any organizing effort workers will begin with different levels of experience, awareness, confidence, etc., and the ‘organizers’ are those who generally have the clearest idea of the way forward. The second kind arises because an effective campaign of any scale usually requires a diversification of functions such that, at various junctures, the many need to rely on the few who have the requisite specialized knowledge, skills, abilities, or whatever.

    These are not just problems for the workers’ movement. Conceived more abstractly, they are basic problems of human social life. In the first place, we are not born with the skills, knowledge, and values that will eventually make us capable adult members of a human community – we learn them (or don’t learn them) from others. In the second place, human civilization rests upon the division and co-ordination of labor – we don’t all do everything, we don’t all know how to do everything, and every society has to institute some way of managing this inevitable interdependence.

    The fundamental problem with service (or ‘business’) unionism is that it solves these two problems in the same manner as capitalist society solves them. The fundamental challenge for a new workers’ movement is to solve them in a way that prefigures as far as possible their solution in a socialist (or whatever you want to call it, much-better-than-capitalist) society.

    What does this mean? Abstractly, I think the basic point may be put as follows. In situations of the first kind, the goal is to ‘close the gap’ between those who know and those who don’t, those who can and those who can’t (yet). (Whereas: capitalist society and service/business unionism infantilize people and perpetuate relationships of dependence.) In situations of the second kind, the goal is to manage necessary and inevitable relationships of interdependence in such a way that those in positions of authority (or power, or whatever you want to call it) act in the genuine interests of those who are for the moment relying on them. (Whereas: in capitalist society and service/business unionism, relationships of dependence become means of exploitation.) Or, to reduce these two solutions to two words: *education* and *democracy*.

    A workers’ movement today has to figure out how to do this in practice, something which will require a lot of experimentation. I think it’s fine to want to, as Frank writes, ‘transition toward horizontal relationships’ in many respects, but taken as an overriding goal this has its limits. Yes, we need to organize in ways that enable all workers to gain experience, awareness, confidence, etc. – after all, our ultimately decisive power lies in all standing together in the horizontal relationship of solidarity. But the kind of working class institutions that will make this purely horizontal power effective at a large scale cannot themselves be confined to it. Realistically, I think we need to build worker institutions with diverse and specialized functions (& capable of economically supporting the people who perform at least some of these functions) if we are to mount an effective challenge to global capital, let alone build a new society. We can and must have education and training so that anyone who wants to can potentially fill these roles, and take measures so that they do not become positions of privilege or irresponsible authority, but if we try to do away with them altogether then we won’t be able to build up anything much better than a mob.

    By the way, I don’t mean that you were necessarily suggesting this in this post – sorry, I got a little carried away! The main thing I wanted to point out is just that there are these two different kinds of asymmetrical relationships, and that it might help to talk about them somewhat separately.

    This is the first time I’ve commented on this blog, so I should introduce myself. My name is Katie. My collaborator Scott and I, who live in Seattle (I’m a member of SeaSol too), recently started the Workers’ Self-Education Project. We just launched a blog, and we will be posting often – there is an article on Solidarity Unionism up there now which is relevant to this thread. I’d love to continue discussion both here and there:

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