Against Service Unionism

Quick quiz: which of these two phrases is more inspiring and empowering?

A) “Hey, the boss is cutting our hours and shorting our pay. Let’s organize to do something about it!”

or

B) “Hey, the boss is cutting our hours and shorting our pay. Let’s go on down to the union lawyer, give them as much information as we have, file a grievance, take it through the grievance process, head to arbitration, wait for them to write a brief, wait for them to argue the case in front of an arbitrator we’ve never met, and see what happens?”

If you answered option B, you’re a lawyer or training to be one, and I’m deeply sorry about that. If you answered option A, congratulations! You might just be a unionist.

Janus and the Recommitment to Organizing

I organize for a union that largely represents public-sector workers, and since the lead-up to the Janus case (and really, since the run-up to its ancestor, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association), there’s been a lot of discussion about how we need to “get back” to organizing now that we can’t count on mandatory union membership.

It’s always been a little bit puzzling to me, because I’ve never really understood why many unions made the Faustian bargain to rely so heavily on union security clauses, fair-share agreements, and contract negotiations in the first place. Conditions have certainly changed since the Battle of Blair Mountain — the feds have bigger guns and a lot of the more effective militant tactics, like wildcat strikes, are illegal now — but the idea of trading organizing for “labor peace” has always seemed strange.

The longer I do this work, the more I have a viscerally negative reaction to the concept of service unionism, and the more convinced I am that organized labor needs to become organizing labor in the US if we’re going to survive long term. I’m writing this essay as a way to condense those thoughts, and hopefully spark a discussion with fellow unionists about how we approach this work, and what we can do to make our members more powerful.

Disclaimers

To be clear about context, I’m writing this as an organizer in Oregon and Washington, which were not previously right-to-work states. Your mileage may vary depending on where you’re working, and I know this discussion is going to seem really quaint to those who are already out there organizing, fighting alongside the rank-and-file, and building strong union democracies. Just look at the teacher strike waves in West Virginia, SW Washington, Denver, and beyond. There’s good stuff happening in labor right now, and I want more of it.

Not every union has fallen into the service-unionism trap. There has always been innovative, militant, member-led organizing at job sites across the US, and that’s true even at service-oriented unions. But I do think that many have accepted the devil’s deal, pivoted away from organizing, and moved toward a service-union model. There are a lot of complex historical reasons contributing to that: the expulsion of communists and socialists from labor in the Red Scares of the early 20th century, the deployment of the FBI as an agency dedicated to combating radicalism of all kinds in the US, the merger of the AFL and CIO, the Taft-Hartley Act, and so much more. But those big-picture assaults on labor ain’t over (just see the folks suing to recoup their fair-share fees post-Janus, and Democrats’ absolute abandonment of card-check legislation), and to fight them, we’re going to need strong solidarity among workers, which takes — you guessed it — strong organizing.

I don’t want this essay to read as a condemnation of where we’re at. Well, not totally; some condemnation is necessary to honestly interrogate the situation. But I don’t want to relitigate 100+ years of labor history, nor do I have the time or expertise to do so. Instead, I want to develop a forward-looking critique tied to a broader vision for worker-led organizing and agitation in the workplace, rooted in my experience as an organizer.

What is Service Unionism?

Before I go farther, I’d like to ruminate a little on what I mean by “service unionism,” and contrast it with other models of union activism.

Service unionism is a model for how labor unions should operate, which emphasizes the services that a union provides to its members. These services especially include:

  • Grievances and arbitration, the process for working through disciplinary decisions
  • Contract administration, ensuring that the employer is fully complying with the provisions of the collective bargaining agreement when it’s in force
  • Contract negotiation, coming to an agreement with the employer for a new collective bargaining agreement when the old one’s expired, or it’s about to be

Service unionism is by nature a top-down model. It privileges elected union leadership, union staff, and outside consultants, who are often experts in some aspect of each of those processes. Later on in this essay, I’ll reflect on the whole class of folks who represent what I’d call the Labor Peace-Industrial Complex: the bureaucrats and outside professionals who make good money providing these services. These people are paid to work on behalf of workers, rather than workers doing it for themselves.

In the case of grievances, the service union model usually emphasizes how discipline or other decisions impact individuals, as opposed to how they impact workers as a class. In the case of contract negotiations, it’s a few member-leaders negotiating on behalf of an entire bargaining unit, often in secret. It’s reactive to what’s happening, not proactive in addressing what should be happening. It’s all very disempowering, and it encourages folks to view their union as an external entity which does things for them, instead of viewing it as an active, collective partnership between the workers themselves. The union becomes “them,” not “us,” and that’s disastrous for the solidarity between workers.

Service unionism usually relies on the concept of “labor peace,” which to be clear, I mean in a more general sense than legal labor peace agreements. Labor peace in the abstract is the idea that we all thrive when the bosses and workers are getting along, and not fighting one another too aggressively. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s a load of horseshit. Playing nice with the management class, which does not have workers’ interests at heart, is a recipe for disaster. Frederick Douglass said it best: “This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

To be clear, there are strong organizing unions out there that still clear plenty of grievances, negotiate contracts and side letters, and provide individual services to their members. These models are not mutually exclusive by any stretch of the imagination, so long as providing direct services to members does not become a replacement for organizing work.

What Else is There?

The alternative is a model often referred to as “organizing” or “solidarity unionism,” which are a little bit different but, I’d argue, deeply interrelated.

Organizing unionism emphasizes resolving workplace struggles through collective action. That includes informational pickets, strikes, petitions, leafletting campaigns, nonviolent direction action, street theater, media, and more. The goal is to get as many members involved in the action as possible, and to use every dispute as a chance to build up solidarity in the workplace. It’s a militant model for how a union should operate, because organizing requires directly and sometimes unkindly challenging people with power, as opposed to asking them nicely in a smoke-filled back room where your negotiating team is working through a contract. It’s bottom-up, and it requires union staff and leadership to yield their power to the rank-and-file workers who are directly impacted by whatever it is you’re fighting for or against. It’s proactive, too: you go looking for ways to build worker power, and make the workplace better & more democratic, rather than just taking what comes at you as it comes.

Solidarity unionism is an even more deeply political model, where unions are active participants in larger community struggles for social, racial, and economic justice. For example, a solidarity union might march alongside Black Lives Matter activists fighting for police accountability, not because that has anything specific to do with their workplace, but rather because of a sense that these struggles are linked in the big picture. For example, a solidarity union is one that fights their local transit agency offering alt-rights groups a special train to their Klan-adjacent rally, as happened in both Portland and Washington, DC.

Both of these models place a greater emphasis on workers acting collectively on their own behalf, and places much less emphasis on full-time officers, staff, and consultants. Speaking as a union staffer myself, I do think there’s a role for professional staff in modern unions, but I also think it’s eminently reasonable to view that as a temporary kind of job that should only exist to build capacity among workers, until it’s unnecessary and redundant. Put another way, all union leaders and staff should be looking to work themselves out of a job, because we’re really not that important in the broader scheme of things compared to our members and member-leaders.

All unions should aspire to be organizing and solidarity unions. For one, if you’re concerned about the impact of Janus and the new world of voluntary public-sector membership (assuming you don’t live in one of the 26 states that were already right-to-work/right-to-shirk before the case was decided), getting your members involved in solidarity and organizing campaigns is a really easy way to break down the divide between “the union” and the rank-and-file workforce. The best way for workers to see themselves as leaders in their union is to make them actual leaders in their union. Beyond that, it helps you contextualize attacks on organized labor over the last 100-odd years as a broader attack against working folks more generally, making it a facet of the struggle against racism and American apartheid, against US imperialism, against sexism and misogyny, against homophobia, against ableism, against attacks on trans & gender nonconforming folks, and so much more.

That context opens some really interesting space for collaboration. For example, I’ve been working with a group of commercial drivers who operate paratransit and dial-a-ride buses, door-to-door and curb-to-curb service for people with disabilities, elders, and other folks with mobility challenges. These drivers are paid less than the people who drive your average city bus, and they face some extremely rough working conditions: lack of bathroom breaks and bathrooms, shoddy outdated equipment, and stress injuries from lifting mobility devices on a regular basis without proper ergonomic equipment. Plus, as is typical in the US, local paratransit services in Oregon and Washington are by and large outsourced to large multinational corporations, which take that public funding for transportation access and convert it into private profit, because what does “transportation accessibility” mean if not a rich Scotland-based CEO getting the newest model of yacht?

But these issues don’t just impact our drivers. Riders are feeling them, too, especially long (2-, 3-, or 4-hour) wait times on the bus and a lack of restroom access. The service is run so poorly that many folks in the disability community have given up on it, though it’s still one of the only accessible transportation folks for many. It would’ve been easy for our drivers to focus just on their own issues, but they understood they were in the same boat (er, bus) as their riders. And they also understood that the reason they were paid less than other bus drivers is the same reason care workers, case managers, and service providers are paid less: we live in an ableist society that devalues folks with disabilities and, by extension, everyone who works with that community.

These drivers are organizing together with their riders for better conditions. Shorter wait times, better bathroom access, living wages, longer service hours, and more. They worked with disability justice activists to hold listening sessions where both drivers and riders could hear from one another about how to support each others’ struggles. We started working to find ways to report vulnerable adult abuse to local human services agencies, taking the lead of the disability justice activists who know this system the best. It’s still early on in the campaign, and I can’t predict where it’s going to go, but I can tell you that there’s nothing that scares the shit out of a private transportation contractor more than their riders and their drivers working together on the same campaign.

The Labor Peace-Industrial Complex

One of the biggest objections I have to service unionism is that it creates a whole new group of folks, the Labor Peace-Industrial Complex. These are your outside lawyers, arbitrators, mediators, conciliators, researchers, communications consultants, state employment relations agencies, and more. It’s an entire bureaucratic class dedicated toward administering and negotiating contracts, clearing grievances, and providing service on behalf of members, instead of organizing in partnership with them. And many of these folks are quite well paid for their service, typically earning more (in my experience) than the workers they “represent.”

You know what else this cast of characters has in common? They’re not workers! They do not have the same stake in shop-floor struggles as rank-and-file workers. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve met some damn fine attorneys in my day, folks who live and breathe the work of labor, and who won’t rest until they get a victory for their members. But these folks are few and far between. And they’re no substitute for a powerful workplace democracy.

That’s ultimately my biggest objection to this consultant class: they take time, resources, and power away from the workers themselves. Every minute an attorney spends negotiating on behalf of a worker is a minute that worker is not getting together with their coworkers to fight collectively for themselves. Every dollar (or ten thousand) we spend on an arbitration is a dollar that’s not going toward supporting worker organizing. Every press release I write as a communications staffer is a missed opportunity for workers to tell their own stories on their own terms. That’s no way to build power or solidarity. Our goal as unionists should be to build the skills and capacity of our members, who — I guarantee you — are smart and capable enough to fight their own battles.

What Does Moving Away From Service Unionism Mean in Practice?

I want to be very clear that I’m not suggesting unions abandon grievances and contract administration entirely nor immediately. I certainly have a lot of sympathy for Martin Glaberman’s argument that simple contracts which encourage workers to resolve disputes through militancy and struggle build more power in the long term than a bunch of egghead lawyers arguing over contract language in a courtroom miles away from the job site. And I don’t think that contract negotiations or grievances build worker power on their own.

That said, I have seen situations where a grievance or contract fight can be part of a larger organizing campaign to build power in the workplace. For example, I work with a group of school bus operators, mechanics, and monitors who transport Special Education students. These 100 or so workers were stuck in a year-long fight to resolve their contract with a local school district. These workers were fired up about the fact that the district was demanding that they accept a wage freeze (especially since they were asked to accept the wage freeze in exchange for could be charitably called “not a damn thing”), and some contract language about how the district would use a certain type of vehicle to effectively de-skill their jobs. The contract negotiation became the site of struggle, but ultimately the issues were broader than the contract: workers were angry that they were constantly disrespected in the workplace, devalued as professionals because they did blue-collar work, and ignored by their bosses. It didn’t help that their break room’s water faucets were contaminated with lead; really drove the message home.

And they organized. They didn’t just solve these issues by sitting in a room with the district’s lawyers and politely asking for more money. They agitated. They held rallies in front of the school board to shame the district into treating its employees better, and placing their mistreatment in the context of the district’s shameful treatment of programs for students with disabilities (just a few weeks before the actions started, the district proposed evicting a program for Special Education students from its building in favor of Talented and Gifted students).

They talked to their fellow drivers, and got folks involved who weren’t exactly enthusiastic unionists at the start of the campaign. They didn’t feel that the dedicated union business meetings were working for them, so they started holding their own and invited the union to participate. They worked with local media to talk about the substantive role school bus drivers play in a student’s education, and shared story after story from parents and students who had been impacted by their drivers. Hell, they even picketed a negotiating session at their union hall to let the district’s administration know they weren’t going to play nice anymore. And they ended up winning about a $4 an hour raise, which isn’t half as much as they deserved, but it ain’t nothing.

They won that at the negotiating table. But they did it by organizing.

Conclusion

I’m going to be criticized for saying this, but I think that Janus was ultimately necessary for the union movement. Maybe not a good thing considering the short-term impact of loss of membership, but overdue in that it forces public-sector unions in a lot of the US to start organizing again, in ways we never should have stopped. Combined with union security clauses and fair-share systems, service unionism at the expense of organizing encourages unions to exhibit a certain kind of institutional conservatism, and promotes a deeply unhealthy relationship between rank-and-file members and shop-floor leaders on the one hand, and executive union leadership & staff on the other.

I sincerely hope that 25 years from now, we all look back at service unionism and union security agreements as bizarre and quaint models of the past amid a new wave of militant labor struggles, which I don’t think is too far-fetched.

My argument isn’t that the service aspects of a union are totally unnecessary. It’s that they’re not complete on their own, and we rely on them at our own peril. Grievances, contract administration, and negotiations are no substitute for actual, on-the-ground and on-the-shop-floor organizing. Service unionism over-emphasizes the role of outside bureaucrats, unelected staff, and union leaders at the expense of rank-and-file membership. These services do not, on their own, build power or solidarity in the workplace, and they’re such individual remedies that they aren’t usually well-suited to that anyhow.

Whatever action you’re taking, your immediate question should be, “how does what I’m doing build worker power in the long term?” And if what you’re doing doesn’t inherently strengthen the power of workers to democratically control their workplace, then you should find an alternative tactic that does just that.