Lessons for North American Labour from Workplace Organizing Abroad

In a widely-reported speech last year, AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka declared that the US “system of workplace representation is failing to meet the needs of America’s workers.”  To reverse this longstanding trend, Trumka recommended “new models for organizing workers” that don’t focus exclusively on establishing collective bargaining relationships. [1] In the run-up to the AFL-CIO convention in 2013, he created a committee of labour historians to advise him about how such “new and forgotten methods of organizing” could be implemented [2] Meanwhile, local central labour councils were encouraged to hold “listening sessions” as part of a pre-convention drive “to come up with more viable union models.” At the convention itself, Trumka pledged AFL-CIO support for “any worker or group of workers who wants to organize and build power in the workplace.”

As one group of AFL-CIO advisors explained, since the passage of the National Labour Relations Act in 1935 workers in the US have had the legally protected right to form in-plant committees and engage in “concerted activity that improves wages, benefits, and/or working condition.” Such, “minority union’ formations don’t have to be “officially recognized by employers or certified as collective bargaining representatives.”[3] Workers can think and act like trade unionists even if they don’t have a union contract, have lost a government-supervised representation vote, or don’t plan to petition for such an election. At least one well-known US labour law expert, Charles Morris, has even argued that the NLRA permits “members-only bargaining” by unions in situations where workers lack the majority support necessary for legal certification — a position rejected by employers and, so far, the National Labour Relations Board as well.

The workplace experiments embraced, so belatedly last year, by mainstream labour in the US reflect a broader conception of unionism long championed by the left [5]. AFL-CIO critics like sociologist and former organizer Stanley Aronowitz argued years ago that union building should not be defined — or deformed — by legal certification, employer recognition, or NLRA-influenced union contracts (almost always containing a “no-strike” clause). Now, as radical historian Staughton Lynd notes in his Forward to New Forms of Worker Organization, “alternative unionism” is much in vogue. In the fast food industry and at Wal-Mart, it has found expression, most prominently, among low-wage workers. Their widely publicized protest strikes in 2013-14 often resemble labour’s pre-NLRA skirmishing with management more than post-war disputes leading to a signed contract settlement.

It remains to be seen these whether “alt-labour” experiments backed by mainstream US labour organizations, like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) or the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), will produce what Lynd calls a “qualitatively different practice” of unionism, based on “horizontal rather than vertical” organizational structures. As the sub-title of this book indicates, New Forms has a strong left syndicalist slant and tends to be critical of big national labour federations in just about every country covered. The book’s contributors include shop-floor organizers for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and many others engaged in alternative union formation or agitation in South Africa, India, China, Australia, Argentina, Russia, Sweden, Madagascar, and Colombia.

The strength of this eclectic collection lies in its showcasing of labour organizing, often little known but sometimes fairly large scale.  Ness is a widely travelled and well-informed labour activist who teaches at Brooklyn College/City University of New York and edits the labour journal WorkingUSA. His own past research has focused on labour migration and global inequality, including the exploitation of foreign-born workers, by other immigrants, in the “green groceries” of New York City. In his introduction and concluding essay to this book, Ness argues that the fight against “bureaucratic unions” is a cross-border imperative, just as important for workers in the US and the former Soviet Union as it is to an increasingly disillusioned South African working class.

In a chapter entitled “Exploding Anger: Struggles and Self-Organization in South Africa’s Mining Industry,” Cape Town labour educator Shawn Hattingh chronicles that alienation and resulting rank-and-file action. During the anti-apartheid struggle, Black-led unions and the broader liberation movement were influenced by Communist Party cadre within the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and African National Congress (ANC). Today, the neoliberal ANC, COSATU affiliates like the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and their CP allies face a labour revolt from below because of worker frustration with the labour and ANC officialdom, both viewed as corrupt and too cozy with management.

As Hattingh reports. South African miners began resorting to wildcat strikes and workplace occupations in 2009. When they protested unfair pay and unsafe conditions, NUM officials joined mine owners in calling for police intervention, which led to the massacre of 34 strikers at Marikana two years ago. In response, new forms of worker organization have sprung up to resist this repression and coordinate on-going workplace and community organizing:

The strength of these workers assemblies and committees has been that they have united workers across unions, they have drawn in non-unionized workers; some have also included the unemployed and community members. The assemblies and workers communities have the potential to become a counter-power to the multi-national mining companies, supported by the South African state. To do so, however, depends on the workers’ building and sustaining these organs themselves. It is apparent that the state, the ruling party, the South African Communist Party, capital and most union officials are going to try to prevent this.

Two of the book’s most timely and interesting case studies describe fast food and service worker organizing campaigns where left-leaning independent unions took the lead. Jack Kirkpatrick, an activist in the UK branch of the IWW, provides a history of recent organizing among London janitors. There, building cleaners from Africa, Asia, and Central America first tried to win union recognition under the banner of Unite, a stalwart of the Trade Union Congress. When the militancy and outspokenness of some of their leaders — and timidity of some of their TUC union helpers — led to a parting of ways, some of the insurgent cleaners “voted to leave Britain’s biggest trade union and join one of its smallest.”

In this tale of IWW-backed “solidarity unionism,” Kirkpatrick highlights  examples of “leadership development through education on the job, empowerment through direct action, and ‘self-ownership’ of that action.” He also describes some left-wing union factionalism and in-fighting that persisted after the rift with Unite and proved to be a less-than-inspiring part of “justice for janitors” campaigning in London.

Back in the U.S.A, Erik Forman, a young veteran of IWW organizing at Starbucks and Jimmy John’s, a nationwide fast food chain, provides a colourful account of inside committee building and collective action by sandwich-makers in Minneapolis. IWW recruitment there predated the recent fast-food worker mobilization in the US, which has been heavily funded by SEIU and oriented toward winning hikes in the statutory minimum wage at the city, state, or federal level.

SEIU has spent a reported $10 million to $15 million so far, channeling some of that money into local community-labour organizations assisting its effort. Earlier this year, SEIU and is allies brought hundreds of fast food workers to Chicago for a national “Fight for Fifteen” strategy conference. In September, about 500 “Fight for Fifteen” activists were arrested in three dozen cities, as part of the latest escalation of worker-community pressure on firms like McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendy’s.

Lacking financial and staff resources on this scale, the IWW utilized volunteer organizers who focused their efforts on a single family-owned fast food purveyor that has about 1400 outlets. IWW supporters built a city-wide committee with worker representatives from nine Jimmy John’s shops in Minneapolis. Foreman provides a detailed, often very humorous, and self-critical account of their guerilla warfare with management. His campaign memoir is most useful in its recounting of the workers’ creative employment of direct action, a hallmark of Wobbly organizing in both its early 20th century incarnation and reinvention one hundred years later.

The IWW’s imaginative assault on the company’s policy of denying paid sick days successfully linked worker complaints (and illnesses) with customer concerns about safe-food preparation. Six union activists, including Forman, were fired in retaliation for their “Sick of Working Sick” whistle-blowing. Three years later the NLRB finally got around to ordering their reinstatement, long after active organizing had ceased.

Notwithstanding much past IWW criticism of “contract unionism” and reliance on the NLRB, Jimmy John’s organizers came under worker pressure to petition for a labour board election. After months of tiring, almost daily battles with management, some union supporters wanted the legitimacy of legal certification and formal bargaining on the many job-related problems that remained unresolved. This highly unusual (for fast food) representation vote was held, in the usual US private sector fashion, after a brutal escalation of management’s anti-union campaigning. The Jimmy John’s Workers Union (JJWU) lost by a vote of 87 to 85. (Pre-election assessments, based on IWW card signing and more public expressions for unionization, put “Yes” voters at more than 100.)

The Forman and Kirkpatrick sections of the book are, by themselves, worth the modest price of New Forms of Worker Organization. Both illustrate the real-world challenges of sustaining workplace activity and building sustainable dues paying membership organizations in a workforce with low-pay, scattered job sites, high turnover, and, in some cases, close relationships between workers and their immediate bosses. As Forman concludes, the level of militancy sustained over several years by Jimmy John’s workers “can only be built by organizers who are thoroughly embedded in the segment of the working class they are organizing.”

His elaboration on that message should be required reading for anyone involved in “Fight for Fifteen” campaigning or the company-wide retail store workers network known as “Our Wal-Mart.” Other readers — even those less enthused about the “syndicalist and autonomist” tradition championed by Ness et al — will find this collection invaluable in expanding our thinking about alternative unionism, old and new, home-grown and foreign born.

Steve Early has been active as a labour journalist, lawyer, organizer or union representative in the US since 1972. He is the author, most recently of Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress (Monthly Review Press, 2013) For more about his work, see www.steveearly.org. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com.


[1] For a summary of this Trumka speech, see Jackie Tortora, “Future of Unions: New Models of Worker Representation,” AFL-CIO.org blog, March 7, 2013

[2] For the always insightful views of one labour historian not asked to be part of this committee, see Stanley Aronowitz, “Reversing the Labour Movement’s Free Fall,” Logos, Spring 2013.  While enthusiastic about creating a “‘new’ labour movement,” Aronowitz also asks “why not seek reform of the existing unions?”

[3] See “Bargaining for the Future: Rethinking Labour’s Recent Past and Planning Strategically for Its Future,” a discussion paper prepared by Katie Corrigan, Jennifer Luff; and Joseph A. McCartin for the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labour and the Working Poor, Georgetown University, 32-33.

[4] As Corrigan, Luff, and McCartin note in ibid., the USWA attempted in 2006 to use a union-backed “employee council” as “a test case for the legal theory that the NLRA allows collective bargaining for minority unions; the NLRB declined the Steelworkers’ complaint and has yet to take action on two different union petitions for minority bargaining rights.” For more on how Morris inspired these thwarted NLRB rule-making initiatives, backed by multiple unions and labour law experts, see Charles Morris, The Blue Eagle at Work: Reclaiming Democratic Rights in the American Workplace (Ithaca, NY: Cornell ILR Press, 2004).

[5] See, for example, Steve Early, “How Labour Can Play With a Full Deck,” Working Papers for A New Society, August, 1982, which proposes that AFL-CIO unions create “associate membership” programs to expand their reach beyond collective bargaining units that were already contracting 32 years ago.