Leadership is not governance

Marianne Garneau explains how, although we need to prioritize organic leaders in our organizing, campaign decisions need to be made by all.

Good organizers know that identifying leaders is crucial to an organizing campaign’s success. If you want to capture as many workers as possible, you need to figure out who the organic social leaders are, and bring them on board, because they bring supporters in their wake. These informal leaders aren’t necessarily higher up in the work hierarchy; they just happen to be people that other folks look to or trust or follow. A common mistake workers or organizers make is to build the campaign around the activists in the workplace – workers who already think it is a good idea to have a union – rather than honestly identifying the people with the most influence, and working diligently to get them on board. The activists may be self-starters, and they may have a lot of energy, and they may evangelize tirelessly for the union, but if that’s your team, and you don’t have the people with the quiet (or not-so-quiet) influence in the workplace, the union will never become a majority effort, and it will never be strong enough to win.

However, this raises an issue. A union is supposed to be a democratic and inclusive effort, and to build as broad a base of solidarity as possible. If we focus on the natural social leaders and build the union around them, aren’t we replicating a sort of informal hierarchy? Aren’t we putting a few people in charge of something that should belong to everyone?

This is especially urgent because organic leaders often come with flaws. They can be obnoxious, or ego-driven; they may be sexist or racist; they may take on too much work, or not pull their weight; they may be mavericks who aren’t inclined to listen to or collaborate with others.

So what do we do? How do we square the circle of wanting to capture leaders in the workplace – and really prioritize them in our organizing efforts – with the fact that we also want to transform social relationships in the workplace and create something horizontal, democratic, egalitarian; something that draws on strength in numbers to fight the boss and win?

The answer to this came like a bolt of lightning from an IWW organizer I was talking to over the weekend. His exact words were: “leadership is not governance.” In other words, we may use organic social leaders in the workplace to build our campaign, but running the campaign and making decisions within it are another matter.

This hit home regarding an experience I had recently had with an organizing effort. A worker at a fitness center had approached me several months prior, and I had been strategizing with him since. He attended an organizer training, and set about gathering a contact list of his coworkers, and working his way through it with one-on-one conversations. He mapped the workplace, and assessed his coworkers after his one-on-ones. We checked in with each other every few weeks. As with most campaigns, it was slow-going, in part because this worker was a union activist but not a social leader.

Then the boss did something stupid, and the campaign exploded. The employer tried to impose a new set of policies and conditions on employees, who were supposed to sign off on them to continue working there. This included an absurd non-compete policy that forbade them from working anywhere else, even for years afterward. The organic leaders in the workplace were suddenly very worked up about an issue, and furious at the boss. My contact threw together a meeting with these leaders and myself, and we started formulating a plan to bring other workers on board and then push back against the policy.

With the leaders ready to fight, everybody else followed suit – and I mean everybody: newbie workers, veteran workers, old, young, male, femme, female, straight, queer, immigrant, American-born, and every race and ethnicity. They came out to meetings, put their names on a petition, and coordinated a plan for an upcoming staff meeting. In the face of a tremendous display of coordinated action, the employer blinked, and then backed down entirely: the new policies and conditions were rescinded “for review,” and then taken off the table altogether.

What happened next still makes my head spin. Just as workers were starting to talk about what grievances to tackle next, the leaders shut the campaign down. They stopped following up with tasks they had assigned, they cancelled upcoming meetings, and they even started one-on-one’ing workers against the campaign. My best understanding is that this was driven partly by fear, and partly because the employer reached out to them and cut some side-deals, offering them a few perks and promotions. (Note: employers are great at identifying leaders, and they always union-bust, even when they give in, and union-busting does not always look like playing hardball).

The critical error we had made was that we hadn’t created a system of governance different from the organic social leadership. When the leaders got offered what they thought was a better deal, they took it, and then they used their influence to turn around and successfully shut down the campaign. (If you’re curious where the rest of the workers were at with this, they varied from being blindsided that the campaign was shutting down, to being convinced by the leaders that things really should end.)

If I could go back, I would ensure that a representative committee was created — preferably elected — of workers from different demographics, lengths of service, and so on. I would ensure that meetings were held regularly on a schedule and not on an ad hoc or emergency basis. And I would ensure that decisions were made by vote, either of the committee, or of the whole workplace.

I did try to suggest these things at the time, but they did not get traction or even much attention in such a fast-moving campaign. Which brings me to a final lesson from this story. My definition of a “hot shop” is one that is trying to take action before it has created a functioning committee of workers in the shop. That’s what happened in this case. Usually, hot shops fail at their actions because workers have not been properly prepared for union-busting, and have not built the relationships of trust they need to weather the inevitable chaos of going to war with the boss. In this case, the workers’ action actually prevailed, but a disastrous collapse followed nonetheless.

If you haven’t laid the proper foundation, you’re not ready for action. Now I see yet another reason for this: because the campaign will be led around by the leaders, according to their whims and judgements. We may need to draw upon organic leadership in the workplace, but we cannot let it run the campaign. Instead, we need forms of decision-making that give voice to everyone, including the quiet ones, the newbies, the followers. A union is a disciplined, collective show of strength, or it is nothing at all.