A cheatsheet for comparing organizing models

Marianne Garneau analyzes different organizing models such as trade unions and worker centers across a number of metrics

Since the 1990s, and even before, organizing strategy has broadened beyond the traditional process of winning a union election in the workplace and then bargaining with the employer. These days, all kinds of campaigns and organizations press for worker gains in some way or another.

Across these different forms, you will often see the same tactics deployed: petitions, delegations of workers marching on a target with a demand, picketing or flyering, bad publicity, etc. Therefore, it is difficult to get an appreciation for the differences between these campaigns and organizations on the basis of their tactics alone.

Moreover, the same language is applied everywhere: “worker power,” “direct action,” “solidarity unionism.”

Therefore, it’s worth making a systematic comparison of these different models on the basis of a number of metrics, like who is involved, who is calling the shots, what the main leverage is, and where the money is coming from.

These fact sheets compare trade unions, solidarity unions, worker centers, advocacy campaigns, working groups, and solidarity networks.

Trade union

ExamplesSEIU, UFCW, UAW, etc.
Pursuing election or formal recognition?Generally yes
Seeking majority presence in the workplace?Yes
Main strategyRecognition election, then formal bargaining to achieve a contract, as outlined in labor relations law (alternatively: neutrality strategy). Contracts outline bread-and-butter things like wages and benefits, and generally include a no-strike, no-lockout clause.
Main leverageDisruption of work processes and profits. Explicitly or implicitly, this is the main leverage, although there is increasing reliance on corporate (pressure) campaigns and other tactics. Also lobbying / funding for political candidates
Who makes strategic decisions?Union staff members (organizers, business agents) with input from workers
MembershipWorkers in the workplace
Primary source of fundingDues

Solidarity union

Pursuing election or formal recognition?Generally no
Seeking majority presence in the workplace?Strives for majority presence but begins bargaining even with a minority
Main strategyWorker-led direct action in and around the workplace to pressure bosses for concessions; possibly some written agreements but no umbrella contract with a no-strike pledge and management rights clause
Main leverageDisruption of work processes and profits
Who makes strategic decisions?Workers in the workplace
MembershipWorkers in the workplace
Primary source of fundingDues

Worker center

ExamplesLaundry Workers Center, Restaurant Opportunities Center, Centro de Trabadores Unidos en la Lucha
Pursuing election or formal recognition?No
Seeking majority presence in the workplace?Sometimes engages a significant number of workers from a workplace, but does not seek “presence” per se. Workers become public representatives of the fight in relation to the media and political processes
Main strategyPublic advocacy for workers at a given workplace or in a given industry, usually within a city, via pressuring of employers and politicians in the media or the public sphere. Sometimes workplace actions are involved, like petitions or delegations of workers presenting demands, or pickets. Some organizations incentivize businesses with training or placement programs, or a “high road to profitabilty” program, which highlights small business owners who support their work
Main leveragePublic condemnation (or praise) including brand targeting; pressure from politicians; sometimes partnerships with businesses
Who makes strategic decisions?Executive directors, with input from staff and boards of directors
MembershipVoluntary membership among supporters and sometimes workers but these are not membership-based organizations (see “Funding”) and membership is not based in a workplace or even a worker base
Primary source of fundingFoundations form the lion’s share (more than half), including perhaps donations from board members’ organizations, followed by fundraising from individual donors, government grants, and trade union support (single-digit percentages)

Advocacy campaign

ExamplesRise Up Retail / United For Respect (formerly OUR Walmart), Fight For 15, One Fair Wage
Pursuing election or formal recognition?No
Seeking majority presence in the workplace?Does not seek workplace presence per se; individual workers are engaged for actions
Main strategyLegislative push, usually for an increase to the minimum wage. Workers who get involved are folded into the organization and tapped to reach out to coworkers to create a volunteer base for the campaign, like a contact list of people to rally for events pressuring elected officials
Main leverageVoting: demand is advanced as a ballot initiative, or becomes a campaign issue bundled with a push for democratic candidates in local races
Who makes strategic decisions?Directors
MembershipNot membership-based
Primary source of fundingFormerly unions (SEIU and UFCW), now moving more towards foundations (e.g. United for Respect receives foundation funding via the Center for Popular Democracy)

Working group

ExamplesTech Workers Coalition, Rideshare Drivers United
Pursuing election or formal recognition?No
Seeking majority presence in the workplace?Activist minority within the workplace not seeking a majority presence
Main strategyActivist worker group pressures employers in the public sphere, via media, with some coordinated actions (petitions, walk-outs) in the workplace. Or: activist group with union and/or corporate backing publicly triangulates between workers, the public, the employers, and government (e.g. Independent Drivers Guild)
Main leveragePublicity. Sometimes: handshake partnerships
Who makes strategic decisions?Activists within the workplace (usually self-selected), or else consultation between activist working group, union backer, and employer
MembershipActivist minority within the workplace
Primary source of fundingInformal, out-of-pocket funding from members, and fundraising pages. Sometimes backing by a union or by an employer group themselves (e.g. the Independent Drivers Guild is funded by Uber and the Machinists union)

Solidarity network

ExamplesSeattle Solidarity Network
Pursuing election or formal recognition?No
Seeking majority presence in the workplace?No — helps individual workers (or tenants) with single issues, e.g. cases of wage theft
Main strategyDeployment of activist delegation to harass and embarrass boss (or landlord) until payment
Main leverageEmotional pressure / public embarrassment of small bosses and landlords
Who makes strategic decisions?SolNets are built mostly of informal social networks. Core activist membership meets to decide what cases to take on and what actions to take, then calls for mobilization from among the supporters network
MembershipActivist volunteers who attend regular meetings; local activist supporters who are mobilized during actions
Primary source of fundingIndividual member donations, fundraising