Burnout culture, workers as props: Organizers at United For Respect speak out

An organizer with United for Respect describes staff concerns about the organization’s model and effectiveness. Image © UFCW, via Flickr.

I work as an organizer for United for Respect (UFR), an organization that claims to represent Walmart and other retail workers. Upon being hired, I was so excited to support the leadership of Walmart workers fighting back against the largest private employer in the world. I was told that we are forging a new path for the labor movement, utilizing new digital tools and focusing on “transformative, not transactional” organizing. I was led to believe that we are leaving behind all the “outdated and problematic ideas” perpetuated by unions, to build an organization that really cares about its members. Yet as time went on, I came to realize that we care more about pleasing funders through a frenzy of media hits, and organizing workers is actually quite low on the totem pole of UFR’s priorities. It feels like we are not actually working towards anything.

We organizers work in an oppressive environment, founded on burnout culture, that uses workers as media props. With an overwhelming workload, and no long-term organizing strategy, we spend our days doing work that is constantly in flux and never seems to result in a real victory for our members. We recently won a staff union with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), which we believe is a right all non-profit and union staff should have, but that hasn’t yet changed how we are being treated as organizers. For that reason, three of my co-workers and I have chosen to speak out in the hope that our experience can help other organizers understand whether spending their time and skills in a non-profit worker center like ours is worth it.

The organizing model

In A Cheatsheet for Comparing Organizing Models, Marianne Garneau describes United for Respect as a non-membership organization focused on legislative advocacy where decisions are made by directors. While Garneau is correct in her analysis, the sad reality is that despite the multi-million dollar operating budget, and despite sacrificing worker organizing to focus on policy and politics, we have failed to win a single legislative campaign by ourselves. While coalition work is part and parcel of any successful legislative campaign, UFR receives funding not to lead those campaigns but instead to trail behind: warming seats in coalition meetings and turning out a very small number of workers to hearings. The most recent legislative victory was in New Jersey, which was itself mostly driven by Make the Road NJ and other groups. UFR was only able to claim credit for it because they were marginally involved; and that involvement itself was mandated by a funding grant. This sort of “high-media, low-organizing” model is characteristic of nearly everything UFR does around the Walmart campaign.

UFR claims to be a base-building organization that uses “online-to-offline organizing,” a concept they capitalize on to bring revenue into the organization by charging to train other organizations on their model. The bulk of the “base-building” strategy is to post Facebook advertisements and run online petitions to build a list of contacts. Then, organizers use the application Hustle to mass-text all of those contacts. Those who respond are then moved into UFR’s Facebook groups where they are largely forgotten about and demobilized. One-on-one conversations, while encouraged in name, are in reality de-emphasized: organizers are told not to have one-on-ones because they need to focus on getting as many people as possible to take action and don’t have time for the slow and grinding work of deep organizing. 

“The amount of mobilization being demanded from us gives no time for actual organizing,” one organizer said, who is going by Mario to protect his identity. “We don’t organize, we mobilize, if you even want to call it that.” Organizers report being haphazardly thrown around from press event to press event and forced to ask the same tiny group of workers to become spokespeople, until those workers eventually get burned out from speaking to the media without any support from co-workers in their store and little more to the strategy.

In an interview with Cosmonaut Magazine, a Target worker named Bradley who had at one time been involved with UFR describes how the campaign uses worker spokespeople:

it’s cheaper and less risky to just take workers away from their jobs and put them in front of a city council, politicians, wall street firms, or shareholder conferences to talk about how workers’ lives are shitty because of a lack of pay, benefits, or stability. Then they use these public speeches to push for legislative reform, which inevitably leads to GOTV [“get out the vote”] efforts for Democrats.

UFR’s approach also revolves around hurting the “public image” of Walmart. Due to their failure to organize workers on the shop floor, they depend upon an “earned media” strategy where they organize press events with big names, such as prominent senators or celebrities, and then try to find workers whose stories fit into a predetermined narrative. Often organizers are asked to find a “part-time Walmart worker who is a Black woman,” ideally a single mom, with a “compelling, heart-wrenching story” to fit a press story that directors have decided to move forward with. Directors have repeatedly ignored workers’ calls to organize around healthcare, and instead choose to focus on their demand of putting waged workers on corporate boards: a victory in symbol only, as one or two worker members would hardly shift the balance of power in a board filled with corporate executives.

Membership

United for Respect originated as OUR Walmart. Funded by the UFCW, it launched in 2010 with the goal of organizing Walmart’s workforce – the target was 1% in the first year (this target was never met). OUR Walmart organized a series of walk-outs or short strikes participated in by handfuls of workers across the US. When the UFCW withdrew support in 2015, the directors had to scramble to find funding. Ultimately, they landed on the Center for Popular Democracy and several foundations, most recently including the Ford Foundation (which, it should be noted, has rescinded funding from organizations for making decisions it does not agree with). Since splitting from the UFCW, United For Respect has given up on the hope of developing any sort of significant presence within stores.

UFR does not actually have a real definition of a “member.” There is no membership card and no sign-up form. Membership is defined differently to funders, the media, and the public: when we want to look bigger than we are, we use our likes on social media to show our “reach.” At other times, we count the members of our Facebook groups, despite the fact that the majority of those people are entirely uninvolved. Still at other times we count the number of workers in our database, despite the fact that a large number of those contacts have no idea who UFR is when we contact them. This fluid definition of membership allows directors to pick and choose the workers they want to listen to, calling their favorites “members” while disavowing others.

Workers are vocal about their issues online and in surveys we give to them. Yet instead of acting on the results of these surveys, the organization bases their decisions on what is most amenable to elected officials and the public. Workers have spoken out against the “strategy” set by the directors, only to be pushed out or silenced. When confronted with the contradiction between the strategy of the directors and the will of the membership, the directors ignore the latter in favor of the former, which produces a ton of earned media but no significant growth. 

Public presentation vs internal reality

A recent USA Today article stated that “over 500 Walmart employees were expected to not report to their jobs Wednesday” in a call out-action to draw attention to the lack of COVID-19 tracking in the workplace. First, it’s important to understand that UFR’s Walmart campaign wanted to organize a strike in order to imitate the recent Amazon actions. Concerned as it is with media opportunities, the organization saw COVID-19 as the perfect opportunity to get their name in the press. However, since there were no worker leadership committees, the strike was extremely difficult to organize.

The process looked like this: In order to get strike commitments, organizers mass-texted a list of contacts to assess who is “strike-ready” and who is not. We also blasted out social media posts about the strike. Most were not strike-ready, and in the case of the ones that were, there was no intention to help them get their co-workers on board. Out of the handful of workers who signed-up, the majority were texted as a reminder to strike but there was no time or mandate to organize them: there were no one-on-ones, no store mapping, and no confirming their commitment. While over 500 workers did sign-up to call out, only a dozen or so of those workers were actually confirmed by an organizer.

We simply don’t know how many of them actually participated in the strike. As of May 16, over two weeks since the USA Today article, there is still no plan to engage those contacts. Immediately after the last-minute strike, we are now being forced to move onto the next big media action, one which the directors are focusing on getting a celebrity, specifically Cardi B, to attend even while we have no turnout goal for workers themselves. This is characteristic of our strategy: develop a list of spokespersons and insert them into the press. Sadly, members never get a taste for organizing their co-workers or their stores. In the end, they have their names in press articles speaking out against the company, but they have no structure or support from their co-workers to handle the backlash. 

It is irresponsible to ask workers to strike without any support from their co-workers and without any plan after the strike. It is even worse to then demobilize them after, where they will likely face retaliation from the boss and have no support from us because we are now forced to work on the next big press event. Many organizers question whether or not the directors actually care about the workers they claim to represent, and if they do then why don’t they get it together? It almost seems like they are doing more harm than good by having workers risk their livelihoods to speak up for a campaign that the organization has no plan to actually win.

Another current UFR organizer—who is going by Emilio to protect his identity—describes the situation succinctly: “we’re told we’re building a base but all we’re doing is having people speak to media and ‘hope’ for change.” However, the campaign hasn’t actually won anything through this media-intensive, organizing-deficient strategy. Their most recent victory at Walmart was winning an improved attendance policy for pregnant workers. What the campaign doesn’t say, however, is that the victory was won through a class-action lawsuit filed by the organization A Better Balance. A legal strategy, not an organizing strategy, produced this victory, and the victory itself is quite limited. While Walmart did make a change to their corporate policy, pregnant workers across the company continue to experience problems, but since they aren’t organized they don’t have any collective power to continue pushing the line to build off of that victory.

In the media, workers are projected to be the center of UFR’s decision-making and strategy. Yet in reality, UFR’s Walmart campaign has no solid base of leaders other than those long-time and committed members who were organized during the UFCW days. Organizers are given no time to focus on building relationships with their workers and are forced to ignore the will of the workers in order to go along with decisions made without any worker input. When organizers voice our challenges to management, we are ignored. “If we are supposed to be an organization focused on organizing workers, then why aren’t organizers brought in to the decision-making?” Mario asks. 

Staffing and decision-making

None of the leaders at UFR, staff or “members,” are elected. There is no democratic process within the organization that allows workers to elect their own leadership. In his interview, Bradley noted that United For Respect likes to claim that its Board of Directors includes Walmart workers, although he is skeptical they still work there, and he is right that UFR’s agenda is predetermined before any worker input. Most decisions seem to be made not by the Board but by the Senior Leadership Team (SLT), a group of 5 people, two of them being Co-Executive Director Andrea Dehlendorf and her husband, the Director of Campaigns. If you didn’t catch that, 40% of the decision-making body in the organization is a married couple, which brings up concerns over nepotism, conflict of interest, and favoritism. 

This is of particular concern when decisions are made about staffing. Recently five staff members left the organization, all of them people of color. When a young, black organizer stated her concerns in a staff meeting about UFR asking workers to go on rushed, last-minute strikes with no support or follow-up plan, Dehlendorf became visibly enraged and immediately shut down the discussion. A few days later, the organizer was fired. Since then, organizers have reported being fearful to question anything about work—ironically similar to the authoritarian regimes that workplaces like Walmart have become. Organizers on every team have reported mental and physical health challenges stemming directly from the messy way our work is organized.

There is no long-term organizing strategy for the Walmart or retail campaigns. Since February, we have been working off of a two-week plan at any given time. Even with a short two-week plan, the strategy itself changes often, sometimes daily. One lead organizer describes the frustration her team felt when being told to work on one thing, only later to be told to switch gears and focus on another thing. “This doesn’t just happen every so often,” she says, “but daily.” In the span of one month, the UFR directors have restructured the organizing teams and our focus at least three times. Our daily schedules have been restructured countless times more. This constant shift in structure and strategy results in all of us being unable to do our jobs and in members being utterly confused as to what our organization is actually doing.

When SLT makes decisions without the organizers or members on board, they are blindly making strategy without any input or buy-in from those on the shop floor who experience the problems the organization is trying to remedy. Organizers and members are brought into decision-making in appearance only. For example, the directors claimed that we needed to organize a strike because the workers wanted to. However, only a few vocal workers in our online groups wanted to walk out. Other than that, the majority of the “membership” was not strike-ready. Since we don’t have any functioning worker-leader committees, directors were able to say the workers wanted a strike by picking and choosing the ones that most aligned with the opinion of the directors. Ultimately, things are decided by the directors and are then forced onto the organizers whose job it is to find workers to plug-in to the overwhelming onslaught of press events.

For an organization that claims to be member-led, the truth is that there is no real worker base to the organization. And this is not by accident. Since the split from UFCW, the organization has focused more on hiring managers, communications, digital, and policy staff than it has on organizers. It has become, as one saying goes, “an organization with a swollen head.”

Building worker power or exploiting workers?

It is hard to organize against the largest private employer in the world but it isn’t impossible. By presenting itself as a membership-based organization, but internally abandoning organizing in favor of a legal and political approach, UFR is lying to workers and wasting the time of their organizers.

UFR has failed to secure any self-sufficient means of funding the campaign. Therefore, we chase money from foundations in order to stay afloat. The directors write the grant proposals with little to no input from the members themselves. The result is that the organization develops goals that are disconnected from the membership and the workers they “intend” to organize. Because of this disconnect, the organization ends up focusing on fabricating results to prove we are meeting grant deliverables, instead of organizing workers.   However, since the campaign has failed to produce any real victories, they try to compensate for that loss by filling the void with never-ending press clippings. Funders don’t have to hold us accountable for failing to build our base, because the directors inflate our numbers and prove our effectiveness by showing them manufactured media coverage.

An organizing model that focuses on using workers as props for the media is a failing strategy. No real victories in the history of the labor movement have ever been made from such a strategy. When workers win, they win because they have deep organizing relationships with each other, and know how to take and escalate actions on the shop-floor. While digital tools and online common areas have shown us that we can organize in part online, to abandon shop-floor action and worker leadership is to abandon organizing altogether.

And organizing isn’t the only thing that the organization has abandoned. In 2019 they launched two campaigns, at Lowe’s and at Forever 21. After agitating workers and getting some of them to speak out publicly, they then dropped the campaigns entirely. Workers asked to take a risk were told that we would support them, only for the organization to collapse both campaigns due to an inability of the directors to actually plan and strategize. Because the leadership is neither elected nor representative of the workers themselves, there is no process for workers who were harmed to hold the leadership accountable for their irresponsible decisions. 

Without a long-term plan and worker-centered organizing strategy, non-profit worker organizations will continue to fail their staff and their members. And when they retaliate against staff for speaking in the interests of their members, they push out the best and most committed organizers. In the end, the only result is further harming workers who already have to deal with enough problems on the job. Talented organizers and workers should consider whether a non-profit organization like United For Respect is worth their time. “It feels like we’re using and exploiting working-class retail workers to gain clout so that corporate funders can give us money,” Emilio said, and ended our conversation with a sigh and a “hashtag, neoliberalism.”

Leo

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