The First Principle of Union Organizing: Spontaneity Isn’t Enough

The seemingly spontaneous upsurges at companies like Starbucks and Amazon are an inspiring sign of life within the workers’ movement. But spontaneity is nowhere near enough to turn labor’s dismal fortunes around.

People hold "Vote Union Yes!" signs during a protest at Kelly Ingram Park on March 27, 2021 in Birmingham, Alabama. (Patrick T. FALLON / AFP via Getty Images)

If today’s unionization rate in the US was the same as it was forty years ago (already a low bar, as that number is significantly down from the mid-1950s peak), the number of union members would be well over 30 million instead of about 17 million. In fact, though the workforce has increased by some 56 million since the early 1980s, the number of union members has fallen by over 3 million.

If it’s hard to grasp the extent of this decline, it’s even harder to fathom fixing this by way of, as Chris Brooks has proposed, a greater reliance on worker spontaneity. Brooks, a former staff writer–organizer with Labor Notes and now a staff organizer at the NewsGuild of New York, seems to imply that organizers like himself should largely give up on, or at least recognize the occasional need to ignore, what he calls “structure-based” organizing strategies and support any actions that small numbers of rank-and-file workers might call for — or just “get out of the way.”

Strong words. But if it’s really that simple, there are hundreds of thousands of workplaces where union organizers have no presence — they’re already well out of the way in the sense that they’ve never been there. Yet spontaneous unionization is hardly running rampant through workplaces across the United States and Canada.

Brooks is inspired in his argument by the example of Starbucks and Amazon, and two retail stores, one at REI in New York City and the other at Apple in Maryland. But this alone is rather unconvincing. Brooks would need a good many more examples of not only stirrings in labor but clear successes. And even these examples don’t really make his case.

The 1930s

Brooks puts great emphasis on the fact that successful unionization has often been explosive rather than incremental. This points him to the need to find “trigger” points that might lead to waves of organizing beyond what organizers could normally orchestrate.

Triggers, as summarized by Paul Engler, coauthor of This Is an Uprising, are “highly publicized moments that mobilize people outside of existing structures. That happens mostly through the media. If the trigger event is big enough, then there is an outpouring of decentralized energy that emerges. That is what we call the  “moment of the whirlwind.”

For his historical argument, Brooks lays claim to the 1930s as confirming his case. Initiatives from below obviously mattered in those years, as they matter in all labor struggles. In Canada, for example, General Motors workers got little concrete support from their US counterparts, who were too absorbed with their own organizing and had no money or organizers to spare. Canadians, inspired by the US sit-down strikes but left to their own devices, did find ways to act on their own.

Yet if there was ever an example in the US and Canada where systematic organizing strategies (and replicable methods) mattered, these years were it. Brooks obscures this by underplaying the remarkable degree of creative organizing that gave workers the confidence and tools to act.

A pitched battle between striking Teamsters and police during the 1934 Minneapolis General Strike. (National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons)

The United Mine Workers, appreciating the dangers of being isolated, sent some one hundred of their members out to actively support the unionization of steelworkers. Workers who had been blacklisted after the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike and working in Ontario in the 1930s brushed off their organizing tool kit when the times became propitious and brought their experiences to the organizing drives. And the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was not just a fringe opposition group but a new labor structure, a central labor body that acted as an alternative to the American Federal of Labor (AFL) and inspired, rather than simply followed, the spread of unionization (against Brooks’s assertion that it was “triggering events” that explain “how the CIO itself was born.”

Trotskyists and Communists, building on years of organizing, led dramatic and highly organized strikes in dramatic battles in trucking and on the ports. Experienced and trained organizers developed workplace leaders, debated and shared critical experiences and strategies, set up research and education institutes, linked workers across workplaces, and coupled the skills of sympathetic intellectuals with those of workers.

To read this history as a spontaneous uprising betrays the extraordinary role that very experienced workers and political radicals who had benefited from a great deal of training achieved through systematic organizing.

Once certain possibilities enter workers’ consciousness, a “whirlwind” of organizing might indeed emerge. But the ambiguous nature of what is or is not a trigger point undermines resting on this as a “strategy.” Even at Amazon today, it remains to be seen if a union gets built and a contract won in Staten Island. In a good many more cases, such actions have failed.

The more credible lesson is that if we need to prepare the structures and capacities for when something like this might happen and take it beyond mass protests, this demands systematic organizing, not just waiting for a surprise eruption of activism — nor relying, as Engler suggests, for this to happen “mostly through the media.”

Spontaneity vs. Organizing

Even if we conclude that both spontaneous initiatives from below and organizing are crucial to overcoming the working class’s collective weakness, it is vital to have a clearer notion of the distinction between them.

A friend recently told me of growing up admiring Rosa Parks as a stubborn, moral black woman who, when confronted by racism on the public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, setting off a chain reaction that highlighted the condition of blacks in the southern US. A comforting story.

But the truth, of course, was that this was not an example of spontaneity. Parks was a longtime activist against segregation and had been trained at the Highlander Center (which Martin Luther King also attended at various times). She was carefully chosen to carry out her role, as was Montgomery as the site of the challenge, and she moved on to become a supporter of Black Power.

Spontaneity and organization are not simply two sides of a common project. Spontaneity references actions taken by decentralized groups of well-intentioned individuals. It confidently presumes that the decentralized actions can, over time, add up to achieving the results intended. Organizing references not just actions, but a process for developing the sustained collective power to achieve goals. It problematizes spontaneity.

What we face is simply too difficult and complex to leave to largely uncoordinated preparations and actions. Spontaneity will not inevitably, or even likely, lead to success unless it is part of a process of building, sustaining, and applying independent power.

As well, organizing brings specific skills, methods, strategies, and the systemization of accumulated experiences, including spontaneous actions, to the task at hand. Spontaneous actions may of course include elements of this, but it would hardly be “spontaneous” if it rigorously applied the broader panoply of actions and processes.

The best organizing processes look to mediate spontaneity and incorporate initiatives from below into their overall approach. Spontaneous initiatives from below are assets to nurture and make more effective. Organizing is the methodology of systematically doing this, of going beyond protest to actually win.

Brooks seems to be reaching for such an integration of organizing and spontaneity. But in rightly looking to correct the failures of traditional organizing, he leans too heavily on spontaneous actions and vague triggering events as the focal point. As he puts it: “Triggering events are radicalizing and can give birth to all-new organizational structures.” It is within this frame that he assesses the organizing at Starbucks and Amazon.

Starbucks and Amazon: Myth and Reality

In the case of Starbucks, the number of units that have voted to unionize is approaching two hundred. A degree of spontaneity has clearly been a factor. As Chris Smalls of ALU (Amazon Labor Union) has noted, unionization has become cool. Occupy highlighted class inequalities, and its limits encouraged a move from protest to politics. With the disappointments in a politics that had not yet developed a powerful labor base, a good many workers have turned to the workplace as the primary space for influencing their lives. This is indeed very significant.

Yet the union drives at Starbucks didn’t just happen. Richard Bensinger, a former head of organizing at the AFL-CIO and currently on the payroll of Workers United/SEIU, has been a vital mentor to Starbucks baristas. He has played an especially critical role in emphasizing the centrality of salts (external activists who take a job in a workplace in order to facilitate unionization) and on insisting that salts cannot just spontaneously do the right thing. They must be trained.

Moreover, as exciting as the developments at Starbucks have been, it is premature to casually declare them already successful. For one, the election majorities cover only a little over 1 percent of Starbucks’s fifteen thousand US facilities. Nor is it just a matter of numbers.

Preparing workers for a recognition strike involves far greater risks and commitments than signing a secret ballot in favor of unionizing, especially as Starbucks gets its second wind and intensifies some combination of threats, concessions, and tactics designed to divide workers and undermine their exciting first tastes of possible victory. It is impossible to imagine workers completing their increasingly fraught march to success without their own deep organizing.

Similarly, the unionization campaign at Amazon JFK8 may have been unorthodox, but the leaders’ organizing approach included many standard techniques emphasized by the best organizers. And here too, though the unit won the election and electrified the labor movement and the Left by breaking tradition and applying for the vote with only 30 percent support, they have not yet been legally certified as a union. The employer will contest it legally, with the end game of getting to the current US Supreme Court — which is sure to side with the employer.

The Staten Island Amazon example can’t be generalized as demonstrating the way ahead; there are far more counter-examples than similar successes.

Between the high number of abstentions in the vote, worker turnover, Amazon’s delaying tactics, and the corporation’s inevitable planning for how to get around a strike, emphasizing spontaneity again falls short. There are difficult strategic debates to be hashed out, such as whether the workers at JFK8 can strike on their own or whether they need to first organize other units. And if it is the latter, how do they move on that front when spontaneity isn’t doing it for them?

A Starbucks worker wears a T-shirt and button promoting unionization outside a Chicago location on April 7, 2022. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune / via Getty Images)

A small number of workers can disrupt the company from time to time, but the likelihood of needing a strike to win recognition demands the widest active support to create what Jane McAlevey calls a “super-majority.” To date, the support in Staten Island remains decidedly mixed. How can it be multiplied without a developed organizing plan?

The false bravado of praising the Amazon group for not “systematically tracking support from coworkers” is no help. If preaching spontaneity is the primary reorientation at JFK8, a demoralizing disaster is more than likely.

Transforming Unionization, Transforming Unions

Brooks is right to express frustrations with what has for so long undeservedly passed for “organizing.” And he is certainly right to emphasize the importance of encouraging initiatives from below. But these are not the most difficult questions. The challenge is rather how to encourage such initiatives, nurture them, and link them to structures, strategies, and tactics that can cohere into actually winning our battles — that is, on how to organize the mass of workers in a workplace (and even go beyond the workplace).

Capitalism’s ordinary functioning tends to create “the kind of working class that facilitates expanding profitability.” The workforces that emerge are fragmented, dependent on the successes of their bosses (even if they simultaneously hate them), disconnected from their own history, absorbed in coping with their personal lives, and pushed by reality to lower their expectations. Its limited knowledge of struggles elsewhere and their own partial experiences all militate against overcoming the structural power of capital. Absent a coherent counter-strategy, we will lose.

Workers must not be romanticized. Their conditions can lead to resistance but also to mistakes. Workers must therefore also be challenged, not patronized.

This is not a matter of telling workers what to do but winning them over (and modifying our own views in this mutual process) to the best strategies possible. Overplaying the weight of spontaneity undermines getting at the complex, essential debates on how to organize.

In this regard, Brooks narrows the discussion by framing it in terms of “traditional organizing” versus “spontaneity” (which he links to the “momentum model) and calling on us to choose. What is excluded, however, is the possibility of another, more successful method of organizing — one Brooks obscures by cavalierly lumping “structure-based” organizing (a methodology popularly associated with Jane McAlevey) into “traditional organizing.” This avoids a serious discussion over an alternative approach to organizing that has had concrete and repeated successes, even in his own union.

An irony here is that McAlevey, like Brooks, appeals to the organizing of the 1930s to make her case. Against Brooks, McAlevey basically takes on the orientation to organizing adopted by the CIO and the Communist Party, adapts it, and popularizes it for the present.

Critics of this approach have attacked McAlevey-style deep organizing as too staff-driven, too technocratic, too unappreciative of worker initiatives, and so ultimately also thin on democracy. They hint it is how national unions organize.

But this is disingenuous: the approach McAlevey popularizes is anything but one embraced by national unions.

National unions understand that the specifics of the kind of organizing McAlevey teaches mean developing a lot of new leaders, opening the door to the widest worker participation, seeing workers as whole people with capacities to organize in the community, raising expectations, and preparing for necessary strikes — all elements seen by far too many leaders as threats.

Unlike what Brooks calls structure-based organizing, the problem with the highly bottom-up approach McAlevey practices and popularizes isn’t that it has failed, but that it has so rarely been tried. And the reason it has been so selectively attempted is that to truly carry it requires transforming our unions.

What must not be lost in the drive to high union density is the question of what kinds of unions we want, and what kind of power we build. This can’t be addressed spontaneously.

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Sam Gindin was research director of the Canadian Auto Workers from 1974–2000. He is co-author (with Leo Panitch) of The Making of Global Capitalism (Verso), and co-author with Leo Panitch and Steve Maher of The Socialist Challenge Today, the expanded and updated American edition of which is forthcoming from Haymarket in 2020.

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