Building a Democratic Army of Volunteer Organizers

Labor Needs More and Better Organizers
If It Hopes to Regain Its Former Strength

By Harry Kelber

Fourth in a series of six articles

We are never going to become bigger and stronger as a labor movement unless we have the will and the manpower to take on the nation’s major corporations where millions of unorganized workers are employed. But the problem is that we have too few highly trained organizers to direct large-scale recruiting campaigns.

Many unions send their appointed organizers to the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute, where they spend a weekend acquiring the basics. But that’s hardly enough to equip them to be lead organizers in charge of a campaign. The selection of organizing director is usually left to the top officials of the local or international union. In some cases, the choice is based on political considerations, without too much emphasis on other factors. There is rarely an open competition for the job,

Nor are there any standards by which to evaluate the competence and leadership ability of candidates, or what weight to give to specific qualities. While many applicants have worked as organizers, the interviewers who choose them have never seen them in action. Indeed, once appointed, organizers operate largely on their own, without hardly any oversight by union officers. If they make costly mistakes in the conduct of the campaign, they can downplay them.

It is mystifying how an organizer can spend two years on a campaign, without any outcome, one way or the other. Wouldn’t it be interesting to read a daily report of his or her organizing activities?

Better Training and Greater Oversight for Organizers

If we expect to rebuild the labor movement, we need to recruit and train an army of volunteer organizers, some of whom will eventually attain full-time positions. We should call a conference of a dozen or more directors of university labor programs to develop an upgraded, professional-level training program for actual and potential organizers. We could have ongoing classes in organizing that would be open to union members at university sites in California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and other academic institutions. It would be possible to provide quality training for at least 600 applicants a year.

An essential feature of the new training program would be the requirement that all classes be videotaped, so there would be a visual record of student performance in various predictable situations: how they would talk to a group of non-union workers at a job site; how they would conduct a strategy meeting of their staff; how they would respond to anti-union arguments of the employers, and how they would react if pro-union workers were fired,

By reviewing the videotapes, students would be able to see the weaknesses in their performance and discuss ways of correcting them. As part of their training, students would review organizing campaigns of the past, both the successful ones and those that ended in failure.

Students who complete the training with a satisfactory grade would receive a certificate that would attest to their competence as an organizer. There would eventually be a large reservoir of talented organizers that a union could draw from in planning a recruiting drive.

The videos would enable union officers who do the hiring of organizers to have more evidence of a candidate’s ability than they now have. At the same time, candidates would be required to submit visual evidence to display their qualifications for the job.

Local unions that are interested in cooperating with the plan to create an army of volunteer organizers and sharing the eventual benefits of the plan should write to our web site:

Article 5: “An Army of Volunteer Organizers” will be posted here on Monday, January 22, 2007, and can be viewed and downloaded, along with preceding articles, on our web site, .