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It has been great fun trying to work out who first coined the term “relational organizing”, and what they meant by it. The story below is made up of some of the contributions we received along the way, along with some that we compiled ourselves (with permission), and some that we just threw in there, because it seemed that there were things people felt but were reluctant to say out loud.
As an approach, we quickly discovered that relational organizing sits equally well with trade unionists, community activists, and faith-based networkers. That in itself was enough to make us sit up and pay attention.
What these enthusiasts described seems to be a variant on the organizing model, but with a much heavier emphasis on relations within the group than the traditional agenda of group/employer relations. Some academics have argued that this is an alternative model, but this is based on the notion that the organizing model is willfully conflictual. A look at examples in the union world today leads us to believe that this is not necessarily the case.
Back in the idealistic 60s and 70s, group identities were not nearly so "fenced off" as they are now. Trade unionists, radical community activists, and christian justice advocates were all sharing ideas and experiences regarding new ways to develop, to maximise their influence, and to stabilise a not-so-committed membership base. Many of them ran inter-twined political agendas, and were vocal members of each other's networks. To get a sense of this blur, try to work out which of the three cultures (as represented by Cesar Chavez, Saul Alinsky and Rev Louise Green) produced these statements:
Karl Popper (you can click on speakers' names for more into)
Oh dear. Has anybody else noticed that they haven't even defined what "relational organizing" is yet?! If I weren't so dead I'd come down there and lay waste to all this communistic prattle with the full powers of science and logic. I mean, how can you discuss an idea before you have even articulated it? And until it is set out clearly, how can you prove that it is false?! Come on, give us something solid that we can test against reality and scientifically pooh pooh!
Rev Louise Green
Don't go looking around too hard for definitions. The word ‘relational’ indicates a sub-text about what this form of organizing is not: not issues organizing; not bureaucratic organizing; not program organizing. As an approach, it goes back to the Industrial Areas Foundation's brand of community organizing, out of Saul Alinsky’s work originally and further developed by the IAF over time, and adopted by other networks such as PICO and Gamaliel. We are so accustomed to group meetings, collective paper agendas, and task-oriented activities that it is easy to perpetuate a system that creates only very minimal relationships between people. Without an ongoing relationship-building initiative in an organization, the same people do the same things in an unexamined way. We owe it to each other to create a shared culture that is dynamic, life-giving and fulfilling for all participants.
For my friends and me at Harvard University, where I was a lab assistant, this was simply a natural way to be ourselves and try to form a union. The labor relations ideas of the HCTWU flowed from the culture we had built while organizing these places. Our approach was based on establishing relationships and common values, rather than focusing solely on “issues”. I think anger is the enemy of union organizing. It's the union's responsibility to create an environment in which you can be part of a union and believe in self-representation and workers' voice without being mean, without being aggressive, without being merely oppositional... If we just superimpose a union on the boss's culture, generally speaking, we get a sick union. We have to sweep away some of the bosses' values first and bring our better values into the workplace. The phrase ‘kindness and respect’ has long been a mantra of our organization. It describes both our ideal workplace climate as well our ideal labor relations climate. The first article of the HUCTW contract states that the parties agree to "build a framework for greater employee participation at Harvard," and then authorizes Joint Councils to solve disputes and make their own policy and workplace decisions "in the spirit of trust and cooperation to reach consensus." Leadership comes from the members, who negotiate their own contracts and work with management to address issues of policy and improve the working environment. To be sure, if we did not have profound concerns and problematic issues, we would not need a union at all. But we do. We are just like everybody else; we need to change work.
I agree, and I can see a change happening. People are seeing that the way to play the game is not to stand on the sidelines and scream and moan and complain. Social change is a lifestyle. You’ve got to find your voice. And if we're going to work together, we are going to have to like each other.
Hold on, hold on. I know where all this is headed. If we all hold hands and dance around the Joshua Tree the boss will hear our happy tune and repent. Hmmm? Stop right there. Did you ever see Fritz Laing's classic movie Metropolis? There's a bit at the end, where "The Brain" (ie the heartless boss) and "The Heart" (ie the brainless workers) are united. They shake hands, it's all blah blah blah, then the credits roll. Right, okay, but what do you think happened when the cameras were switched off? Hmmm? I'll tell you what. Old Brain said: "Errr a-hem, I want to thank you all for coming along today. It's been great. You know, a company's greatest asset is its workers. Yes. Now please take a sausage roll on the way out." And then who goes back down the hole in the morning to do all the work everybody is relying on? Pfffft! I tell you, this whole "relational" agenda is simply a way for people to smuggle moralism into the class struggle. Give me Rotwang's Robot any day - the movie's android party-animal. She leads the workers on a wild smash-and-grab spree. At least that way there's no point going back down the hole on Monday morning after that. If you're going to build a fair society, I say do it from scratch. And get old Brains in there on the shovel!
Bob "Corditebreath" Bisonwangler
Me, I'm not an anarchist, but I agree that this discussion is a mite woolly. What do you do with a work force that has been under the thumb for so long that they're all just frightened as little bunnies in the headlights? I mean, how do we get 'em what they want if they won't lift a finger for themselves? Down home we use a technique called anger-hope-action. We get the workers to identify an issue which makes them angry, and then we work out a way forwards (that's the hope bit), until we've created an appetite for change (and I mean action). It's a cyclical thing; once you've had your first taste of victory, you go back to where you started. And ideally you pick up a few new members along the way, because they've seen the difference a fightin' union can make.
Puny mortal, can't you see -- that is exactly what I was doing! Anger is the wellspring of all action. And yes, of course it is cyclical. In fact the moment it stops it must wither and die. Think of this: as soon as we win, exploitation ends. At that point Metropolis becomes less competitive in a world which is dominated by market forces. Metropolis could never survive on its own, and so we must move on to the next step; we must infiltrate Smallville, then Mayberry, then even lowly Springfield. We must sow the seeds of anger far and wide, for the moment we fail, those who have been the worst to deal with will be the only ones who remain. And at that point they will be the strongest.
Hang on, back up a step. So if I join your union, that man up above, if I join your union then it'll be your job to come down to work and get me angry? That explains why the local union guy always acts like he's got the moral highground stuck to the bottom of his shoes, like a piece of doggy do. You should hear him: the boss is always a bloody fool, or a total villain... Look, I'll tell you something: there's 20 per cent of the staff around here who might go for what you're suggesting. 60 per cent of us are pretty well content, more or less. And to tell you the truth, if we're not, well it's not actually more anger we're looking for in life. And the other 20 per cent are so far up the boss that they're not worth counting. So the best you're ever going to sign up round here is 20 per cent. Mind you, those are the ones that'll keep you busy! But me and the others, I think we're just going to keep doing what we do. Maybe we'll join your union if things get really bad, but not for now. Mind you, I support unions. I do. And good luck to you, I'm sure you're doing your best.
J.B. "Chainsaw" Eagleburger
That's the spirit. You keep the parasites right out of there! Here in the States we know how to handle them. One in five union supporters get fired when there's a unionization campaign on. More than half of us threaten to close the plant if a union is formed. I mean, you should see the way they operate! They creep round workers' houses at night like vampire Amway sellers - and once they're in the door they just press every the emotional button they can until the poor old worker is so upset that they'll do anything. Of course the union promises to solve all their problems. All they have to do is sign the card. Sign the card, sign the card, sign the card and all your problems will disappear. And so they do. And then that vampire is off, out the door and over the road scaring hell out of the next victim before you can say "pass the garlic".
Bob "Corditebreath" Bisonwangler
Hah! What a bloody hypocrite! What about all the intimidation tactics you use during the lead up to the secret ballot? Standover tactics, blackmail, death threats, beatings, sackings, there's nothing you haven't done to scare workers back into submission.
J.B. "Chainsaw" Eagleburger
Yeah, well you started it.
Bob "Corditebreath" Bisonwangler
J.B. "Chainsaw" Eagleburger
Bob "Corditebreath" Bisonwangler
But enough already with the fictional banter (except Rev Louise Green, Kris Rondeau and Horace Small). Anyone who has worked with unions for long enough will have heard different variants of these attitudes expressed time and time again. Some people believe in standing outside the system and throwing rocks; some believe in working within; others believe in constructing a new system within the shell of the old. Then there are those who say all three are equally valid, and/or complementary; and those who believe that only one view can be right. These differences lie at the heart of so many union debates that one could almost say they have been shaping union history.
Relational organizing is interesting in that it completely side-steps these questions altogether. It is about the people themselves, and the fact that they work together, not what they think. In itself, it is neither for nor against a "conflictual" model of labour relations. Where conflicts exist, they are faced. Reactions are discussed, not pre-ordained, and the nature of the union's response is dependent on the people involved and the relationships which exist between them, and with the employer.
This is where the concept of "social capital" comes in. Social capital refers to "the shared views, relationships and networks which enable collective action". The term can be applied equally to a choir, a street gang, a union, a workplace team, or a bowling club. A group which has a high level of social capital will be closely bonded, and the members will share greater levels of mutual trust. In the mid 90's it was shown that this had both economic and industrial value, and at that point social capital quickly became a highly respectable term. Systems were developed to measure it, and the World Bank called it "critical for... human and economic development". It also allowed employers to express their views on compassion and social responsibility; views which previously would have had them branded as flakes.
So where do unions fit in, with regards to social capital?
The rise of the service model of unionism in the post World War II era tended to thin union-based communication networks and interaction
within the workplace by channeling activities through union representatives. Under the service model of unionism, the union contract
came to be seen largely as an “insurance policy” and the union representative
became an “insurance agent”. Workers paid
dues (insurance premiums) and expected “service” from the union steward
and higher-level union representatives when they had a problem. Conflict
resolution became institutionalized largely through the grievance
procedure, which settled disputes with employers over members’ contractual
rights and obligations. Stewards (or other workplace representatives)
came to see themselves primarily as service providers through expert
grievance-handling activities. Union leadership training reinforced
this process by offering activists coursework that focused on contract interpretation
and enforcement, grievance handling, and arbitration... It is only a slight exaggeration to characterize this situation
as a “union of strangers.”
In recreating union communities, social-capital unionism would alter the definition
of union activism to include not just confrontation, but acts of mutual aid.
Employer efforts to increase flexibility, knowledge
transfer, and productivity are increasingly being linked to their ability
to generate social capital in the workplace by developing dense networks
of strong ties among workers.
Recognition that union networks may be used to further these employer
goals is the basic logic behind “value-added unionism” Advocates of this approach see the value-added strategy as a key
to reducing employer resistance to unionization and gaining full partnership
status in the workplace.
Mark R. Warren *
Relational organizing places relationship-building at the heart of everything an organizer does. He or she directly attempts to build "bonding social capital", to create intracommunal solidarity. Relationships created across racial grounds also provide the foundation for "bridging social capital". And these relationships, embedded in organizations and networks, generate political power. This leads to more inclusive and democratic political participation.
In other words, according to their approach, some unions have (and seek) a higher level of social capital between members than others. Some organizers will create it, others will reduce it. Some tactics will build it; others will wear it away. If we were to picture this in a line, we might place relational organizing at one end of the scale, and lone-wolf acts of industrial sabotage at the other. Values of integrity and friendliness are more highly valued at one end; cunning and expertise in manipulation at the other.
So how would a union organizer or workplace steward from the former camp go about building social capital? We asked Kevin Aitken, a union organizer who has spent the last ten years working for both blue collar and white collar unions in Australia and New Zealand.
I begin the way any other organiser would: working with the delegates to produce a workplace map. What departments are people in? What titles do they hold? What kind of contracts are they on? All that standard stuff. But relational organizing adds an extra level to the process. What social groups exist within the departments? Who eats with who? Who are the smokers? Who sits by themselves? And who are the leaders within these groups? The next step is to visit these natural leaders, in a one-on-one setting. My first contact is always just an introduction - I never talk union. I'm not there to sell anything. I just introduce myself and then the rest of the conversation is social. I repeat these visits, and as you can imagine the conversations get longer as we find out more about each other. It all sounds terribly deliberate, but it's actually the most natural process in the world.
While all this is going on we also start doing things as a union. We have union picnics. We gets specialists in to talk for a hour about things like bullying, or coping with stress and its effects on the family. We show people that the union is about their well-being, not just their frustrations. We get a lot of non-union staff coming along to these sessions as well, and in the end that works well for recruitment. Once the initial mapping has been done and sufficient social capital has been generated, we start to engage with outside organizations such as churches, sports clubs and environmental organisations. We support causes that need help. Again, it's a perfectly natural process. This is about extending a hand of kindness, mutual aid, in the way that unions used to do. And nothing builds social capital between members faster.
By now we have a really solid bunch, and you start to hear people commenting on how much easier it is coming to work in the morning, and how the culture of the workplace has changed. Working with management is easier too - partly because they know that this is good for productivity, but also because conflicts are getting sorted out before they escalate. The result is that they actually start to see us (meaning the members as well as the union officials) as a cohesive force which can (and should) be listened to. It's often at this point that other workers start joining up. The good thing is that they are doing it for the right reasons. Not just as an insurance policy in case they get into trouble, but so that they can be part of something which is reshaping the workplace.
Relational organizing, then, shifts the industrial focus onto workplace intra-relationships. It sets out deliberately to build social capital among workers. Politically speaking, it sees the relationship between workers and their employer as exactly that: a relationship. It is not a thing to be generalised, it is a thing to be worked at in such a way that it becomes rewarding. And this involves far more than asking for money. It involves making work better, in every sense of that phrase that the members themselves determine. In other words relational organizing is about the the job, not the boss. Or, as Rondeau put it: "This isn't about them, it's about us".
In such a scenario the union's primary concern is with the workers as people, rather than as fee payers and potential members. Of course the task list may still involve contract negotiations, problem-solving, industrial conflict, and all that goes with traditional organising, but these things, in themselves, are not the point. The day-to-day reality of workplace life is the thing which a relational organizer will focus on. And this kind of union membership has value even in workplaces where the majority or workers are relatively content with their pay etc (as in the workplace "Cherry Travailleuse" described above). This is a crucial point, because, as studies in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have all shown, most workers fit into this category. As a proponent of "business unionism" might say, relational organizing offers unions a wider client base for effective recruitment.
A union built in this way is no longer just an insurance provider. It is not boxed into an endless cycle of acting and reacting in response to the employer's agenda. It has become something far simpler and more natural than that: it is just a group of workers united. It has, quite naturally, become a force to be listened to; to engage with; or else to reckon with.
That sounded like a conclusion, didn't it? Well, it was my one. But now, in an act of expository daring never before attempted in front of a live audience, we are going to leave the conclusion(s) of this article to members of the New Unionism network itself.
Other comments or disagreements are also invited, and may be added by way of the panel at the top right of this page. If you would like to make a substantive addition to the body of the text itself, please email it to email@example.com. And after you have finished please take a moment to tell us what you thought of this article. We are trying to develop a fresh and open way of dealing with serious topics, so that they are considered by a much wider group that the current elite audience. Are we headed in the right direction? Feedback
The great Italian novelist Ignazio Silone wrote, in 1939:
Every means tends to become an end. To understand the tragedy of human history it is necessary to grasp that fact. Machines which ought to be men's instrument, enslave him, the state enslaves society, the bureaucracy enslaves the state, the church enslaves religion, parliament enslaves democracy, institutions enslave justice, academies enslave art, the army enslaves the nation, the party enslaves the cause, the dictatorship of the proletariat enslaves Socialism. The choice and the control of the instruments of political action are thus at least as important as the choice of the ends themselves, and as time goes on the instruments must be expected to become an end for those who use them.
One can imagine how deeply he felt the echo of these words over the following years, as World War Two played out. His brother was beaten to death in prison by the fascists. During the war Silone became an underground leader of the Italian Communist party, yet very soon afterwards he had the personal integrity to renounce Stalinism. He, for one, saw the continuity between ends and means.
Relational organizing is to be celebrated not because it works (building membership, activity and influence), but because of the WAY it works. It builds unionism by building unity among workers. Most other approaches (in fact most organizing period) are based on paternalistic notions: Union HQ needs a willing cohort to swing in behind. This doesn't build unity in the workplace, it creates rifts. The fact that it might build job security for union officials is not the end we are seeking. The end and the means are the same here: building unity. All the rest follows from the way we go about it. Forget the boss for a moment, what about the person you work beside? Let's hear it again folks for Kris Rondeau: "This is about us, not them"!
* Historical Note
There is a 1995 book about IAF's work in the Bronx by Jim Rooney (State University of New York Press). Chapter Six is entitled Relational Organizing. This appears to be the first appearance of the term in print.
However Mark R. Warren reached a far wider audience when he used the term in his influential book Dry Bones Rattling (see below). He explains: "Since I got it from the IAF, I've never
thought much about where it was first used in print or in the broader
Articles and discussions available from the New Unionism Online Library:
• Relational Organising - A Practical Guide for Trade Unionists, Lawrence O'Halloran,
AUS 2007. Click here
• Sustainable Action: Planting the Seeds of Relational Organizing, Reverend Louise Green,
2007. Click here
• Relational Organizing at Harvard, Peter Hall-Jones, 2007. Click here
Others sources for further reading:
• Rules for Radicals, Saul D. Alinsky, details here
• We Can't Eat Prestige, John Hoerr, details here
• Better Together: Restoring the American Community, Robert D. Putnam, details here
• Unions as Social Capital: Renewal through a Return to the Logic of Mutual Aid, Paul Jarley, Labor Studies Journal - Vol 29, No 4, Winter 2005, West Virginia University Press
• Response: Organizing, Movements, and Social Capital, Dan Clawson, Labor Studies Journal - Vol 29, No 4, Winter 2005, West Virginia University Press
• Response to “Unions as Social Capital”, Andy Banks and Jack Metzgar, Labor Studies Journal - Vol 29, No 4, Winter 2005, West Virginia University Press
• A Strategic Choice Framework for Union Decision Making, David Weil, WorkingUSA, Vol. 8 Issue 3, March 2005
• Dry Bones Rattling:
Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy, Mark R. Warren, Princeton University Press 2001