From the TUC

Organising and Campaigning; the how and the WHY

24 Nov 2009, By

I recently had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with Marshall Ganz the US organiser who (if you’ve never heard of him) designed the Camp Obama training sessions that played a significant role the successful mobilisation of volunteers during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign last year. 

During my meeting, we discussed his belief that unions need to adopt a strategic approach to the work of rebuilding and revitalisation, but crucially that the strategies that they develop (the how) should be allied to the cares and concerns of those they are seeking to organise (the why). 

On the face of it, that’s nothing too different from the ‘organising around issues’ based approach that has underpinned much of the UK trade union movements work on organising over the last 10 years. 

However Ganz goes further than this and argues that we must explore and understand the values of workers and 0nly after we’ve done this can we develop a narrative that will succeed in persuading people to take action in their individual and collective self interest; to use what they have (resources) to get what they need (power and influence) to get what they want.

And of course, if this applies to unions in an industrial/workplace context it also applies to the political work that they do and by extension to the political parties themselves.  In short, as well as the how (to take action) there has to be a WHY (it is in their interests and speaks to their values).

I recalled my meeting with Marshall Ganz when I heard of the Labour party’s new ‘Volunteer Taskforce’ and then read two articles recently published by Progress; the first by Hannah Blythyn on the Progress website and the second by Peter Kellner in the October edition of the Progress magazine.

The Volunteer Taskforce’ is according to this report on the Progress web site adopting some of the best practice from Barack Obama’s US Presidential campaign in ‘harnessing the talents’ of members and supporters in running campaigns.

Hannah’s article makes an excellent case for the crucial input of unions organising for the Labour party in the run up to the next general election.  She rightly cites the work of unions in the US during the Obama campaign and notes the work that both her own union, Unite and also the GMB are doing to replicate this.

So, two excellent examples of ‘the how’.  But what about ‘the why’?

The Kellner article ‘Labour’s lost voters’ reports on the results of a poll conducted during the week of the European Elections in June and that identifies the differences between ‘loyal’ labour voters (those who voted Labour in 2005 and intend to do so again) and ‘lost’ Labour voters (those who voted Labour in 2005 but who wouldn’t do so now).

The key finding of the survey is that these Labour voters have been ‘lost’ not because they have been won over by the Conservative party, but rather that they have been repelled by the Labour party.

For example, according to the poll 78 per cent think that the party used to care about their concerns, but just 14 per cent think that it still does. Also, again 78 per cent of the ‘lost’ voters think it SHOULD be the government’s priority to help ‘ordinary working people’, but only 22 per cent of them think that this IS one of Labour’s priorities.

The message for me here is that having systems and strategies in place that focus resources on strategic priorities and objectives and that seek to create opportunities for participation are only part of what needs to be done, and without creating the ‘why’ (people should get active) the effects of these strategies will always be limited.

All of this applies to unions, as well as to political parties, as we confront our organising challenges. Last year the TUC conducted a survey that found that the majority of the largest 15 unions now had national and/or regional organising and recruitment strategies. 

This is good news and is an indication of how far the movement in the UK has come in the last 10 years in attempting to address membership decline, but in order to build on this we have to continue to develop an effective narrative as to why working people should not just join unions but also become active.

It has perhaps been easier in to convince people that joining a union is a practical way of insuring themselves should they have an individual problem in work, but harder to make the motivation for joining the desire to be part of a collective response to problems or way of realising shared ambitions and aspirations. 

However if we draw upon the history of the movement and listen to the cares, concerns, hopes and aspirations of the members we have and those we hope to have in the future; and at the same time continue to develop a model of trade unionism at workplaces where collective participation is an essential rather than optional part of how we deliver on the priorities of members, I am sure that we can succeed.

Carl Roper is the TUC National Organiser