‘The union,’ or ‘Our union’?

By BOB BUSSEL, U of O Labor Education and Research Center professor emeritus

During my years as a labor educator, I often taught classes to union leaders on how to encourage greater member involvement. I began the classes by asking: “What is the difference between members referring to their organization as “the union” versus “our union?”

This usually prompted a lively discussion. Many agreed that members tend to use the term “the union” when speaking about their organizations, and that this phrasing paints the union as an outside entity or “third party” to which members had a limited connection.

Of course, portraying unions as a “third party” is a well-known tactic that management uses to oppose organizing campaigns. As a Starbucks’ spokesperson recently declared: “We shouldn’t have a third party in between us when it comes to working together to develop the best experience that our partners can have.” An REI representative echoed this during a recent organizing effort at its New York City store: “We do not believe placing a union between the co-op and its employees is needed or beneficial.”

Management and their anti-union consultants build on this third party framing to question union motives. They’ll say unions are only interested in organizing to boost their sagging membership or to get dues to fund their political activities. Or that as a third party, “the union” will make workers march to its drumbeat, suppress individual freedom, and exercise unchecked power over workers’ lives. Or that with an “outside” organization representing them, workers will be forced to communicate with management via an intermediary and lose the ability to speak for themselves.

And labor’s opponents use third-party framing in other ways. Last week, Matt Salmon, a candidate for governor of Arizona, wrote: “While I’m a big fan of teachers, I can’t stand the teachers union.” This sleight of hand allows anti-union politicians to declare their “support” for workers while dissing the organizations that represent workers’ interests. They depict unions as arrogant institutions that back causes and candidates their members do not support. “Third-partying” unions justifies attempts to restrict or discredit union political activity, because “the union” allegedly advances its own interests while ignoring the wishes of the individual member.

During the current wave of organizing, workers have repeatedly rejected the third-party label. They have taken direct ownership of the organizing process, and are building participatory unions that reflect their unique challenges and aspirations.

However, we should not underestimate the power of the third-party argument, especially in a critical election year. We should work to capture the participatory spirit of organizing campaigns and use it to revitalize our own organizations.

Existing unions could conduct informal audits, listening to see which adjectives members use to describe their organization. If “the union” is used more often than “our union,” it might be time to get members more involved—participating in contract campaigns, committees, caucuses, and political endorsement processes; serving as stewards and union officers; and taking part in informal activities like orienting new members or mentoring emerging leaders.

The best reply to efforts to “third party” our movement is unions with a high level of member participation. Amending the last line of “Solidarity Forever,” we affirm one of labor’s most sacred beliefs: “our union makes us strong.”

1 Comment

  1. Amen. Members are the union. Leaders help make head way, but an active membership is stronger, more viable, and much more affective than leadership is alone.

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