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labor Have We Built the Committee?

Organizing practice and research have shown that the recruitment and development of grassroots worker leadership is key to winning organizing, contract, and political campaigns. Despite the broad endorsement of leadership-development organizing and a collection of truly inspiring leadership development stories, when asked, worker leaders consistently report varieties of leadership underdevelopment.

Desperate times—for working-class people, worker organization, and our democracy—demand a deeper bench. The recent, ostensibly leaderless uprisings across the U.S.—including the immigrant rights mobilizations of 2006, occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory in 2008, occupation of the Wisconsin capitol in 2011—were in part a function of dedicated grassroots leadership recruitment and development. In turn, these leaderful uprisings have surfaced new leadership. Grassroots leaders are found at the heart of most efforts to knit together working-class people for collective action and organization. But building organizations and sustaining a movement capable of winning large-scale organizing campaigns, defending hard-fought collective bargaining rights and standards, and securing the right to organize for excluded workers—all in the face of unparalleled corporate power—requires that our unions and worker organizations redouble their commitment to a most basic building block of labor movements. It requires focused worker leadership development.

The recruitment and development of battalions of worker leaders1—by full-time organizers and worker leaders themselves—builds our capacity to organize and mobilize on the scale necessary for workers to exercise power over the decisions that affect their working lives. Scholars confirm with systematic study what organizers painstakingly demonstrate in practice: developing grassroots leadership and building representative organizing committees is critical to organizing workers, winning campaigns, and growing movements.2 Leaders with wide-ranging views on the path to greater union density and democracy agree on at least one thing: to affect substantive change, our movement must vastly expand the number of active worker leaders. Strategist Stephen Lerner, for example, observes that we must recruit “thousands of active union members working as member organizers” in dozens of smart, strategic comprehensive campaigns in key sectors of the economy.3 Similarly, union democracy activists Mike Parker and Martha Gruelle argue for continuous organization, which requires “not thousands but millions of organizers—millions of workers who tell their sisters, cousins, friends, and lovers they'd be crazy not to join a union.”4 Connecting these thousands or millions of worker leaders to the project of increasing density, activist Michael Eisenscher observes that “only when massive numbers of union members become personally involved in recruiting new members and organizing new units will it be possible to achieve the intensity, scope, and scale of effort and momentum required to break the trend [of declining union density].”5

The identification and recruitment of worker leaders onto committees to organize their coworkers is often described as the organizing or committee-building model. As a method, the model is uniquely situated; it is both a core strategy of building working-class organization and winning campaigns, and it embodies the vision that working people have power over the conditions that affect their lives. Committee building involves some combination of organizational commitment to leadership development; the one-on-one identification and involvement of worker leaders; one-on-one recruitment; leadership development and retention; and evaluation and tracking (see Figure 1). A generation of organizers—especially those organizing non-union workers to form a union—has internalized the mandate to “build the committee!”


Figure 1. One Model of Leadership-Development Organizing.

One primer on UNITE HERE's comparatively sophisticated model of leadership identification and recruitment is that “the organizer organizes the committee, and the committee organizes the workers.”6 Developed in part after multiple failed organizing campaigns at Yale University, current UNITE HERE president John Wilhelm found that, “we had to persuade people that the only way to beat the University had nothing to do with literature, and had nothing to do with issues. … If we were going to beat the University, we had to have a gigantic organizing committee.”7 Sociologist Dan Clawson gives this overview of a committee-building process led by an American Federation of Teachers organizer: quietly identify respected leaders in each shift and work area, recruit leaders to the organizing committee, train the leaders to organize their coworkers, inoculate or prepare the committee for management's anti-union campaign, build a strong majority of support for the union, take collective action to demand union recognition, and in this case, win a union certification election. “A campaign conducted in this way builds workers' self-confidence, skills, feeling that they have a right to democratically decide about work, and sense of collective power. The workers learn the meaning of union long before the election that officially certifies the union.”8

Organizers must also build committees and develop the leadership of members already in the union. According to journalist and former organizer Steve Early, “patient steward recruitment and training enabled [Communications Workers of America Local 1400's] newly organized workers to become familiar with their contracts and, with backing from the local, develop confidence in their collective ability to deal with management at the worksite level.”9 With many variations and differing degrees of depth, union and community-based worker organizers share similar leadership development methods. Labor/Community Strategy Center director Eric Mann argues that “the key to victory is the recruitment, training, and mentoring of a new generation of organizers.”10 Mann also recognizes the importance of a supportive and reciprocal process, as “the organizer's job is to mentor, sustain, support, and learn from the membership.”11 Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, offers the important observation that, “it's precisely the people who are considered the least ‘likely’ leaders who end up inspiring others the most. Everyday people and everyday acts of courage eventually change everything.”12 These unlikely leaders, in turn, are often precisely the ones who inspire the very organizers credited with the leaders' identification, recruitment, and development.

Many unions and worker organizations identify with a leadership-development model of worker organizing and representation, although they practice the model to varying degrees and for different reasons. Most models define leadership in at least two ways: first, leadership is the organizing process of uniting workers for collective action-based campaigns to exert power over workplace decisions and conditions, and second, leadership entails developing the leadership of those who are traditionally considered the led. Each organization prioritizes different leadership development techniques among a bundle of possibilities, including but certainly not limited to recruiting or facilitating the election of a representative group of worker leaders onto committees; implementing intensive union or organizational leave programs; devising individual skill development plans for worker leaders; investing in worker leaders' political education; fostering active participation in decision making; proactively encouraging the development of people of color and women; creating additional leadership roles with higher levels of responsibility; promoting worker leaders into staff positions; and tracking worker leaders' involvement over time. Organizers accomplish these goals by developing respectful relationships that build upon workers' skills, analyses, motivations, feelings of ownership, voice, and of being supported, and through one-on-ones, committee meetings, trainings, demonstration, and support in the field. Of course, some worker leaders elect not to wait for an organizer, resolving instead to develop their leadership themselves.

Of the organizations that identify with a leadership-development model, most have both seen significant success in developing worker leadership, but also face substantial leadership underdevelopment, compromising levels of worker organization, the strength of campaigns, and ultimately, the power of the movement. On the one hand, worker leaders are the inspirational face and the grassroots organizing force on the front lines of countless campaigns. Ask any organizer and they will have worker leadership stories to share. Worker leaders from the locals featured in this study executed a work stoppage to win the right to elect their managers, united coworkers to win union recognition for temporary workers, pushed their union to wage a successful living wage campaign, developed a worker leader-to-worker leader mentorship program, and became staff organizers and directors. On the other hand, however, worker leadership remains underdeveloped when the many workers with leadership potential fail to be identified, recruited, developed, and/or retained. Many of the inspirational worker leaders mentioned previously, when asked, expressed various degrees of distress, disappointment, even demoralization because of the lack of adequate development. Concerns systematically relate to insufficient training and education, motivation, emotional support, or voice in union decision making.13 Not surprisingly, unions and other worker organizations struggle with many types of underdevelopment, as worker leader identification, recruitment, development, and retention each presents a complex challenge to budding and seasoned organizers alike.

While different organizations struggle with the various components of leadership development processes, most have yet to develop mechanisms that adequately evaluate and measure their efforts—an essential project for those committed to increasing worker leadership. For example, many organizations conduct informal assessments by having organizers rate workers on union support scales (e.g., 1–5, 1–4, or 1–3 scales), debrief organizing commitments in one-on-one meetings, and evaluate actions in committee meetings. While these are critical pieces of the evaluation puzzle, such assessments fail to meaningfully capture worker leaders' activity and experience, which might otherwise provide organizations the information necessary to further develop worker leadership. In the context of our organizations' many projects, I find that implementing and evaluating comprehensive leadership development programs increases worker leadership, increases the likelihood that campaigns end in victory, and builds movements. According to trainer Bernard Moore, “If we ever stopped to understand what we are already doing right, we'd be a dangerous movement.”14

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Two outcomes are particularly important to measure over time—quantitative measures of the number and percentage of worker leaders by workplace and organization and qualitative measures of how worker leaders feel about their leadership experience. First, given the decisive role of worker leadership, we must measure more than union density—we must also measure and track another form of density, worker leadership density, or the percentage of workers in a given workplace or organization who are active leaders. Already used in a few organizations, leadership density gives us a deeper understanding of our organizations' capacity to grow their bases and wage strategic campaigns over time. Increasing leadership density is a critical ingredient of a movement capable of increasing union density. Second, organizations should assess leadership dignity—a set of possible measures that assesses workers' experience of being developed. Possible qualitative measures include worker leaders' feelings of confidence, ownership, support, and having a say in the decisions of their organization. Ongoing solicitation and incorporation of worker leader feedback into the organization plays a critical role in developing worker leadership. As leadership density and dignity are measured, our organizations must also assess critical stages in the leadership development process to improve such outcomes. The project of building a more powerful movement—in part by increasing the density of, and dignity felt by, worker leadership—requires systematic effort to evaluate and refine leadership-development organizing in our worker organizations. The first “ask” of inviting a worker to join an organizing committee must always be followed by a second “ask”: have we built the committee? Answering this question requires that we regularly ask both the builders and the committee. Only then are we able to take informed action to advance our leadership-development organizing.

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Seth Newton Patel is lead negotiator for AFSCME Local 3299, the union of University of California patient care and service workers. He has worked as an organizer for AFSCME, SEIU, and HERE locals in California for the past decade. Seth has also served as research coordinator for the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. Address correspondence to Seth Newton Patel. Email: