The Politics of Organising

What do we mean by “organising”? Education and organising methods in the international trade union movement.


Presentation Slides

Dave Spooner, GLI Manchester, UK



From workers’ education to professional organising… and back again?

5th July, 2016 / John Storey / GLI blogger

Dave Spooner gave a brief overview of the politics of education in the trade union movement, and how the approach is a result of politics.

Workers’ education

The starting point was the Workers Education Association (WEA) in the UK, founded in 1903, with the purpose of giving education opportunities to working people. Around this time was the start of industrial trade unionism, and also working people getting involved in politics. The WEA provided educational support, and aimed to bring university level education to the masses.

The style of learning was the model of experts standing in front of a class and lecturing. In contrast, over in Sweden, Oscar Olsson pioneered study circles, a way of workers themselves learning together from each other, not mediated by an expert lecturer. This approach caught on worldwide.

Further developing this worker-centred approach was the work of Paolo Freire, a Brazilian and member of the Workers Party. His insight was that the way that you teach is inherently political, and that methods of teaching needed to help liberate working people. He brought his key ideas together in his book, the Pedagogy of the Oppressed. At its heart is the idea that all workers have knowledge, and can use their own experiences to learn and reach conclusions.

By the 1970s, these trends had blended together into an approach called active learning – learning by doing. The UK TUC first applied it, then other parts of the world took it up, and it became the official approach of the ILO.

“the active learning approach to trade union education requires that courses should begin by drawing on the experience, skills, knowledge, attitudes and objectives of participants…. Through working collectively. As part of this process, participants are encouraged to apply the results of their course work to their local and/or industrial environment”

ILO Turin Centre, 1993

The “New Organising Agenda”

In the 1970s, another very different approach was being developed in the US, initially by Saul Alinsky. This approach, as outlined in Alinsky’s 1971 book Rules for Radicals looked at community organising, and started with the premise that to build power, we need organisers, and thus the most important question is: “what creates an organiser?”

Alinsky’s answer was simple: training. Arguably the most well-known organiser who emerged from this tradition is US President, Barack Obama. Obama , who was a community organiser in Chicago in the 1980s, developed Alinsky’s ideas and applied them to his own campaign for nomination by the Democratic party and then to his presidential campaign.

The ideas of Alinsky were also taken up by Andy Stern of the SEIU, who adapted them to the trade union movement. He created what was called the “New Organising Agenda”, which had the following key aspects:

  • Professionally trained organising teams
  • Strategic targeting of employers and sectors
  • Time limited campaigns
  • Application of leverage

Stern set up organising academies and worked with other unions, initially in the US, and then rolled out to other parts of the world, including the UK, Australia, Germany and Denmark.

This approach was also picked up by donor agencies and eventually global union federations who drew on the new organising agenda approach to develop trade unions in the global South.

The key trends of this approach were:

  • Increased investment in professional organising departments
  • A shift of priorities – from worker education to organiser training
  • A decline in trade union education and closure of colleges

Dave described some of the positive aspects of the new organising agenda, for example the introduction of new techniques around identifying points of leverage and workplace mapping. However, he also highlighted the problem of the model being very much rooted in the experience of US industrial relations and therefore not necessarily applicable to countries with different and potentially less aggressive organising environments. He also drew attention to the crisis in trade union education that has happened as a result of the turn to professionalised organising.

The reemergence of political education

Bringing things up to the present day, it can be seen that the “New Organising Agenda” has had unexpected consequences. One of these has been the emergence of a renewed demand for political education as the organising approach was essentially skill-based and apolitical.

This point has been taken up by Jennie Formby, of Unite the Union in the UK:

“It is absolutely essential for our stewards and activists to be fully engaged in all aspects of organising, rather than separate organising units. To do this meaningfully they have to understand why companies do what they do, and how global capital works. If we maintain an insular reactive approach we will consistently lose.”

Jennie Formby, Unite the Union



Dave Spooner, Trade Union Education and the Organising Agenda, International Union Rights, Volume 19, Issue 1, 2012 (first appeared as “Workers Education: Diversity and Convergence”).

Jane McAlevey, Having the Hard Conversations: on Fight for 15, labor’s crisis of strategy, and the difference between organizing and mobilizing, interviewed by Michal Rozworski in Jacobin Magazine, April 2015.

Sean Sayer, How should trade unions organise workers?, blog post from GLI International Summer School 2015.

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