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The Workers' Inspiration: Horizontal Education for Union Democracy

"The most important challenge for labor and society in the twenty-first century is the question of democracy."
— Elaine Bernard

Boston, 2000, lunchbreak at a small convention center during a one day conference sponsored by the Association for Union Democracy and Carpenters for a Democratic Union (CDU) for a hundred plus members of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters from Boston and around the US.

A carpenter approaches me and suggests we change the agenda. The day had started with a union democracy and power line in the morning (Chapter 2), reports from fellow members from around the country, and small group discussions of various strategies for building their movement (Organizing Options -- Chapter 3). After lunch, the plan was to reconvene then break into groups for workshops on legal rights, organizing skills, fighting sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination and other themes, then get back together and hold a "next steps" planning session. The carpenter tells me some of them want to go right into the planning session, holding the workshops for later. Fearing the unraveling of a carefully constructed agenda, planned over previous weeks with a committee of Carpenters Union activists, I want to stick with the plan. What to do?

When the group reconvenes, we put it to a vote. I speak in favor of the existing agenda, the carpenter speaks in favor of changing the agenda, there is one speaker for my view, one for his and the participants vote. His motion passes and they go into the planning meeting. The meeting starts awkwardly, but my anxiety about the outcome soon gives way. They get down to business, choosing to form a new group, Carpenters for a Democratic Union, International, recruiting a steering committee, planning their next steps, setting up communications and assigning tasks. When they are done, they suggest we go on to the workshops.

Not a particularly exciting story, I realize -- the drama of an agenda change! -- but for me it is a snapshot of popular education for union democracy in action, that captures some key themes.

  • The conference itself was an example of education being used to help further self-organization -- the agenda, timing, location were all determined by Carpenters activists. The educational event flowed from the previous organizing by Carpenters activists;
  • The educational process was not only the result of previous action on the part of the Carpenters activists, but was aimed at action -- the effort to win democratic reforms in the United Brotherhood of Carpenters;
  • AUD's role was to help plan and facilitate the event, to help connect activists, and to bring resources, most importantly people with particular skills and expertise -- a labor attorney, an activist who had helped found Teamsters for a Democratic Union, union democracy experts;
  • We did not try to load the agenda or surreptitiously steer the meeting toward one outcome or another -- the formation of an international reform group was something we knew might happen, but not something we promoted or discouraged (thus the small group discussions of alternative strategies and the presentation on the founding of TDU that put that decision in context);
  • At the same time, AUD supported the Carpenters activists who wanted to make fighting sexism and racism part of the agenda;
  • Participants were not only engaged as participants, they had power. When they wanted to change the plan they were comfortable challenging the facilitators (doing so in a friendly and helpful way that reflected the mutual respect in the relationship);
  • The facilitators took our role seriously, defending the agenda that had been developed in collaboration with the organizers;
  • Facilitators and participants alike took democracy seriously, making the question of the agenda change an exercise in democratic functioning;
  • Finally, the outcome, like so many in the workers movement, was positive but short-lived. CDUI grew quickly, then fell apart. There are no guarantees.

What this handbook is
In the pages of this handbook you will find popular education activities designed for labor educators and activists, especially those who hope to use education to rebuild and transform the North American workers movement, making unions more democratic and workers more powerful.

The activities come mainly from workshops, conferences and classes that I facilitated/taught when I was education coordinator for the Association for Union Democracy (AUD) a pro-labor, non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the principles and practices of democratic trade unionism in the North American labor movement. (

Nearly every activity was designed and facilitated in collaboration with other educators and activists: my coworkers, AUD supporters, rank-and-file activists.

The activities were orginally designed for unionists and workers center activists in the US. While many who contact AUD are rank-and-file reformers, the participants for whom these activities were designed held a variety of positions in the workers movement: rank-and-file workers; union staff and elected officers; workers center members and staff; community-labor activists; and labor educators. They came from a wide range of unions, industries, regions and communities, from ironworkers in Seattle to Teachers in New Haven, from Transport workers in New York City to University employees in California. What they had in common was a need for education that would help them build democratic organizations that cultivate workers power.

Not involved in the labor movement? You are welcome all the same to adapt them to your context. As you will see, I have done the same thing: many of these activities have their roots in other movements and other countries.

What this handbook is not

I once saw a cartoon showing a union member putting dues money into a vending machine (labeled "the Union") and choosing which benefit to get in return. The accompanying article was about how to deal with members who "gripe" about paying dues and the cartoon was meant to be positive: "See, the union gives you great benefits for your money!"

I have nothing against benefits, but the idea of a union as a kind of vending machine (and members as customers) is precisely what unionism should not be. (I wonder if the artist who made the cartoon had seen the great labor movie Blue Collar, in which an autoworker frustrated with a faulty vending machine finally loses his cool and drives a forklift into it, the episode clearly meant to show worker anger at the failure of the company -- and the union reps -- to deal with workplace problems.)

There are many things I don't want this handbook to be, but the most important is this:
This is not a toolkit for people who want to get workers involved in order to better steer them in the "right direction," get them "on the program," help them see what they "need to do"... etc. It is a sad fact that there is a widespread practice of popular education that is really just a form of manipulation and control through the use of participatory techniques, not only in unions but also in management. (One side effect is that many workers view any form of educational "activity" or "game" with hostility, having been obliged to sit through management workshops using similar techniques.) Of course, "collaboration" has always had that double edge, hasn't it?

I hope you will test this handbook against this standard (in addition to whatever standards you bring): can I use this to help workers develop their capacity for collective action, for organization, for strategic thinking, for gaining control? Or is this taking me in the direction of phony participation and manipulation?

How to get around
There is a table on contents in the left column that expands to show the contents of each chapter. In addition, at the bottom of each page of the handbook, there are links to the previous and next pages. And, at the top of each page (above the title), there are breadcrumbs.

Each activity includes a list of tags at the bottom. There are five types of tags:

  • content tags (is it an activity, what type of activity is it)
  • source tags (where does the activity come from)
  • theme tags (what themes does the item address)
  • publication status tags (is it a rough draft, first draft...)
  • spiral tags (where in the popular education spiral might the activity be useful) [alternatively, use Alforja tags]

Clicking on a tag will bring up a list of other items on the website that share that tag. [The tags need work.]

Publication Status
This handbook is a work in progress -- some pieces are nearly finished, others are just rough drafts. Pieces that are tagged "Ready for Publication" are complete enough to be published online, though they may be further revised. Registered users of this website also have access to the first drafts. "Collaborators," people who have been approved to help edit the handbook, can also access the sections that are still only rough drafts. (See how to participate.)

Creative Commons
I expect readers to take what they find here and tinker with it, stretch it, or completely rework it. That's why I put all of the material on this site under a Creative Commons License: attribution, share-alike, non-commercial. .

  • Attribution: please give credit when you use material from this site ("from [title of the activity] by [author, followed by source url]").
  • Share-alike: whatever you create using the material here should be shared in the same way.
  • Non-commercial: don't publish material you got here for commercial purposes.
Publication Status: