Are NGO campaigners thinking too small?

NGO campaigners often aim for and achieve small gains: law changes, corporate commitments, etc. Meanwhile the union movement has a credible claim to having 'created the middle class' and improved work for most of humanity.

NGO vs. union goals

NGOs have some big goals: end poverty, universal respect for human rights, global peace, universal education, eradicating diseases, living in harmony with the planet, animals treated humanely, etc. But unions have been striving for, and achieving, some massive goals almost two centuries: living wage, workplace safety, fair settlement terms, etc. they also have a membership of hundreds of millions of people worldwide. With what they've achieved to date, they can rightly claim to have created the 'middle class'. That is a big claim, but it has plenty of justification. So the question is, are NGOs thinking big enough in what they campaign for and what can they learn from unions?

There are some other big achievements that affect everyone:

  • the reformation movement achieved the freedom of religion/belief
  • the anti-slavery movement has eliminated slavery as a legal economic model like it had been for millennia
  • the women's movement has had considerable achievements over the last century
  • the democracy movement has resulted in 'democratic' governments in a majority of countries around the world
  • the education movement has resulted in most people in the world getting at least a basic eduction
  • the health 'movement' has meant that some diseases are eliminated and people live longer than ever before
  • the human rights movement has spread tolerance of difference to most of the world
  • the environmental movement had prevented many extinctions, preserved eco-systems and eliminated the use of many toxic chemicals
  • the consumer protection movement has meant products and services that are safer and more trustworthy

Unions have been central to many of these.  So when NGO's are planning campaigns, perhaps they need to consider what movement they are contributing to and how unions are part of achieving it.

I must confess, I'm not a normal champion of unions. I have nothing against them, it's just my perception has always been of old confrontation-driven organisations that never touch my daily life. I've apparently belonged to a few by default through past work, but I couldn't even tell you their name. Having grown up in Canada, the most contact I had was hearing about strikes and walkouts in the news from the 1980s onwards. Intellectually, I know they have touched almost every part of my life by what guarantees I (and my parents) had at work.

So it was an intellectual curiosity to learn more (and the knowledge that creativity emerges from diversity) that prompted me to try and attract more unionists to various eCampaigning Forum (ECF) events. This year (2013) it resulted in Eric Lee (LabourStart) and Anita Gardner (IndustriALL) presenting ECF 2013. It was in this talk (below) that Eric and Anita reached out to NGOs and challenged participants on the impact and power of unions in the 21st century and made me think that perhaps NGO campaigners might be thinking too small and that they can learn from unions.

Thinking bigger

NGO goals are big, but perhaps their solutions are not as institutionalised as unions have become in 'global north' (development speak for more developed countries). There is some progress in the 'institutionalisation' process like the recent UN approval of the International Arms Trade Treaty, and many other UN treaties (ILO, WHO, UDHRO). Yet it is then returns to NGOs to monitor and chase governments and companies on implementing these standards. While unions do the same, they also have institutionalised 'membership'. Could NGOs call for the same institutionalisation?

For unions, wherever a local branch exists, all employees of a particular type are a member of it, pay monthly dues and (even if they opt-out of membership), get the benefits of it. What if it was institutionalised that:

  • every soldier had to be a member of a 'peace union' and a small amount of their monthly salary deducted for 'peace maintenance'?
  • every arms manufacturer has to contribute 0.5% of their sales to 'conflict mediation'
  • every city-dweller had to contribute a small monthly amount for the preservation of natural areas

I don't have answers for how each NGO 'goal' could be institutionalised, but I am struck that asking the question "how do we institutionalise this" might lead to some interesting answers. Interestingly, my attempt for this post resulted in many answers leading back to either unions (where they relate to wealth distribution through wages) or taxes since those are the mechanisms for monthly contributions and membership (work, citizenship).

Yet I still have the sense that we get what we ask for, and by asking for law or behaviour changes without any institutionalisation to monitor and sustain them, we are leaving too much to faith in 'others' (e.g. governments, corporations).

Time to re-connect with unions

With all the hype about the Internet, social networks and mobile phones, we often forget that the two largest sources of organising (or potential for organising) are unions and faith groups. By no coincidence, they are also the two largest historical actors in campaigning. What they are not so good at currently is being recognised for their campaigning and levering their reach digitally. Since many NGOs are ahead in these areas (while still behind in many ways), I think there is an opportunity for NGOs to work more with unions on almost any issue for mutual benefit: winning on issues, institutionalising them and being seen as being relevant organisations in the 21st century.

So, think of your current campaigns and plans and consider how unions could be involved.  If you can't think of a way, ask them.  Eric Lee (Twitter: @labourstart) is very approachable and digitally savvy and there are other unionists on the eCampaigning Forum community email list.

by Duane Raymond published Apr 11, 2013,