Four Styles of Labour Organization: Representation, Self-organization, Networking and Institutional Coordination


It is customary, nowadays, to apply the term “organized labour” only to trade unions. This, I think, is a mistake in the way we speak or the way we allow ourselves to be spoken about. The organizations of unemployed workers, demanding food, housing, dignity and jobs; the organizations of sex workers, demanding basic labour standards and the end of abuse and harassment at the hands of the police and others; the organizations of injured workers, demanding a decent living, just compensation and access to adequate healthcare services; the organizations of the “travailleurs et travailleuses sans papiers” demanding the right to move in search of security, justice and work; the organizations of feminist workers, demanding legal remedies for women facing sexual harassment at work and discrimination in hiring, pay or promotions; or the organizations of Indigenous workers demanding jobs and fair treatment — all of these are ways in which “the labouring many” have organized in struggle and solidarity to improve their lives as working-class people. Like unions, these, too, are forms of “organized labour,” broadly understood.

NYC-based Domestic Workers United, a membership-based social movement organization
Domestic Workers United, a membership-based workers’ organization, based in New York City.

With this in mind, I want to propose a simple typology, a sort of basic classification system, for describing different styles of labour organization, in the broad sense.

I discern four basic styles of labour organization, although I want to emphasize in advance that some organizations or political projects combine more than one of them, and in effect function as hybrid forms of organized labour. The four styles are self-organization, representation, networking and institutional coordination.


The oldest, and arguably still the most important type of organized working-class struggle is self-organization. Self-organization is characterized by its “grassroots” reliance on active participation by ordinary people (that is, people who are not “professional organizers” or “staffers”), not only in the setting of goals, but also in the design and implementation of plans for joint action. In this style of labour organization, workers coordinate with one another in a participatory way, getting directly involved in articulating their grievances and aspirations, making key decisions through open debate and discussion, and then taking collective (“direct”) action to implement their decisions and pursue their shared aims. Partly because of its non-professionalized and participatory character, it is often the most frustrating for participants, because decision-making can be difficult, and there may be uneven implementation of decisions, among other problems. On the other hand, when it works well, it is arguably the style of organizing that is most inspiring and empowering for participants, who learn in practice that they can change the world by acting in common.

Some examples of working-class self-organization include popular assemblies, the camps and general assemblies of the Occupy movement, the “solidarity networks” that organize workers to support one another against wage theft or landlord abuses, self-managed worker cooperatives, the grassroots action organizations that play such a key role in struggles against poverty, unemployment, gender violence, environmental racism, and so on. Some hybrid political projects have a self-organization component, including the local grassroots action groups (in contrast to the formal “Founders” organizations or the informal online networks) organizing under the banner of Black Lives Matter or Idle No More.

What is important is not the issue upon which the groups focus, but the organizational features that they embody: by its very nature, self-organization is participatory and oriented toward direct action, in ways that other organizational forms are often not.


A second style of labour organization is representation. Whereas self-organized grassroots groups are characterized by broad participation and direct activation (or what Marx called “self-activity”), representational forms of working-class organization tend to be divided between a broad base of supporters or “stakeholders,” on the one hand, and a narrow base of “core” activists or “leaders,” on the other hand. The basic function of representational organizations is “advocacy” — speaking up for the interests of a “constituency” or represented group or “community” whose interests are served or promoted (but who are not themselves directly activated, on a broad basis) by the organization.

To some extent, organizations of this type do try to “mobilize” the wider group of stakeholders whose interests they hope to represent. They may try to hold a large “day of action,” to demonstrate (notably, to politicians, or in some cases, to prospective funders) that they do indeed have credibility with the people on whose behalf they claim to speak. For the most part, however, they engage in mobilization of a very particular and limited kind: they tell people where to show up, what to demand, and when to go home. What they do not do is invite these wider circles of people to participate in the organization’s ongoing activities, nor do they actively work to draw wider groups into directly making decisions and planning actions. In general, representational organizations draw (in practice, if not always in the way they talk about what they’re doing) a fairly sharp line between activists or leaders and the broad base on whose behalf they believe they speak.

It is worth noting that representational organizations are almost always led (or staffed) by people who are sincerely committed to winning things for the stakeholders they try to represent or “advocate for.” It is not some kind of cynical con. Nevertheless, there are a number of potential, even typical features of these organizations that arguably undermine their stated aims, in many ways. (I won’t stop to pursue the point, but one could consult a book like Paved with Good Intentions, by Nikolas Barry-Shaw and Dru Oja Jay, to get a sense of how these organizations can play a very “contradictory” role in attempts to deal with the problems they are ostensibly trying to address.)

The most clear-cut examples of representational organizations are NGOs, notably environmental NGOs. But I would describe other relatively non-participatory “advocacy”-focused organizations, like the Canadian Labour Congress, the Assembly of First Nations, and the Canadian Federation of Students as representational workers’ organizations. Arguably, the formal or semi-formal Founder groups linked to Idle No More and Black Lives Matter are representation organizations, with very limited decision-making participation by “stakeholders” outside of the small leadership circle.

I won’t go into the point here, and it may be of diminishing relevance now that social democracy has largely dissolved itself into conventional liberal electoral politics of the Democratic Party variety, but I should mention that the classical “labour party” form (e.g, the pre-Blair UK Labour Party, the German SPD, Canada’s NDP) is a specifically parliamentary variant of representational organization, in which “rank and file” party members are represented by professional politicians and other party functionaries, and the party does not really activate the broad membership except as “foot soldiers” during election campaigns and as “base voters” on election day.


Networking is another, and much-discussed, form of labour organization. In this context, I am not talking about networks of formal organizations, but networking as an informal alternative (or supplement) to formal organization

The word “networking” has a slightly “contemporary” ring to it, but networks are not really a new development. For example, when the Russian Communists urged socialists around the world to organize the “vanguard of the working class” into a political party, they understood this “vanguard” to be an already existing, but ill-coordinated, loose and informal network of anti-capitalist radicals, who could be much more effective if they combined to form a common organization. The Bolsheviks were skeptical of networks, but today networks are widely celebrated, often uncritically. Moreover, in the past few decades they have developed an ever-more acute form of self-consciousness. Yesterday’s informal, unnamed, ill-defined network tends to become increasingly replaced by today’s semi-formal, hashtag-branded, social-media-based network, often with semi-official buzzwords and catchphrases. But networks, by definition, stop short of constituting formal, membership-based organizations. Rather, they are something like shared affiliations, by which people signal to one another, or to adversaries, their joint commitment to a (sometimes only loosely defined) political project. This gives networks their main strength: they can spread in a “viral” manner, without acquiring the burden of constructing either mechanisms for accountable decision-making or the kind of large and unwieldy infrastructure that a formal organization would need in order to accommodate tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of participants.

Some of the most important social movements of recent years have functioned partly as networks. For instance, Black Lives Matter and Idle No More are in part networks organized via social media, in which people express their affiliation by deploying hashtags and other public declarations of political alignment. The way the quasi-official “Founders” describe #blacklivesmatter makes clear that they regard the wider movement as in large part a network in this sense:

“#BlackLivesMatter is an online forum intended to build connections between Black people and our allies to fight anti-Black racism, to spark dialogue amongst Black people, and to facilitate the types of connections necessary to encourage social action and engagement.”

The exact relationship between local grassroots action groups, the BLM Founders circle, and the social-media-focused network remains to be fully clarified and/or worked out in practice. However, I think most participants and observers would agree that there is a network aspect, distinct from both the local self-organization groups and the small circle of Founders.

Another notable example of networking as a form of working-class organization would be BDS, the movement calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Although it was launched by a groups of ‘civil society’ formal organizations, BDS exists in practice mainly as an informal network that tries to motivate formal organizations, including but not limited to working-class organizations, to adopts its boycott and divestment policy proposals.

Institutional Coordination

Finally, there is institutional coordination, the type of labour organization that typifies modern unions and other formal member-funded organizations with a paid staff and a relatively passive membership base, as far as daily operations are concerned. In institutional coordination, as an organizational form in the workers’ movements, there is (usually) a formal membership, which is in principle able to democratically control the group’s activities. But in contrast to self-organization in grassroots groups, the day to day operations of unions are largely overseen by a combination of paid staff and elected office holders.

The difference between “representation” and “institutional coordination” isn’t always readily apparent, and to some extent organizations of either type can be influenced by the organizational norms of the other. But in principle, there is a clear distinction. A representation organization does not require that the stakeholders it purports to represent actually join the organization and pay regular dues, much less go out on strike if the membership decides to do so. At most, a representation organization may need to mobilize a base of supporters periodically to boost its credibility. By contrast, unions need members, and many key decisions are actually made and subsequently implemented by the members (even if there may be varying degrees of member engagement and substantive democracy in different unions). In short, institutional coordination combines the formal commitment of signed-up members, which is typical of self-organization, with the feature of being staff-led on a day to day basis, which is typical of representation-oriented organizations.

Besides unions, other examples of institutional coordination as a type of labour organizing include consumer cooperatives like Mountain Equipment Co-op, and possibly ASSÉ (L’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante), which goes beyond advocacy by organizing strikes and has a staff and a team of officials supported by a large — but most of the time, predominantly non-active — membership base.

The two main strengths of institutional coordination as an organizing style in the broad workers movement are, first,stability, since they do not disappear when the level of struggle declines sharply (which grassroots self-organization groups often do); and second, access to resources, since their stable dues-base enables them to invest in “education departments” and hiring organizers to work on campaigns, mobilizing members, or organizing the unorganized. These features give the institutional coordination organizations a credible claim to constitute a kind of backbone, or (to switch metaphors) the scaffolding, of the wider working-class Left.


The working class consists not only of the waged employees that the capitalist class accepts as workers, but also retired workers, sick or injured workers, unemployed workers, people whose social labour is neither paid nor commodity-producing but is nevertheless exploited by capital in a wider sense, and students bound for the labour market upon graduation. Marx was right to count not only wage labourers, but also the many “surplus populations” excluded from paid employment into his expansive understanding of the workers’ movement (“the movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority”). And, just as our understanding of the class needs to be broad and expansive, so too does our understanding of what it means to organize workers. Our conception of organized labour obviously must include, crucially, the various forms of workplace-based organization, notably unions and workers’ cooperatives. But it must also include ways in which workers are organized outside the workplace to defend or advance working-class interests and demands for justice. The conception of organized labour that emerges from such a perspective will necessarily be differentiated, one way or another. What I offer here is only one of many possible ways of analyzing that differentiation. Hopefully, by noting these differences, we can get a better look at the strengths and weaknesses of different organizational forms and methods, and see more clearly how they might help or hinder our efforts, depending on the context and circumstances in each case.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s