Talking Shop #1 – Organising vs Mobilising

To understand what good organising is we must understand and analyse what it isn’t. In order to do this some of New Syndicalist’s editorial team will be examining the difference between organising and mobilising in the first of a new series of podcasts focusing on organising experiences, theory and strategies – Talking Shop.

As way of an introduction we would like to introduce the terms we will be using in the podcast.

Terms like Organising and Mobilising are thrown around regularly within trade union circles, but they are often misunderstood and conflated. The most concise definitions we have seen have come from Jane McAlevey’s excellent book on organising strategy – No Shortcuts: Organising for Power in the New Gilded Age;


McAlevey suggests that mobilising is based on a staff-intensive model of union organising, where goals are set with little or no input from members, and wins are declared after minimal progress is made towards an often overly ambitious goal. The strategy has little or no base of meaningful support and what she describes as “authentic messengers” are often used to represent a campaign who do not have any say over the way in which the campaign is run. Those members who are involved are the usual suspects, such as, already established political activists, and can often lead to burnout. The process of mobilising, run by staff or established activists is about using those pre-existing engaged members to build visibility and a campaign that ultimately concludes in a “back room” deal with only limited enforceability.

Recent examples of this in the British Trade Union movement include the public sector strikes of 2014. In this example, we saw huge numbers of political activists brought onto the streets to demand an end to austerity. A dispute which was not followed up in any meaningful way and was led entirely from the top.


On the other hand McAlevey describes organising as “mass, inclusive and collective.” This is a process which changes power structures, leading to long term impact. It is part of a larger strategy, focused on building power. Members are involved throughout, specifically organic leaders (operating independently of staff), who help to construct a strategy, the goals, analysis and negotiation of any settlement. Action is built through regular individual face-to-face interactions and direct, inter-personal links of solidarity and support. The strategy is one of targeted recruitment of specific and large numbers, leading to the withdrawal of labour through coordinated “majority strikes.” McAlevey suggests that this does not mean mobilising should be ignored, and can in fact be useful in certain contexts as a tactic, but should never be the strategy.

We have seen very limited examples of this in the Trade Union movement in the UK in recent times. There has been elements of it in the recent UCU strikes, but ultimately it was led from the top and settled behind closed doors. The stronger examples have been in smaller scales campaigns, such as Deliveroo. However, the largest scale example has been in Picture House where the reps have taken a lead role, despite a lot of control still being held by officials.

During our discussions we will analyse both of these definitions, examining where the grey areas are and looking over some recent campaigns.

You can also listen to and subscribe to the ‘Talking Shop’ series via ACast –

And iTunes –

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