Don't Go It Alone

Credit: Laborers Local 79

To succeed, your organizing has to combine action on the job with a fight for justice in the wider society.

One possible reaction to Janus is that unions scale back on movement-building outside the workplace to avoid alienating on-the-fence workers. After all, it’s a right-wing talking point—unions spend money on causes that their members may not agree with.

But going it alone isn’t an option. To inspire members to stick around we need to win fights that matter. Unions can’t win big if we’re an isolated minority—especially in the public sector, where we’re up against well-financed politicians adept at pitting taxpayers against “greedy” workers. Even co-workers (who are taxpayers, too) can be susceptible to this anti-union rhetoric, and a narrow vision won’t inspire them.

To beat billionaire donors we need the power of a united working-class movement.

FIGHT FOR THE PUBLIC GOOD

Like other public sector workers, teachers and their unions have been demonized. So how did teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona attract an outpouring of public support this spring when they walked out on strikes?

The teachers linked their fight for higher pay to the fight for a good public education for all children. They broke it down: because of low salaries, experienced teachers were moving to higher-paying states or fleeing the profession. Schools were scrambling to find even underqualified replacements.

Also, the same budget cuts that slashed salaries had left students to read from tattered textbooks at broken desks in overcrowded classrooms. Teachers made these points by sharing photos on social media and with news outlets. To make sure their walkouts would not leave low-income students hungry, they organized food drives and offered meals each day.

An AP poll in the midst of the strike wave found that 78 percent of Americans thought teachers weren’t paid enough, and 80 percent of those who’d heard of the strikes supported them.

The strikers’ righteous stand, and the resulting wash of public support, inspired teachers across the country to hold their heads up high—and in several states, to follow suit.

Ways to Build Community Support

  • Have members set up one-on-one conversations with community leaders.
  • Make a plan on who to contact, who will do it, the timeline, and the ask.
  • Ask to talk about the union’s contract fight in a community meeting or faith service.
  • Participate in coalitions. Ask what support is needed, and bring updates and requests back to the union.
  • Mobilize members to attend actions organized by other unions or community groups.

LINK UP WITH ALLIES

Especially in the public sector, often we’re fighting for things that go beyond our contract, like better schools or community services. That means we have natural long-term allies. Our employers and government officials often care deeply about their reputations and will respond to public pressure.

Beyond your workplace, who has a stake in the services you provide? Are they organized? How might you reach them and collaborate?

After two passengers died in a horrific stabbing on a train in Portland, Oregon, the transit agency upped police presence. But the union was already working closely on safety with a passenger group to promote a different solution.

Transit workers and passengers are often pitted against each other, especially at the fare box. But when the two groups held joint forums, they discovered they had many concerns in common.

Instead of more police, Transit (ATU) Local 757 and Bus Riders Unite agreed they’d rather revive two job titles that used to exist—Fare Inspector and Rider Advocate—to staff trains and buses with union members equipped to de-escalate conflicts, answer questions, and call for help in a crisis. The union also backed BRU’s push for a low-income fare option, which will go into effect this summer, helping to alleviate tension between transit workers and riders who can’t pay.

“We feel like our fates are intertwined,” said BRU Organizer Orlando Lopez. “It’s not just about scratching each other’s backs. It’s about, ‘Why is it that we’re both itching?’”

DRAW ON MEMBERS' ROOTS

Unions and community groups often approach alliances in top-down style—“Let’s have our president and your executive director shake hands.” But your fellow members have profound connections of their own. We’re not just workers—we’re also neighbors, parents, people of faith, and members of many kinds of organizations.

To map out this web of connections, some unions conduct a survey. Do members and their families belong to churches, mosques, or synagogues? How about local sports leagues, parent-teacher associations, hunting clubs, or immigrant associations? Ask! Then brainstorm how to build stronger relationships between those organizations and the union.

Organizers at SeaTac airport, near Seattle, discovered the depth of workers’ faith community almost by accident.

Many of the airport’s low-wage workers were observant Muslim immigrants from Somalia. The unions weren’t seen as responsive to these workers’ concerns until 2011, when Hertz suspended 34 Somali workers for taking a brief break to pray.

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Teamsters Local 117 organized a multi-faith pray-in at the Hertz counter. Muslims, Christians, and Jews joined union and community activists, praying while holding signs that read, “Respect me, respect my religion.” Union officers and the shop steward went on national news shows. They brought in lawyers.

After the pray-in, community doors began to open. Union activists were invited to speak at family night in the mosques. Imams talked about the union drive in their Friday sermons.

Workers warmed up to organizers at the airport, saying, “I heard you were at the mosque,” or “the imam told us about the union.” The airport campaign gained momentum—and ultimately these newfound allies worked together to pass the country’s first $15 minimum-wage ordinance, kicking off a national movement.

Different Types of Alliances

Weakest:

"Please come support us!”
Some people will come help, because they like us or because it is “the right thing to do.”

Medium:

"You help us on this and we’ll help you on that!”
Scratch each other’s backs: It does help for your ally to know that you will return the favor. It’s stronger than a one-way relationship, but people will only go so far just to help you with your issues.

Strongest:

"We’re in it together!”
Solidarity: We are both being harmed. Working together and supporting each other is the only way to fix it. “Supporting you helps me win, too.”

BE IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL

Alliances with community groups should be year-round, not rustled up in an emergency, say activists in the Chicago Teachers Union.

Community groups had tried to work with the old CTU leadership “and found they weren’t interested,” said Katelyn Johnson, director of Action Now, a community organization active on the South and West Sides of the city. “If there was something they needed they would reach out, but after that you didn’t hear from them.”

Changing that dynamic was one of the first steps for a caucus that emerged to remake the union. Years before they won union leadership and led the groundbreaking 2012 strike, teacher activists got their Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators off the ground by teaming up with neighborhood groups to fight school closures.

The same principle held once the new leaders took office—approach community organizations as equals and build relationships on shared issues; don’t just ask for help with predetermined goals. Parent, student, and neighbor groups helped shape CTU’s campaign for “The Schools Chicago Students Deserve,” which highlighted not only the overall underfunding of Chicago schools but also the “educational apartheid” that was specifically underfunding and shutting down schools in Black and Latino neighborhoods.

By the time the contract campaign peaked in a massive strike, it was no surprise that community members came out in force to deliver home-cooked food, cheer the strikers on, and walk their picket lines.

IT'S NOT EITHER/OR

One note of caution: you can’t substitute community ties for a strong union in the workplace.

It’s not helpful to your community allies if you can only offer them weak support, such as the same member or two always attending their events. It won’t help you, either. At the bargaining table, all the community alliances in the world won’t make up for the basic weakness of a union whose own members aren't active.

If you’re stuck in a weak union, don’t despair. Find a few like-minded co-workers—even one is enough to get started—and start talking about how you can turn things around.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #472. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.