Letter to the editor: A New Vision for Organizing

March 2003

I have read with much interest the opinions of many bright union activists who written in Labor Notes on the subject of the future. That's great and refreshing. But let's be honest with ourselves and say that much like a dying tree, the labor movement has many dead limbs. They can't or won't be brought back to life, so in an effort to save the tree, we need to make some breaks and hope that the healing can begin.

To try to turn most business unions into something great to me is just not worth the time it takes to fight both inept and/or corrupt leadership. The old leadership just has too much invested in the status quo and we end up fighting with unions instead of the real enemy, the bosses.

BREAKING WITH THE NEW "OLD GUARD"

What really needs to happen is for the progressive leadership of the AFL-CIO unions to leave that federation. The Sweeney "revolution" of the mid-90's didn't work. Use the money that is saved on real political operations and coordinated organizing campaigns with the idea that these campaigns are not about building SEIU, AFSCME, HERE or any one affiliate. The time fighting one another is just a waste. Bury the egos along with the hachets. The bosses understand what is in their interest. When will our union leaders do the same? Soon, they'll have nothing left to fight over.

We need a new revolution lead by unions that understand that it is organize or die. Real political power in the electoral arena, not some vague promise of support.

To make massive increases in the number of union members, we need to seriously examine what we consider a union member to be. We now only consider a union member one who goes through an election or a card check campaign. To be a union member, you have to have a contract or be fighting for one.

This needs to be re-evaluated in light of our current situation. We have laws that don't allow those who wish to join the movement that opportunity. We have bosses that hire high priced union busting lawyers to discourage union organizing efforts. Yet, labor spends millions of dollars supporting politicians that do nothing to change existing laws that make it impossible to organize workers. Does this make sense? Is this a good way to spend workers' hard earned money?

We have union locals that don't really want new members, make it clear that they don't want these members, or have no program to capture their interest. Are they are afraid that by increasing membership, they may actually change the internal political balance of the local? In other words, the new members may run for office against the existing leadership.

This is also why little education or leadership development is done by local unions. In fact, the national AFL-CIO recently closed down its education department without a protest from virtually anyone. Of course, it didn't help that most observers didn't even know that they had an education department.

We have unions that don't allow input into decision making by their rank and file, thus treating workers just like the bosses treat them. This lack of democracy is often dismissed by labor "insiders," but it has far deeper implications than most of these people tend to admit.

We have unions that act just like the bosses, with huge executive salaries and headquarters that look just like corporate offices. Take one look around Washington, DC and you'll find it hard to tell the difference between corporate offices and the union offices. Do we really need those "palaces"?

Since the Sweeney "revolution" of the mid-nineties, we have seen an organizing upsurge by certain unions. This upsurge has allowed the labor movement to tread water as far as the numbers go. The fact that union leadership realizes that organizing has to take place is a good thing. Until recently, that wasn't the case.

Now is the time to rethink where the movement has to go to build back real power and influence. We can continue to believe our own rhetoric or we can build real power to win real benefits for working families.

There needs to be a realization that we cannot build without utilizing the help of the rank and file. Unions will not grow if they are run by staff and driven by staff. Workers have to understand that without their active participation in organizing campaigns, unions will not grow and they and their families will lose even more ground. But unless labor union leadership starts taking its own advice, unions will not grow.

GIVING OWNERSHIP TO THE WORKERS

New organizers are told that new members will sign up if they feel "ownership" of their union. New organizers are told that community, religious and political leaders will help with our efforts if they feel "ownership" of the organizing campaign.

Workers need to feel ownership too. They need to feel that the labor movement isn't a special interest group or what I like to call a "secret society". Workers need to understand that the labor movement is a social change vehicle that will help them and their families. Workers must realize that the labor movement is about social justice. This new labor movement has to be challenged to believe that it is the new civil rights movement. Many union leaders don't believe that the labor movement is a vehicle for social change. These leaders don't seem to know the labor movement's history. But now we get to the real problem.

Can we get the union leadership to understand that all workers need to have the opportunity to join a union? Some members think that the union is just the union's hall. It's the hall where social events are held or bingo is played. Some local leaders act like the union's hall is more important than the members themselves. Do we have leaders that have the courage to change this thinking? It is clear that pretty soon we will have nothing to lose because we will have nothing left.

It is very nice that every year the AFL-CIO does a survey and finds that more and more workers would join a union if given an opportunity. Why aren't they given the chance to join?

Let's tell our leaders to stop bellyaching and making excuses. Show us some leadership, leaders! It's very true that the laws stink and the bosses lie and flaunt the law. But do our leaders realize that we are own worst enemies? Is there ever a best time to organize or fight political battles. That never stops our enemies from fighting. The bosses have been shamelessly pounding on OSHA, for instance, for years.We need to be as relentless as they are.

We also need a simple platform. Conservatives are highly effective at coming up with simple, easy to understand solutions to hard problems. We have simple-to-present solutions. We'd just rather write long white papers and studies defending things that really need no defense to workers and their families.

Workers are smart. They know what is in their best interest. They don't need someone with an advanced degree to explain their problems to them. They just need leaders who will stand up and clearly articulate what they already see as the solution.

I'm no rocket scientist, and I'm sure that others have better ideas to really energize workers, but here are some examples of what I mean:

  1. Everyone should have the right to join a union. Card check recognition.

  2. A livable wage is more important than a corporation increasing its profits. It's one way to end poverty.

  3. Even right-wingers will agree that our government exists to protect its citizens. There is a much higher likelihood that you will be affected by disease in your lifetime than you would by a terrorist attack. Universal health care is a higher priority than new missile systems.

  4. Can't breathe the air and or drink the water? Government should punish those who are responsible.

  5. There are many deaths at work as well as on the streets. To protect citizens, government should prosecute and jail those who are responsible. Why do we allow corporations the right to sue? With this right, they have destroyed OSHA making our workplace a major hazard. We have to raise our voices and denounce this corporate crusade.

  6. Infrastructure improvements will create more jobs than war. They should be government's budgetary priority.

  7. If a corporation accepts subsidies of taxpayer money, they should have to report their financial position just like unions have to, with annual LM-2s.

  8. Let workers know that corporations have "freedom of speech". Let them also know that, in many cases, they have no freedom of speech when they are at work for the corporation. Shouldn't constitutional rights be respected at all workplaces? Let's start talking about workplace democracy as one of our goals.

Additionally, unions need to have a pro-active agenda to attract new members:

  1. National health care for all.

  2. Pro-family 32 hour work week.

  3. Pro-family paid family leave and day care.

  4. Drastic reform of workers compensation laws so that injured workers need not suffer.

  5. Reform social security so that the wealthy pay their fair share.

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We also need to create new membership structures and philosophies:

  1. Anyone who is a worker can join a union today. Individual members need to be signed up. The bosses can stop one campaign at a time. They've proven that very well. But what if we could organize an army of tens of thousands of workers to start organizing at once? What if 100,000 campaigns were moving at once? Workers would feel real power. Politicians could not deny our strength. Organizing would move up everyone's political agenda.

  2. To start thinking about this, these workers need to start an extensive training program to develop a union at their workplace. They become the "leads" for future organizing. They can learn how to run union elections. They can become part of a political force fighting for a working family's agenda. They can start to feel "ownership" of the union today. Have you started a union at your workplace and encouraged others to do the same?

  3. How to get these workers on board? Well, according to the AFL-CIO sponsored Hart survey, workers are ready to go. We can take our cues from the right wing. They use radio as a cost-effective medium. Rush Limbaugh, a former DJ, can sound like a scholar because he has a wealth of information sent over to him from right wing think tanks. We need labor media to send out our message on a daily basis. It can be started by us on community radio. If Limbaugh can get his message out to millions of listeners every day, I think our labor leaders in Washington can figure out a way to buy time on TV stations to get our message out, don't you?

  4. Community organizations should become part of unions. They are, in fact, community unions. What else would you call something like ACORN?

  5. Unions should organize unions of seniors, students, freelancers, co-ops, home-based workers, temps and day laborers. Organize workers the way they think they should be organized, not what the law tells us to do. Remember, we don't write the laws. Do you really want to wait until the day we do write them?

  6. Unions should organize and affiliate groups that work on issues that affect working families. For instance, why aren't environmental issues a part of the labor movement?

  7. Let's find ways to develop a more diverse leadership in the labor movement. It's time to open the door very wide. It is truly pathetic to think of the AFL-CIO leadership and see how few women, persons of color, and youth are in powerful positions in the labor movement.

  8. Unions need to be open to experiment with different forms of membership. So-called minority unions may be the answer to organizing the South. The labor movement must increase its density in large cities and develop a political and organizing strategy in the South.

  9. Unions should consider organizing density in other ways than just industry-wide or company-wide. Why not organize city-by-city, or by county. Geographic organizing could save money and encourage local, independent, and democratic unions.

To build a powerful movement, all of this needs to happen. Without democracy in our unions, are workers better off than with what the boss is offering? Without new forms of membership, we'll have to wait for the laws to change. Without a new political agenda, we stand for nothing except the same old stuff and I think we know where that will take us.

The labor movement was built with hard work and leaders who were willing to risk their lives and fight for their dreams. Nothing I said here is revolutionary or hasn't been said before. We now just have to stop talking about it and get out and do it.