The Other Side of Organizing -- Winning the First Contract
Labor Notes’ series on Organizing the Unorganized is examining a vital area of concern for labor unions everywhere. However, I believe that there are two distinct and separate issues being discussed simultaneously in this excellent series. At times, I think this results in cloaking certain key elements of the whole question and giving the appearance of bogus disagreements between various contributors.
The first issue involves unorganized workers’ often strained relationship with or lack of interest in the labor movement. This includes the former’s attitudes, perceptions, misgivings and fears of joining a union. Trade unionists have to realize and acknowledge that in many cases, the unorganized worker’s attitudes, perceptions, misgivings, and fears are justified, while at other times they might not be. Put rather simplistically, the first issue entails the difficulties encountered by the labor movement in getting the unorganized worker to sign a union card or at least have a more positive attitude about unions. How do we get unorganized workers to understand how unions can make a difference in their lives and to believe that unions have a reasonable chance of success?
The second issue, which I believe is quite distinct from the above, involves the challenge of getting any group of workers who are positively inclined towards the union (for example, a majority who have already signed union cards) to get their certification and successfully sign their contract. How do we deal with union-busting employers, firings, reprisals, company unions, legal and government obstacles to certification, and all the other barriers to the workers’ desire and right to bargain collectively?
TWO UNIONS, TWO APPROACHES
My own personal experiences as an organizer illustrate the distinction I am trying to draw.
In 1972, after graduating from McGill University in Montreal, I began working as a paid union staff organizer at the ILGWU, the forerunner of today’s UNITE. The union had a reputation of “being in bed with the bosses.” When I began working there, I could never have imagined just how bad it really was. I spent most of my time going door to door trying to “sell” the union idea, sing the praises of the union’s contract, and get the workers to sign a union card.
Typical of my experience at the ILGWU was the unorganized worker who refused to sign her card because she had “once had a union job and when the union’s business agent would come by the garment factory, he would head straight for the boss’ office where he would often have a cognac with the boss. The union rep would then leave the shop, sometimes without even greeting any of the workers or trying to find out how things were going amongst the union members.”
In short, most Montreal garment workers perceived the ILGWU as corrupt and the only successes we had in getting new unions organized was, I later learned, when the leadership had worked out a behind-the-scenes sweetheart deal with the employer.
After only a few months, I left the ILGWU. A few weeks later, I was lucky enough to land a job as a paid staff organizer at the Confederation des Syndicats Nationaux (CSN), a Quebec-based union with members in all industry sectors across the province.
When I began working at the CSN, it had the reputation of a socialist-leaning union that was “always on strike.” At the CSN office, the telephones never stopped ringing. Workers were always calling us up because they eagerly wanted to join a CSN-affiliated union. Although I never made a rigorous scientific analysis of the phenomenon, it seemed that whenever a CSN union was involved in a high profile strike, with lots of media coverage and anti-labor editorials a dime a dozen, our phones would ring just a bit more often. In other words, the more “troublesome” and the more militant the CSN would appear to be and was, the more popular it would become with unorganized workers seeking to join a union.
In my sojourn at the ILGWU, the phone did not ring once with a worker seeking to join the union.
FIGHTING WORKERS OR BOSSES?
I have since tried to explain the phenomenon as follows. If a worker was late for work because of a bus or subway strike-and there were several attributed to the CSN during those years-he or she would be upset with the union, would likely agree with the anti-labor editorial in the morning’s newspaper, and might tell some pollster that he or she thought bus strikes should be illegal. However, if at work that afternoon this same worker’s boss gave him or her a particularly tough time, to the point that he or she thought that a union might be a good solution to his or her problem, he or she would be far more likely to contact the union that was vigorously fighting for its members rights by going on strike than the union whose business agent regularly sipped cognac in the boss’ office.
During my 13 years on the CSN’s staff, getting unorganized workers to sign a union card was not an insurmountable challenge; indeed, at times it was downright child’s play. However, getting a CSN union certified and getting its first collective agreement signed was almost always an enormously daunting task. For example, two union campaigns that I worked on dragged through the courts for over eight years.
Thus, as easy as it often was to get workers to sign a CSN union card, the bosses would fight us tooth and nail, their lawyers would dream up ever more outlandish yet time-consuming objections and court challenges, company unions would magically appear, while union sympathizers would be fired, harassed, and punished for their CSN union sympathies.
My two staff experiences are a study in very sharp contrast to one another. In the CSN, I was primarily fighting the bosses, while in the former ILGWU I was primarily “fighting” the workers.
Workers cannot be lured into unions that they perceive as ingratiating themselves too much with management.
From up here north of the border, it appears to me that signing cards is by and large the major hurdle facing large sections of the American labor movement. I would thus argue that the precipitous decline in the AFL-CIO’s membership over the past thirty odd years and its difficulties in organizing new Unions today is thus primarily related to its generally cozy relationship with the other side. There will be little progress and no turnaround until it is widely understood and accepted that unorganized workers cannot be lured into unions that they perceive as ingratiating themselves too much with management and the powers that be.
Meanwhile, unions like the CSN, whose phones ring regularly with unorganized workers, face different challenges. Perhaps the best way to illustrate the foregoing is to point to their experiences with McDonald’s. In the Montreal area over the past several years, no less than four McDonald’s franchises have had a comfortable majority of their employees sign union cards and file for union certification. In each case, McDonald’s eventually defeated the union and kept the restaurant chain union free.
Getting from a majority of cards to a viable union with a signed agreement is fraught with issues and problems that are fundamentally and genuinely distinct from the challenge of getting a majority of workers to sign their cards. Neither of these issues have easy solutions; however, the nature of each of them is sufficiently distinct that they should really be examined and considered separately and not artificially lumped together.
P.S. Over the past thirty years, since I started in my first Union job, the ILGWU’s membership in Quebec has declined by over 60%, while the CSN’s membership has increased by roughly the same amount
Allen Gottheil is a former union organizer who currently works as a consultant to various Canadian trade unions.
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Labor Notes: Summary of Lerner piece