Yikes! A Politician On The Shop Floor
Unions often ask politicians to come speak at a union rally. But AFSCME Local 3299 in California has found it more useful to have the politician visit the workplace.
Craig Merrilees is director of the local, representing 17,000 blue-collar, health care, and service employees on ten campuses of the University of California. “We try to bring the politician in unannounced to management,” Merrilees explains. “This would be in the midst of a struggle or a mini-campaign, for example over an issue like unfair scheduling or denial of regular breaks.
“The politician can walk in, say hello, meet the workers, shake hands, and invite the workers into the break room to talk for a few minutes. This typically creates a lot of buzz and excitement among the workers and sends a message to management in a big way. The line supervisor gets on the phone calling his boss—‘there’s a state senator on the floor, what can I do?’
“Meanwhile the state senator is convening a meeting of workers and pledging his support to their cause. It’s a can’t-lose situation.
“If the University blunders and kicks the politician out, it causes lots of problems, nasty letters, and a frosty relationship. In most cases the managers head for the hills, while the workers often walk off the job, join the politician, get affirmation of their struggle. They walk out of the meeting feeling stronger, after the state senator told them to keep fighting.
“We’ve done this over many different issues, from firing for union activity to whatever you can imagine. It doesn’t have to be a big issue.”
After the visit, the union follows up with a flyer, a letter from the legislator, and more agitation on the shop floor. “We usually put out a flyer the same day,” says Merrilees, “or at most the next day, with a photo of the state senator meeting with the workers. The headline says something like ‘We’re winning support in our struggle for fair schedules.’ The leaflet goes on to explain that Senator Z pledged her support and said her office will be watching this closely.
“The legislator usually then writes to the University chancellor or the boss, saying, ‘I had the pleasure of visiting workers in Unit X, and I was shocked by what they told me about the scheduling problem. I hope you’re going to take this seriously, because you know I do.’
“They may also say, ‘I sit on the budget committee, and we’ll be taking this into consideration when we talk about the budget this year.’
“Typically, after the visit, the flyer, the letter, and activity on the shop floor, most bosses are brought to heel pretty quickly and have an attitude change.”
MAKING POLITICS PERSONAL
Merrilees says that the shop floor invitation tactic is beneficial to members but it can also change the politician: “When we invite politicians later to speak to our leadership meetings, they inevitably cite the experience they had at our workplace. It definitely changes their attitude.
“We want them to get their hands dirty, to have an experience on the shop floor being with people they don’t usually see, in an environment they don’t usually work in. We want them to take a position on the class struggle: where do you stand on the struggle between this boss and these workers? It seems small, but it separates the wheat from the chaff.
“The other benefit is to break down the alienation our folks feel towards politics and politicians. Because we depend on the budget process, we’re incredibly dependent on politicians.We desperately need workers to be involved. But people are so alienated from politics that it’s hard to get them to volunteer to walk the precincts. The politician’s visit to the workplace is personal and concrete and it shows the reciprocity that should be inherent in the political process.
“We’ve had a huge increase in the number of workers who respond to our requests to get involved in campaign work. It seems the most natural thing to help Senator Chris Kehoe, since she’s the one who helped us out when we had the fight over breaks. People become willing to walk the precinct or do the phonebanking.”
WANT OUR ENDORSEMENT?
Endorsements also come into the picture. Should the union endorse candidate X? Should it give money to candidate Y? The workplace visit becomes one criterion for deciding.
Merrilees says, “If a politician doesn’t answer our call or doesn’t want to be involved in our struggle, then we make it clear we can’t support him or her, because he or she didn’t respond when our members needed help.
“To do this, the union has to have a political director who believes politicians have to be held responsible.We’ve had an interesting debate on our executive board about our criteria for endorsing politicians. We’re trying to take out the subjectivity, and not make decisions on the basis of personal relationships.
“We’re trying to follow a regular set of criteria that are more thoughtful and objective.
“We now have a protocol. And one of the questions is, Has the politician visited the workplace and taken a position on a shop floor struggle?”
??? Adapted from A Troublemaker’s Handbook 2.
Labor and Politics