Labor at a Crossroads: Time to Experiment

This article is published as part of "American Labor at a Crossroads: New Thinking, New Organizing, New Strategies," a conference presented on January 15, co-sponsored by the Albert Shanker Institute, The Sidney Hillman Foundation, and The American Prospect. (View agenda here.)  Find our Labor at a Crossroads series here.

I love the breadth and gusto of the new labor organizing, which includes plenty of innovation based in old labor organizing as well. This mash-up of practical experiences will help produce breakthrough tactics and strategies. There is also a question of purpose—is our aim to improve working conditions, or is it to build a more powerful working class? These are related, clearly, but suggest different strategies and structures.

Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO, is a laboratory for change. Here are three areas at the top of our list for exploration in this realm.

Changing minds

Pollsters call this “the frame”—but really, it’s ideology.

Working America talked to 1 million people last year. We’ve had about 8 million conversations with working-class moderates on their doorsteps over the last decade. When we engage them in a conversation, most people will agree that big corporations and Wall Street have too much influence over our economy and our democracy, and they will support us on any given fight.  When it comes to elections, most are convinced to vote for our endorsed candidates.

As the bottom has fallen out of the middle class, more people identify as working class, and examples of income inequality resonate, even if the phrase “income inequality” itself is abstract to our members. But we also see that with the decline in union membership, few people have a direct experience with collective power. People need to believe that their interests are different from those of big banks and corporations, and that the power of working people together can effectively challenge those interests. Without that “frame”—what we used to call “class consciousness”we endlessly gain support on particular issues or candidates only to start all over again with the next fight or election.

How else do you explain the millions of voters in 2014 who voted for important progressive initiatives while electing right-wing candidates? The voters who supported raising the minimum wage in Illinois also elected Bruce Rauner governor, perhaps the most anti-worker candidate of the cycle; the Anchorage electorate killed the anti-worker/anti-union ballot measure AO 37, but also defeated working-family friendly Sen. Mark Begich. We moved every challenging group of voters by big margins through face-to-face conversations—white non-college men, gun owners, even Romney voters—but that wasn’t enough to prevail in a wave election. We need the cumulative effect of changed consciousness.

Elections are only one measure of the conflicting sensibilities of the people we talk to. How do we build strong ties with members who may be united by class but with whom we want to talk about race? Or supporters who are united around gender, or marriage racial equality, but aren’t there on class? Hard conversations have to rest on a shared vision of how our economy, society and democracy work.

Over the next few years, we’re concentrating on how every contact, communication, action and engagement with members can permanently change the way they look at the world. As Shantel Walker, a Fast Food Forward activist, said at the recent AFL-CIO Summit on Raising Wages, “I want everyone in America to fall in love with the bigger picture.”

Structure and scale

Years ago, when I worked with 9to5, the working women’s organization (and arguably one of the first alt-labor formations), we used to say that we need to “take off our organizational girdle”—that is, be open-minded, not doctrinaire, about what forms organizing should take. Today, we’d probably say Spanx, not girdle, but otherwise the sentiment is still right. And that is exactly what everyone from a local workers’ center to the Ironworkers Associates to OUR Walmart is doing.

The first question organizers confront of course, is, what will workers join? The second is, what organizational forms can leverage power? Collective bargaining at the enterprise level worked well in the mid-20th century, but high turnover and the casualization of work make that model the exception, not the rule. Welcome, precariat.

The CIO shaped the power of industrial organizing, and when I was a young organizer in SEIU we aimed to organize “wall to wall,” to include all the skilled and unskilled workers who shared a common employer, rather than emulating the craft or trade union model that focused on a “guild of the skilled.” But new organizing models may need to borrow more from trade unions rather than industrial organizing. The trades and entertainment unions pulled together people who, today, would be considered independent contractors.  What does that suggest for organizing the cosmetologists in a state or by extension, all of the retail workers in a mall?  

Another model is leveraging public policy locally to raise standards and build organization, LAANE in Los Angeles offering the most impressive example. How do we expand that model and include membership for those workers who otherwise are not in a collective bargaining union?

To succeed, these new structures need to deliver, and that depends in part on scale. New organizing will be propelled by committed activists, but will have to be sustained by huge numbers of members and supporters. And that gets me to our last focus.

Dues and democracy

Our independent labor movement has been sustained by dues-paying members with a vote in their unions. The institutions that unions devised to sustain themselves once they’d won contracts—automatic dues deductions from paychecks, fees for those non-members who benefit from union contracts, and automatic renewal of membership status through “maintenance of membership clauses”—created financial stability, but are now in political peril.

We need to find new ways for members to support their organizations consistently that don’t depend on winning contracts with increasingly union-averse employers. Many unions are going back to voluntary dues collection—getting their members or fee payers invested and engaged, and that’s a good thing.

Organizations that depend on outside funding, such as workers’ centers, often have impressive leadership and democratic decision-making, and make huge advances for their members. But an organization has to be financially supported by its members to be independent. Ultimately, you are accountable to your stakeholders.

Some argue that self-sufficiency may be essential, but a democratic structure isn’t necessary and may be counterproductive—that democratic institutions are naturally conservative, protecting their members’ interests above the greater good.

If so, we have to struggle with that. AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka tells the story of how the United Mine Workers of America was the first U.S. union to oppose apartheid. These largely rural white workers found common ground with black workers in South Africa through a shared economic analysis. The UMWA leadership changed the minds of their members, overcoming cultural bias. We’ll have to do the same.

It’s an exciting time. Unions, alt-labor and groups of workers are pioneering new visions concurrently. We share an unwavering commitment to workers and an experimental approach, with some healthy tensions.  We need all these experiments, and we need them to have the room, resources and power to pave a path forward.


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