The New Labor Movement: Solidarity Without Conformity

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Lesa Curtis of Westchester, New York, right, who is pro-agency fees and a former president of her union, rallies outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, January 11, 2016, as the court heard arguments in the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case. 

This isn’t your father’s labor movement. Back when my dad was a Cleveland bus driver and member of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Americans had a more common lived experience. Everyone in your hometown read the same newspaper and watched the same television shows. The people on your block belonged to the same civic associations and bowling leagues. The chatter around the water cooler, the local diner, or the school lockers covered more or less the same, reliable topics.

Often, our mothers and fathers worked for one of just a handful of major local employers (though if you were African American, your career options were limited and upward mobility was quite rare). Religious faith bonded people to one another; your church or other house of worship provided a unifying community space. Your neighbors knew you and your family (and, if you were a kid, you could be sure they’d tell your parents if they saw you making trouble). There was one local movie theater, and it had one screen—no multiplexes to cater to individual tastes.

To be sure, this experience wasn’t completely universal. There were deep race and class fissures, and I didn’t play Little League with the children of any bank executives or factory owners, who often lived outside of town. But it was a society of joiners, with people attaching themselves to centralized social networks for financial security and cultural identity. These associations became the organizing principles of their lives. It was a society where unionism and solidarity came naturally.

Half a century later, digitally-powered fragmentation and customization are the order of the day. Larger institutions, designed to capture broad swaths of people, are trusted less and less.

People are still joiners, but they’re much more discriminating about what they join and with whom. Rather than sublimating individuality to blend into the institution, they expect institutions to be tailored to their specifications. They are increasingly sorting and self-segregating into enclaves of the like-minded. In my day, you were likely to date and marry within your hometown or among your college peers. If you’re single today, there’s an app that allows you to meet red-headed vegan dog-lovers within a 200-mile radius.

Trade unions, meanwhile, had long ago settled into a top-down organizational and communications model, which didn’t easily adapt to an atomized society with a proliferation of niche markets. Over time, we found that we were talking to fewer and fewer people—and worst of all, we didn’t even acknowledge it.

As a matter of survival, no major American institution can function in 2016 as it did in the middle of the 20th century. Too often and for too long, all of us in the labor movement (AFSCME included) have been too change-averse, too reluctant to openly and honestly self-evaluate. Unions have to ask some tough questions about how we do business.

Especially now, with well-organized and well-funded adversaries eager to take off our heads. Early this year, the Supreme Court heard a case called Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which challenged a long-established precedent that all employees represented by a union in the public sector should share the costs of representation and negotiation, even if they choose not to join that union.

At the root of these “fair-share fees” is a common-sense principle: if you reap some of the benefits, you should help shoulder the costs. If you go out to dinner with your friends and get a good meal, everyone chips in to pay the tab, whether or not you picked the restaurant.

Although the plaintiff in the case was a teacher named Rebecca Friedrichs, her lawsuit didn’t emerge organically. The forces arrayed behind her included a who’s who of right-wing special interests, including the Koch brothers, who want to maintain the income inequality status quo. This was about putting another thumb on the scale of an already unbalanced economy, further manipulating the rules in favor of CEOs and against nurses, corrections officers, and emergency first responders.   

As it turned out, the vacancy on the Court following the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia led to a 4-4 deadlock on Friedrichs, upholding the precedent the plaintiffs had sought to overturn and preserving collective bargaining rights for public service workers.

A threat like this has a way of focusing the mind, especially with the Court likely to revisit this issue in the near future. And even before Friedrichs, AFSCME had launched a major campaign to reconnect with our rank-and-file, many of whom, frankly, we had taken for granted. We recognized that many of our 1.6 million members, even if they value the services we provide, did not identify closely with our union.

So beginning in 2014, we made internal organizing our very highest priority, training tens of thousands of our members to have one-on-one conversations with their co-workers about their union—what they want from it, the role it plays in their lives. We set a goal of one million such contacts, and we’re halfway there.

The result has been a substantial culture shift. Workers even in the smallest locals are now more empowered to make change, rather than waiting for someone from “the union” to do it for them. And our front-line local leaders and staff representatives have gone from being service providers to organizing coaches. More and more, we’re teaching people to fish instead of giving them a fish.

We’re doing more listening and less talking. We’re digging deeper to understand our members as people. And we’re finding that, even as they value and crave a deeper connection with their union, they also want to be treated as individuals. They want solidarity, but not conformity. Many see their union not as ideological instruments (“How can it advance an agenda?”) but in the most pragmatic terms (“How can it help me get ahead?”).

Even as we have reformed from within, we are also extending a hand outward, building new alliances and seeking new coalition partners. For too many years, we engaged in expensive, sometimes nasty squabbles with other public-sector unions. Today, AFSCME’s relationship with the Service Employees International Union, the National Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers is marked more by collaboration than confrontation. And building those ties is creating a whole greater than the sum of our parts.

We’re also looking beyond the labor movement for strategic partnerships. The rush to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership has stalled in no small measure because AFSCME has participated in a robust opposing coalition that includes not just unions but the Sierra Club, the NAACP, consumer groups, the faith community, and more.

Our new approach is contributing to advances large and small for unions and for working families more generally—whether it’s the fight, led by SEIU, for a $15 per hour minimum wage and paid sick days in California; or the insourcing of IT work in New York City, which is saving taxpayers millions; or a bump in public support for unions (now 56 percent approval, according to Gallup) compared to seven years ago.

Mainstream pundits have been writing labor’s obituary for years. But as long as people want good wages and benefits, safe working conditions and a voice on the job, there will be a place for unions in America.

They will look and act differently than the labor unions many of us grew up with. They will encourage fresh thinking and innovation. They will meet Americans where they live. They will be prepared for and undaunted by change. They will be flexible rather than rigid, dynamic and not static. They will be responsive to and a reflection of social progress.

And this modernized labor movement will be a more muscular labor movement, with energy and activism unleashed from the bottom up, acting as a more powerful force on behalf of its members and all working people. 

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