A little over a year ago, 100 workers tried to form a union at Transit Express, a low-wage Milwaukee company that the county government pays to transport disabled people. Their employer put up surveillance cameras, hired security guards, distributed anti-union literature, and gave workers a pay hike--which he warned they could lose if they voted for a union. The workers became frightened, and a pro-union majority dissolved.
That kind of employer hardball is common. But in Milwaukee, a coalition of union locals and community groups struck back. Now they are close to winning a county ordinance that will curb the use of such tactics by any major government contractor. The coalition successfully ran two union members for seats on the county board of supervisors last spring, pressured other candidates to support the labor ordinance, and held rallies to counter an intense campaign against the measure by antilabor law firms.
The force behind this community coalition is the Milwaukee County Labor Council, the union federation that is the local counterpart of the national AFL-CIO. Since 1990 two former bus drivers with close ties to the civil rights movement--Bruce Colburn and John Goldstein--have turned the local labor council into a major player in Milwaukee politics, providing a serious challenge to the power of the city's business interests.
There are central labor councils in most American cities, but usually there's not much to them. Often poorly financed and lacking staff or strategy (or sometimes even a fax machine), they've typically focused on banquets, golf outings, breakfasts with local business leaders, and photo opportunities with politicians collecting a campaign check. If they couldn't pay the electric bill and had to shut down, one national union leader quipped, most people wouldn't notice. Only half of all union locals in the country even belong to their central labor councils, which is one cause of the councils' weakness and also an indicator of the low esteem in which they're generally held. But around the country, a handful of councils like Milwaukee's have transformed themselves over the past decade and have become models of how to rebuild labor's local clout.
Their timing is certainly right. Generations have passed since local labor assemblies were a major force in American life--coordinating union organizing, launching political parties, even calling citywide general strikes like the Seattle strike of 1919. But the importance of the local political arena is now resurging. As more governmental authority devolves to localities, and as economic planning strategies focus increasingly on metropolitan areas, stronger local labor movements--at the center of new progressive coalitions--could once again be a critical counterweight to traditional power elites.
Moreover, as the unionized share of the American work force has shrunk, it's become clear that new approaches to labor organizing are needed. If individual unions break out of their parochialism to work with each other and with local allies (from religious leaders to environmentalists), labor can become more of a social movement again--a working-class social movement that connects a multiplicity of workers (public- and private-sector workers, skilled-trade and low-skilled service workers, industrial and white-collar workers) and also links their on-the-job interests with the needs of their home communities. This may indeed be precisely what's required to attract and galvanize new union members.
In the 1980s, several progressive unions developed their own network of labor-community coalitions called Jobs with Justice. New leaders also transformed central labor councils in places besides Milwaukee. In Atlanta, the local labor council has repeatedly organized rallies, marches, and civil disobedience actions--including a sit-in at former Speaker Newt Gingrich's office--to fight everything from cutbacks in prescription drug coverage for the poor to the privatization of local public services. And in Cleveland, the central labor council has brought together unions, politicians, clergy, and community groups to demonstrate at factory gates--and in the home neighborhoods of company executives--to publicize the abusive labor practices of a number of local employers. By turning workers' right to organize into a live public issue, these joint protests have helped Cleveland's separate unions to organize at companies producing everything from home security systems to roasted nuts.
When John Sweeney was elected president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, he asked the leaders of these and other innovative local labor councils--who had strongly backed his election--to identify their most effective strategies. They said they'd found it crucial to promote more women and minorities as leaders, to educate members about the changing economy, and to involve members more in decisions and in "street heat," or direct action. The AFL-CIO then urged other central labor councils to follow that lead. The proposal was not met with universal enthusiasm. As one council leader said, "I thought, 'What's all this shit? More work?'" But many of the original doubters are discovering that members like being more active. "I was skeptical at first, but it seems to be mushrooming," says Ed Burke, president of the Greater Boston Central Labor Council, whose first effort at multi-union activism was a rally at the Rogers Foam factory in Somerville, Massachusetts, which won back the job of a worker fired for organizing. "Every event, we get more people," Burke now boasts.
The AFL-CIO calls this effort its Union Cities program, and roughly one-fourth of the country's nearly 600 local labor councils--representing about half the nation's union members--have now signed on, although the few dozen most active councils still provide the main examples of what can be done. In Silicon Valley, for instance, the central labor council has joined with community groups to launch a nonprofit job placement agency and a membership organization for the region's vast force of temporary workers. They're providing both training and benefits, and they hope to get local regulation of the area's temporary employment industry. In the much different, older manufacturing community around Moline, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa, the local labor council actively recruits candidates for local office. "There isn't a meeting that goes by that I don't say we're looking for candidates," says Jerry Messer, the labor council's president, and he ticks off the names of teachers, electricians, grocers, letter carriers, public workers, and firefighters who have recently become part of new labor-friendly majorities in the area's local governments.
The best example of a "union city" today may be Las Vegas, where the 50,000-member Culinary Workers local of HERE (the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union) took the lead role, not the central labor council. With most Las Vegas hotel staff in the union, the local has the power both to negotiate good contracts and to elect its own members to political office. As a result, Las Vegas is a city in which the lowliest hotel service workers make at least $20,000 a year and being in a union is considered the norm for all workers. But in many other cities, the union is not so strong. There, says HERE President John Wilhelm, "we can't get the job done without the local labor council." In Las Vegas the Culinary Workers are also using their base to strengthen the rest of the labor movement. For example, they have supported organizing campaigns by other unions in hospitals and the building trades. They've also allied with local churches and persuaded United Way charities to help migrant workers become citizens.
Elsewhere, Union Cities innovators may have less political muscle, but they're flexing what they have. "If elected officials can't support us on the basic right to organize, [if they can't] stand up at their desk or on the back of a flatbed truck at the picket line and denounce employers who attack workers," says Ron Judd, until recently the executive secretary-treasurer of the King County Labor Council in Seattle, "I don't know why we should support them." And they're bringing their local political power to bear on private-sector employers. They've often worked with the community coalitions that have won living-wage ordinances in 50 cities and counties, which require government contractors to pay higher than the minimum wage. They're pressing for legislation that would prevent private employers from using public funds to fight unions. (This is a current statewide campaign in California.) They're getting ordinances passed that condition a company's tax abatements or public subsidies on the number of jobs it creates and its respect for workers' rights. In Cleveland the central labor council persuaded the city council to revoke tax abatements for Dreison International if the auto parts company continued to refuse to bargain with the union its workers had formed. Labor councils in Milwaukee and other cities have won guarantees that employers at hotels built with public subsidies remain neutral when workers try to organize. Four years ago, the Milwaukee labor council, local building trade unions, and civil rights groups mobilized 3,000 people to march around the site of a new convention center and baseball stadium. They demanded--and won--a union agreement covering construction work at the site as well as commitments to hire more minorities and women.
Yet despite these successes, Union Cities promoters, in turn, have grown impatient with the pace of change and the failure of most national unions to integrate local labor councils into their plans. "It just wasn't enough," says Marilyn Sneiderman, AFL-CIO director of field mobilization. "We need[ed] to ratchet it up, to move more quickly, to accelerate the pace of change."
But the ratcheting plan, called the New Alliance project--an effort to bring the AFL-CIO, national unions, state labor federations, and local labor councils into state-by-state discussions about how to coordinate their work--is facing some resistance. This arises from simple stodginess in some cases, but also from more legitimate concerns. A number of local councils and some national unions, like the historically more independent United Auto Workers and Teamsters, have balked at the project, fearing a loss of autonomy. "People are uptight about whether there will be too much bureaucracy and too much will be driven from above--too much approval of budget or work plans in Washington," says Bruce Colburn, the Milwaukee innovator who is now the AFL-CIO point man on implementing the New Alliance. "Accountability is not something people are used to."
There has been friendly disagreement even among Union Cities stalwarts about what the program's main objective should be--to stimulate the spirit of a new social movement or to develop new institutions for governing regional economies.
Stewart Acuff, until recently the president of the Atlanta Central Labor Council, has argued that "the importance of Union Cities is less programmatic and more cultural." It isn't easy to convert labor's old backroom, deal-making ways of doing politics into a new culture of worker activism--as one big-city labor council leader demonstrated when he insisted that it was often more effective just to make a phone call to the right person than to bring 300 union members out to march. But a march would also develop the members' ability and desire to be more active. Instead of figuring out how central labor councils should wield dwindling power, AFL-CIO regional organizer José Alvarez argued, union leaders have to ask themselves, "How do we rebuild power?"
On the other hand, Amy Dean of the South Bay Labor Federation in San José, California, believes that labor should concentrate on building political power and promoting worker-oriented economic plans in strategic regions, like Silicon Valley. Working with community allies and a new labor-backed research institute, Dean has developed an "economic blueprint" for more equitable development of Silicon Valley, including new plans to guarantee health care to kids and to subsidize desperately needed affordable housing along new transit routes.
In the long run, of course, both strategies are needed--plus a renewed focus on organizing, which is still most effectively done by individual unions. Indeed, the key to union growth is to get national unions to put more resources into organizing. But the best local labor councils are carving out a role for themselves even here. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, for example, now allocates 30 percent of its budget to a new organizing department, and it is fostering a cooperative organizing effort among several unions at the Los Angeles International Airport, which is scoring some success. The Milwaukee labor council helped launch the Organize Milwaukee Project, which encourages cooperation among union organizers. For example, when the Steelworkers were organizing a foundry, Organize Milwaukee brought in bilingual members of a newly organized Latino labor group to contact Spanish-speaking workers. In Seattle the AFL-CIO and the central labor council established Seattle Union Now, which pulls together organizers from the unions most deeply committed to expansion, to share information (such as how to organize contingent workers) and to create public support for workers' rights. "When you have eight or 10 unions with great organizers around the table talking about strategy and tactics, it's very powerful," says Seattle's Ron Judd. "It's about becoming a labor movement again--nurses helping teamsters and teamsters helping meatcutters... . People are slowly understanding that individual organizational identity and collective identity represent two different paths. We have for so long had an individual organizational identity, but we can't win on this path."
Stewart Acuff from Atlanta puts it this way: "If you can create a culture at the local level that encourages organizing and embraces militancy, it's going to be a really vibrant and organic culture." Experience so far suggests he's right. However slowly and haltingly, efforts to strengthen central labor councils around the country seem to be laying a foundation for both a stronger labor movement and a revitalized progressive politics. ¤