Mobilizing the Unorganized: Is “Working America” the Way Forward?

Given the dramatic decline of union membership, the U.S. labor movement needs to reach out to a broader base of working- and middle-class Americans. Now more than ever, non-union workers need an advocate, within both the economic and political realms.

This idea is at the heart of Working America, a national initiative established in 2003 as the “community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.” Working America now claims more than three million members. Eight years after its creation, the organization has demonstrated some impressive capabilities; but, at the same time, it raises questions about the limitations of labor’s vision in using community outreach and organizing to build an inclusive base of power.

Working America has been successful as an independent political operation in battleground states. But unless unions address the challenge of forming a common agenda in realms that go beyond narrow electoral campaigning or political issue advocacy, and unless they are willing to invest in reviving labor’s local infrastructure, efforts to reach out to a constituency wider than the movement’s dues-paying members will continue to be constrained.

Creating a Battleground Canvass

Ideas that laid the groundwork for Working America initially developed in the 1980s out of a discussion about how federations like the AFL-CIO could re-establish themselves as bodies representing the interests of all working people in the country. Economists—including Harvard’s Richard Freeman—recommended developing an “associate membership” program, and the AFL-CIO’s Committee on the Evolution of Work propelled the idea with its 1985 report, “The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions.” Subsequently, through the 1990s and 2000s, labor leaders recognized that reversing a declining rate of overall unionization needed to be a priority; but they also recognized that labor needed to be able to establish a base of support that went beyond dues-paying members covered under collective bargaining agreements.

By 2003, electoral politics emerged as an arena in which labor should reach beyond its membership base to represent working-class communities. The electoral operations of affiliate unions had grown more sophisticated than ever before. Labor field campaigns demonstrated that they could create very high turnouts among their members, and that—when organized— approximately 70 percent of members would vote for candidates endorsed by their organization. This represented an historic high—but it also appeared as something of a limitation, given the declining rate of unionization. Thus, both the ability as well as the need to reach out to a broader base was clear.

To take the success of labor’s existing voter outreach and replicate it among non-union members, Working America established a door-to-door canvass in electoral battleground states including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Michigan, Florida, and New Mexico. The organization targeted moderates and swing voters, especially members of the white working-class who, starting with the “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s, had been the first to flee the Democratic Party. Dues would be voluntary, as the organization sought to reach out to the largest possible base. The question, says Working America Executive Director Karen Nussbaum, was whether this constituency could “be part of a sphere of influence” the same way that union members were?

Electoral Successes

The answer, Working America demonstrated, is “yes.” The strengths that the organization can now claim are based in its political focus. It has established that it can go into battleground electoral districts and deploy an effective political canvassing operation, run by paid staff. Working America has appealed to blue-collar voters in areas of declining union density and rallied them to a more progressive agenda.

In its analysis following the 2008 elections, the organization reported that: “Working America members voted for Barack Obama at much higher rates than their counterparts in the public at large…For example, while white men voted for McCain by sixteen points, white male Working America members voted for Obama by twenty-seven points.” Overall, voting patterns among Working America members were comparable to those of union members.

Not only has the organization been politically persuasive, it has excelled at turnout. Following the 2010 elections, Working America’s preliminary analysis shows that people canvassed “voted at an average 7 percent higher rate than their neighbors. In some states, that difference was as high as 20.4 percent among certain segments of voters.” The difference such an effort can make in a given race is profound. In Colorado, Working America knocked on the doors of seventy-nine thousand voters in advance of the 2010 midterms. Representative Ed Perlmutter, an endorsed candidate, won by just twenty-four thousand votes.

Longtime labor journalist and Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson notes, “The particular niche that Working America occupies is not one that the rest of the liberal coalition can occupy. They are going after white, working-class swing voters. Who the hell else could do that?”

Building Capacity, door to door

Currently, Working America has a staff of approximately twenty-five people in Washington, D.C. and a field staff that fluctuates somewhat, but is now near 150. In the past year, it ran on a budget of approximately $20 million. About half of that funding came from unions, the other half from outside supporters and the organization’s members. Nussbaum states that Working America’s field organizers, collectively, have twenty-five thousand in-person conversations with members and potential members every week.

In contrast to many political operations, Working America does not merely open field offices for a few months in the lead-up to elections. Political Director Matt Morrison explains, “Our primary means of reaching out to members and recruiting them and renewing them is via the canvass operation. We have canvass offices spread throughout the country that operate at different sizes. But, generally speaking, we’ll have an operation up and running for about a year and a half within the cycle. Most of that happens well before election season.”

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka adds, “After Election Day was over we used to dismantle the mechanism that we had in place, and there was no way to do accountability. We are changing that to do year-round mobilization and education, so that we can move seamlessly from electoral politics to advocacy, and from advocacy to accountability. Working America is obviously part of the process.”

According to Nussbaum, about 40 percent of Working America members give canvassers their e-mail addresses, so the organization maintains an active online program, sending issue e-mails every seven to ten days. Yet the organization has recognized that, in order to broaden the base, there is no replacement for walking the neighborhoods and creating face-to-face connections.

Working America’s Pittsburgh Regional Director Jenn Jannon explains how the canvass operates:

Many of [our three million members] signed up when a canvasser came to their door, had a fairly brief conversation with them about an economic issue, [and] got them to sign on as a member. Then from there [the canvasser] actually engaged the person in some sort of action right at their door. Our canvas staff [is] doing things like generating hand-written letters or having people call their legislators, normally about some sort of state or local or federal issue we are working on that has an economic impact on our members.

Nussbaum adds:

We say, “Here’s what Working America stands for,” and there’s a list of five issues: good jobs, a secure retirement, quality education, health care for everyone, corporate accountability . . . . Two out of three people join, and that’s been true since the day we started . . . . 25 to 50 percent of people we talk to will take an action that night. If you’re doing an action like a petition, 75 percent of people will do it. But even writing letters, making a phone call right that minute to a congressperson or your state legislator—big numbers of people will do that.

Less than a quarter of Working America members pay dues of $5 per year. However, Nussbaum argues that this is by design—the purpose of the organization is to be as large as possible. Speaking of the principles that guided Working America’s development, Nussbaum says, “We were intended to be a mass organization, not a cadre organization or a community organization that really puts [an] emphasis on leadership development. We were about being big.” The descriptions of the organization’s intentions and ambitions go far in explaining the type of operation it has become and the areas in which it has achieved the most success: electoral and political advocacy. The question—both to critics and supporters alike—is whether this represents the full potential for labor’s expanded involvement in community affairs.

Unfulfilled Potential?

Working America is widely admired for what it does well. But even some who are generally supportive see it as limited to a political focus. It is around questions of how Working America can live up to a fuller potential that some outsiders have raised questions and the organization itself has strived to “go deeper.” Ultimately, there are political and financial reasons why Working America has developed in the manner it has so far. The AFL-CIO’s affiliate unions have been far more willing to accept leadership from the federation in the realm of politics than in the realm of organizing. Richard Hurd, Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, argues: The AFL-CIO has proven that it cannot play a role in organizing, that its role has to be in the political realm, that’s where unions accept the leadership and guidance and coordination of the federation. The AFL-CIO tried to promote organizing from 1995 until 2005, for most of the first ten years of Sweeney’s reign . . . but it was very clear that the member unions resisted in the effort to assign jurisdiction, or in any effort to coordinate any organizing.

Hurd may overstate his case a bit. In addition to politics, member unions have accepted a role for the federation in mobilizing movement-wide support for affiliates during major strikes, for example. But overall he makes an important point, one that is echoed by others.

Labor strategist Steve Rosenthal notes that some affiliates’ enthusiasm for Working America, and for providing funding for the group, increased as it asserted a political focus. Others, however, believe Working America’s political and electoral work is also a limitation. They are critical of its emphasis on informing and mobilizing working-class communities instead of developing grassroots leaders. Responding to such concerns, Working America launched a “member coordinator” program in the spring of 2010, focused on deeper leadership development.

Jannon says:

“We’ve really worked to give people a place with
Working America where they can become activists
on economic issues. In Pennsylvania we did a
long campaign on the budget this year. We began
getting our members really deeply engaged at
the door through our canvass, but then also our
member coordinators would call a certain subset
of our members back, ask them to do letters to
the editors about the budget. They ask them to do
direct lobby meetings with legislators about the
budget. We also asked them to get their friends
and family involved, sort of working their own
networks. What we found is that our members
come back, they want to do more action with us.”

While Nussbaum takes exception to depictions of Working America as an entirely electoral operation, she acknowledges that the organization is most focused on the arena of political/legislative advocacy. “We’re not likely to send people to a picket line,” she says, “because that’s not really how our members identify themselves. But we are likely to invite people to a rally about the state budget or lobby their state representative on health care” or other issues relevant to working people.

Experimenting with New Forms of Representation

It is important to note that, in discussions going back for decades about how labor might experiment with representing people outside of collective bargaining, political mobilization represented only one of many possibilities. It is beyond the scope of this article to undertake a thorough survey of various ideas for how labor might experiment. Nor does any one proposal today serve as a useful prescription for how Working America should change. But, by way of comparison, it is useful to mention some other relevant initiatives.

One alternative vision for labor outreach pictures a program that would engage working-class people to create organizations that might more directly lead to traditional union organization. Hurd proposes that such an effort “would be very active in places where unions might have an opportunity to organize, and it would be used not only as a way to connect with people politically, but also as a way to develop organizing campaigns that resulted in workers being recognized in the workplace.” Such organizing has been attempted by several internationals on a small scale. The most ambitious current effort in this vein is probably the United Food and Commercial Workers’ investment in “OUR Wal-Mart,” an advocacy organization for all Wal-Mart employees. This type of drive might also incorporate tactics being used by the “workers’ centers” that have emerged across the country in the past decade. These tactics include pursuing wage and hour lawsuits, or mounting public pressure campaigns against targeted employers to compel them to address grievances in workplaces not covered by collective bargaining agreements. Distinct from this first alternative, another vision sees the labor movement undertaking community organizing around economic justice issues in the mold of groups like ACORN. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) recently launched a “Fight for a Fair Economy” campaign, which in many ways parallels the efforts of Working America. However, instead of focusing on predominantly white swing voters in battleground states, it appears that the SEIU will be targeting people of color and other core constituencies of the Democratic Party, with the goal of creating an activist force that can demand accountability from politicians. Nussbaum distinguishes the two projects, characterizing the Fight for a Fair Economy as “more like the ACORN model of going through neighborhoods that are probably somewhat lower income than ours, looking for really lathered activists, and turning it into a kind of very confrontational activist base.” A third model of labor experimentation with non-traditional members focuses on providing services to workers not covered under traditional collective bargaining agreements. These include the Freelancers Union, which attracts many consultants and contingent workers by offering a group health insurance plan, as well as efforts to provide “union privilege” credit cards or other benefits to non-union members. This model has the advantage of being largely self-sufficient in terms of funding—something neither Working America nor Fight for a Fair Economy can claim. The difficulty with this approach is converting a consumer relationship into leadership development and significant organizing.

Labor’s Electoral Mobilization Meets

Community organizing using any of these visions as a predetermined model for Working America’s future development would be a mistake. For her part, Nussbaum acknowledges that there are no easy answers about how to establish Working America as a more full-bodied community organization. She expresses a desire for a broader organizing program to form organically out of Working America’s existing work. Furthermore, Trumka expresses a desire to bolster funding for Working America to allow for growth. “It’s been underfunded at the beginning, and now we’re trying to properly fund it,” he says. “They’ve only recently begun spreading out and talking union at the doors and finding organizing leads. So, we think that’s a real potential for it in the future as well.”

Allowing for the organic development of Working America in the way Nussbaum suggests makes sense, and Trumka’s desire to increase funding is a positive sign. At the same time, if the organization is going to grow to scale and achieve a fuller potential outside of battleground states, the labor movement must address three challenges: the first concerns the ability of different unions to work together in a disciplined way on initiatives that fall outside the realm of politics; the second involves the willingness of affiliates to invest in state and local structures; and the third pertains to labor’s expectations for the Democratic Party.

First, Working America must be allowed to become more than an electoral or political vehicle. And this means overcoming the hesitancy among unions to work together on anything except politics—a trend discussed earlier.

If labor is going to go beyond moving people to the polls, it must combine its capacity for electoral mobilization with organizing around issues of central concern to people’s everyday lives. Community organizing has the strength of meeting people where they are and engaging them on the issues that matter to them most on a day-to-day basis. The national community organizing networks are mobilizing people around things like foreclosures, refinancing, payday loans, and improving public schools. Even as it maintains a national program, labor should be seeking to link up with such campaigns.

In localities and metropolitan areas where labor has been able to revive its central labor councils, form deep coalitions with progressive partners, conduct innovative research into local economies, revamp its political program, and work around community issues—a program I call regional power building—it has been able to make strides despite difficulties on the national political scene. Even amid tight public budgets, using leverage over zoning, land use decisions, tax incentives, and other mechanisms of local governance has provided an avenue for labor to take up activism in other areas that directly affect people’s lives: transportation, housing, and community development.

Such a program has important implications for unions’ political strength. For we know that if labor is seen as a narrow special interest, we lose. If it is seen as a force that is consistently acting in the common good for local communities, and consistently delivering, its base of support widens.

Infrastructure for Change

Second, if the labor movement is going to scale up its community outreach and organizing it must address the challenge of infrastructure. The best chance for Working America to grow dramatically and take hold outside of battleground electoral states would be for it to integrate itself into the existing local and state structures of the labor movement. Instead of pursuing only a political agenda determined by leaders in Washington, D.C., local branches should be allowed to advocate for community needs at the level of specific cities and regional metropolitan areas. This means that affiliate unions must confront their reluctance to invest in building the movement’s local infrastructure.

The internationals have been wary to invest in developing the capabilities of central labor councils and state federations, and thus expand their ability to run ongoing, independent political programs in municipal regions. Indeed, if they had believed that the local institutions could develop their own community outreach programs, they would not have invested in Working America in the first place.

A real investment in local infrastructure would take resources, but this issue goes beyond financial commitment. Already, the state and local structures of the labor movement are consuming resources. But, with few exceptions, they are not receiving the type of support that would allow them to develop robust local political programs or organizing drives around community needs. Instead, national campaigns are designed that circumvent them and draw top talent from elsewhere.

Unions therefore have a choice. They need to make labor’s municipal councils and state federations real or abandon these structures altogether.

A Clear Demand to Democrats

Even as labor’s electoral operation has grown more sophisticated in recent decades, we have seen that simply electing more Democrats to office on lesser-evil terms, or on the basis of friendly posturing toward unions, has failed to produce the results unions need to survive. President Trumka has recently responded to this reality by publicly asserting that the federation will maintain greater independence from the Democratic Party, working only on behalf of candidates who will champion the interests of working people.

The challenge is to be specific about what this means. While we can be imaginative within local areas, labor must narrow its demands at the national level and have a clear litmus test for candidates. Labor’s endorsement of candidates must be based on a single criterion—whether candidates will treat social movements as a partner in governing and strengthen their ability to shape public policy. The mechanism for pursuing this goal (whether it’s passing the Employee Free Choice Act or adopting other reforms) might change, but the end goal should always be the same. At the national level, politicians who receive labor’s support must be committed to making changes that can shift power relationships in this country and help movements build an institutional counterbalance to the influence of corporations and moneyed elites.

Working America’s development thus far has demonstrated the extent to which the AFL-CIO’s affiliates have been willing to get behind a coordinated approach to political action in battleground states. Its accomplishments have been significant. But if labor is going to reach beyond selected swing states and seek to expand its base among working families on a much broader scale, unions must be willing to invest financially and strategically in reviving the movement’s local infrastructure, take extra measures to make sure they are not just electing more Democrats to office, and overcome their hesitancy to work together on the issues that matter most at a community level. Organized labor must provide concrete reasons for people to see it not as a special interest group for a few sheltered workers, but as a leader in crafting solutions to community problems.

Together at Last!

Down in New Zealand, a country with an unusually cohesive (though struggling) union movement, affiliates of the national union federation have launched an innovative thing called “Together.” We’re calling it a thing because it doesn’t really fit into any of the usual drawers. It’s not a union, not an NGO, not an organization, not a network, not an association, club, sect, faction, fraction, tendency, or movement. What it is, above all else, is a potential solution to several of the quandaries that unions have been trying to solve for at least ten years.In the New Zealand Council of Trade Union’s own words: “Together aims to connect workers in un-unionized workplaces with the union movement and the union experience.” In order to do this, it provides “help with issues like workplace bullying, sick leave, holiday pay, employment agreements, and sexual harassment.” Together is a national service that is being developed for the “precariat”—that rapidly growing cohort of workers who do not fit into the standard laborist model of industrial capitalism. Because it is being developed at the national level, with affiliates’ buy-in, it cuts across regional, sectoral, and strategic lines. In particular, it aims to bring together: people on casual contracts; those in industries like IT, tourism or in small shops, or driving taxis; contractors and workers in remote areas and small towns who don’t currently have access to a union; and the families of current union members. Membership costs just $NZ 1 per week, which is roughly 20 percent of typical union fees in New Zealand. (One kiwi dollar is equivalent to about $US0.87 or £UK0.53 or ¥68.) Family membership is also on offer, bringing a still larger audience back into unionism’s traditional orbit. In fact, the word they use here is “whānau,” which is a Maori word suggesting something more like “extended family.” So, or instance, if mum or dad is a union member, they can also arrange union support for their children, uncles and aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces, and grandchildren. As affiliated unions sign up to sup- port and promote the system, they sign a “Memorandum of Commitment” ( This is the key document to read, if you want to understand how Together works. Needless to say, there are all kinds of potential conflicts and pitfalls and fishhooks in a project like this. It is a credit to the kiwis that they’ve managed to negotiate such concerns and get Together off the ground.

*The full version of this excerpt (available at was originally printed on the New Unionism Blog on July 26, 2011.

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