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Labor Wars: Put Workers Back at the Center of Organizing

Article 4 of 5

Link to previous article in the series – http://newlaborforum.cuny.edu/2016/10/04/labor-wars-time-to-set-new-priorities/

Late one night in the fall of 2015, a nurse named Michael Winn was facing the same situation he had faced too many times: patients in his hospital’s unit were at risk because of dangerously short staffing. Frustrated with his hospital management’s profits-before-patients approach, he decided to cold-call nearby Temple University Hospital, which is unionized, and ask about its night shift conditions and its union. It was four a.m. Michael didn’t know the nurses he was calling; he only knew something had to change. When he reached the switchboard, he asked to speak with the charge nurse in the emergency department.

“Hi, Temple E.R. May I help you?” “Hi, my name is Michael. I’m a nurse over at Hahnemann’s and we are having an incredible staffing crisis. I want to pick your brain for a minute: I know you have a union at Temple. Do you like your union? Does your hospital get away with substandard care and nurse abuse the way our hospital management does?”

The answer: “We’d never tolerate those conditions, and I love my union!”

With a single phone call and the answer he heard from the night-shift charge nurse he spoke with at a unionized hospital, Michael and his co-workers decided they needed a union as fast as they could build one. Within days, union nurses from Temple University hospital began meeting with their nonunion counterparts at Hahnemann Hospital. Within months, on January 20, Michael and his 850 co-workers voted overwhelmingly yes (516 to 117) to forming a union through a National Labor Board Relations (NLRB) election. Yes, an NLRB election.

Had Michael reached a nurse who responded, “Union, yeah, there’s one in here, I don’t know much about it. I think they got us a raise, but our conditions sound like yours (or worse) …,” it is fair to say Michael would not have called the Temple hospital workers’ union the next day.

So often, the debate about unions omits the most important people, workers, and their issues—such as those Michael and his co-workers faced on that night shift a few months before deciding to form a union. Shaun Richman’s “Labor Wars” article revisits two long-standing debates in the contemporary labor movement. He makes some good points—for example, “Positing internal organizing against external organizing is a false choice….” But he fails to offer solutions. In fact, Richman’s main solutions don’t include a much-needed discussion about union governance, and they’re centered on needing to run more external organizing campaigns. Almost bizarrely, he suggests that the national AFL-CIO should be the ones to do something about the mess: “Finally, the AFL-CIO does have a role to play here,” Richman writes. “The smaller international unions that have not yet engaged in comprehensive campaigns need the federation’s leadership.” Huh? I think we watched that movie recently and the film got eaten in the reel.

Think Globally, Act Locally

Richman’s focus on national unions and the national federations obscures the fact that almost everything interesting in unions (and most groups) happens at the local, regional, or state level. And his focus on mega campaigns—what he calls comprehensive campaigns (without defining them)—omits the many less well-known efforts like those of a small, smart, independent union called the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP), the union that Michael and thousands more just fought to join.

Whether in eastern Pennsylvania, Chicago and Los Angeles (teachers), Boston (nurses), or Hartford (nursing home and other health care workers)—to name just a few—the hard work of whether unions shrink, expand, or are relevant to anyone (save the national leaders) is determined more by what happens when one pissed-off worker picks up the phone and reaches another worker—not which union aligns with which in the ever-changing turf wars.. At Temple University Hospital workers—who clearly communicated with one another—went on an open-ended, all-out, 28-day strike in 2010 to win their high standards

In my forthcoming book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age,(Oxford University Press, 2016), I offer up several examples of local unions and locally based actions that do win and explore the key factors that promote success. Does it help if national unions stay out of the way of good local leadership? Of course. Is it even better when national leaders encourage robust, high participation and highly democratic forms of local trade unionism—the exact kind of locally based unions where workers spread the word about their great union the old-fashioned way—by talking? Absolutely!

Although Richman’s article discusses some important ideas, I think he misses a more fundamental lesson from the recent twenty years of failed attempts at top-down change in the labor movement: it’s time to embrace an old idea—think globally and act locally. Richman states, “The great push to organize and grow that began 20 years ago with the start of the Sweeney administration (AFL-CIO president 1995-2009), and, which intensified ten years ago in the Change to Win split has frankly and obviously stalled.” I think Richman has this wrong. For a couple of brief years (way too brief) at the outset of the changed national AFL-CIO, from 1996 to about 1999, there were real attempts at organizing. And an important word Richman way too casually intersperses in that sentence—grow—took over by the new millennium and certainly by 2005 when the Change to Win coalition Introduced reforms for the AFL-CIO.

In No Shortcuts, I write about my own experiences during this era, and also cite interviews of many key people, including Peter Olney, the former organizing director of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. He sums up the situation disturbingly well, “Just before the split at the AFL-CIO, the conversations [that New Labor was driving] were about how workers really got in the way of organizing. We [the national organizing directors] would actually sit in rooms, in annual meetings about the state of organizing, and the discussion would be that workers often got in the way of union growth deals.”[1] It would be difficult to find a clearer statement of the organizing versus growth trade-off.

Twenty years ago, New Labor leaders correctly assessed that winning union elections and running strikes was getting more and more challenging. They declared they would rebuild the ranks of unions by organizing the unorganized. But if organizing the unorganized ever stood a chance, it barely got off the ground. Despite New Labor’s rhetoric, the ranks of existing members were sidelined right along with unorganized American workers. Pollsters, communicators and polling replaced organizers and face-to-face organizing. New Labor’s top officials look and sound different from the generation they replaced and they are more identity-politics polished, but behind their twenty-year strategy is a core assumption: Workers aren’t needed as central actors in their own emancipation. Strong on polling and well-crafted narrative, New Labor leadership is weak on actual worker agency.

We urgently need a back-to-basics organizing that places workers and worker capacity at the center of the fight, not as window dressing. There are no shortcuts.

Link to next article in series – http://newlaborforum.cuny.edu/2016/10/04/labor-wars-shaun-richman-responds/



[1] Author interview, Peter Olney, recently retired Organizing Director, International Longshore and Warehouse Union, March 20, 2014.