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Labor Wars: Time to Set New Priorities?

Article 3 of 5

Link to previous article in series – http://newlaborforum.cuny.edu/2016/10/04/labor-wars-labor-needs-a-bold-vision-to-inspire-workers-in-the-new-economy/

I strongly disagree with Brother Richman’s assertion that the inadequate resources devoted to external organizing is the result of a conscious choice −strategic or tactical − made by labor leaders because they have opted instead to dedicate all or most of their union’s resources toward “winning better pay, working conditions, and rights for existing union members”.

It is entirely possible that many of these leaders have not even considered these two seemingly opposing priorities in the face of a sustained and escalating attack by corporate interests and their political allies. Many may simply be maneuvering to defend their unions by helping to elect a “friend” to the White House who could work with them to usher in a program of modest labor reforms and provide some needed oxygen to their embattled institutions.

It should be noted that, while most unions are not spending enough on organizing, a few − such as Service Employees International Union (SEIU), American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) − have continued to spend on large scale external organizing campaigns, such as efforts to organize home and child care workers or independent providers, and plants of foreign automakers in the south.

Even more significant is that some unions are funding campaigns not focused on their existing members like the fight to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour or movements to improve labor standards for workers in low wage industries. This also includes the struggle to support immigrant rights among unions like UNITEHERE, SEIU, the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) which could also be seen as an enlightened self-interest approach to create the conditions for growth among Latino and Asian workers in certain industries and labor markets across the country. It could be argued that even if these campaigns do not bring in new members in the short run, they pave the way for growth in the immediate future.

It is evident that these campaigns for worker rights and enhanced labor standards have generated increased public support for unions as champions of fairness, equal treatment, and social justice for all workers —not only their existing members. However, it is critical to understand why most unions have failed to invest more resources in external organizing. Many of the unions that were engaged in the Change-to-Organize process during the incumbency of John Sweeney at the AFL-CIO made a strategic choice to invest a lot more resources in organizing the unorganized, but only a handful of these unions reached the mark set by Richard Bensinger to devote 30 percent of the entire union budget to external organizing. The hard truth is that the majority of the unions didn’t even get close to the 10% that was set as a minimum goal.

What could be the reasons to explain this failure?  One veteran organizer Ben Gordon organizing director with CSEA-AFSCME in New York argues that “it is hard to make the case to existing members of the value of external organizing if there is not a larger political and economic framework within we are working.” Gordon insists that “without a political and economic framework that ties the interests of all workers together….in which existing members see the value to themselves in growing the union….it is unlikely that union leaders will devote the resources needed…. They will simply back down when members question the use of precious dollars for organizing versus hiring more grievance reps and lawyers.”[i]

In July and August 1995 pollster Peter Hart conducted multiple focus groups among members of AFL-CIO affiliated unions in several states across the nation. Here is one of the findings that may be relevant to this argument: “These members generally have little or no ideological orientation that would link economics, government and politics. Few can articulate any explanation for what has gone wrong, who is responsible or what should be done about it……when they try to identify the causes of the nation’s problems they often reach for conservative explanations such as immigration, welfare and government waste…left to their own devices they tend to employ fairly conservative analyses and categories.”[ii]

It is also conceivable that these same existing union members lack a basic “political and economic framework” that would help them “tie their interests with the interests” of unorganized workers as Ben Gordon suggested. Perhaps their understanding of the union’s mission is only confined to negotiating better contracts and resolving grievances to protect existing members.  This may help to explain the choices made by the leadership of many unions that, in order to avoid tensions with the existing base and perhaps risk losing their offices, many of them have chosen not to invest more resources to grow their unions.

The path taken by a handful of unions to raise wages for all workers and protect the most vulnerable is part of the answer. To the extent that unions advocate concretely and publicly on Main Street, and not only in the halls of Congress, for a broader social justice agenda, support for unions will likely increase among the public as well as existing members.

But unions leaders will also need to engage their existing base in a serious on going conversation about the meaning of building a union that not only represents the 10 to 15 percent that uses the grievance and arbitration procedures all the time. It will require a conversation about how power is built and why a shrinking membership base has direct consequences on wages and benefits for all. Now may be the perfect moment to engage members when economic populism has gained prominence in the nation as part of the presidential campaign. It has captured the attention of millions of workers and can set the stage for a mass organizing agenda based on innovative and non-traditional forms. A new wave of growth for organized labor in America could be in the horizon.

Link to next article in series – http://newlaborforum.cuny.edu/2016/10/04/labor-wars-put-workers-back-at-the-center-of-organizing/


[i] Interview with Ben Gordon, Never Quit Blitz, Syracuse, NY, April 2016.

[ii] Peter Hart Research Associates, Executive Summary of Focus Group Findings on Union Members’ Political Attitudes.

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