Thursday, September 12, 2013

Union Organizing and the New Reality

(This article was originally published at It's about Power Stupid! is cross posting hereto hopefully initiate discussion among Building Trades readers of the "value proposition" and alternatives to it.) 

By Danny Caliendo

The loss of jobs in construction may very well be the new reality. The loss of jobs will be permanent for both union & non-union and is due to ongoing technology in construction delivery and will also accelerate as modularization advances.

Why there is a lack of hard discussion about jobs at the national and state level is very strait forward – jobs are going to be hard to come by, particularly in construction, going forward.
Critically examining the continued “Value on Display” strategy as the model for market share increases in the Building Trades is long overdue and would require a hard core review of some of those statements that are at the core of “Value on Display”.

We are more productive and can make the non-union contractors more money.

Reality check is that 85% of all construction is done non/anti-union. The cost of putting a union tradesperson on the job includes: A living higher wage, real benefits, verified and dynamic safety, honest workers compensation & other ancillary benefits that accrue to the industry and the community; vs poor pay, little to no benefits, under/mis classification and/or 1099’s and the total abuse of  workers compensation in the non-union. Building Trades union would have to be 158% to 214% more productive, day in and out, to overcome these cost differences. If you are waiting for legislative relief to address these problems – without an increase in members and money – it’s not going to happen. If we continue to ”sell” this as a business proposition vs. standing up for workers’ rights and the middle class, then we will become the working poor!
Unions are safer –Yes we are & we report & act on safety to improve on it. Reality check is that non/anti-union either under report, or don’t report injuries and safety violations. Keep in mind that 85% of the construction world is fine with that. We can’t offset both poor safety and the total abuse of workers comp with increased production. The numbers/cost simply does not work! Safety has to be imposed on the work site, on behalf of the workers, and historically unions are the instrument for imposing worker safety on the job. At the end of the day, union work sites are safer, and that is imposed, not sold!

The Building Trades are highly skilled – YES!

Reality check, we are quickly moving into a time where skills will count for less & less because of technology & modularization. Increasingly production, fabrication & manufacturing will produce the majority of pre-built components for construction projects of all types. We are already behind the organizing curve organizing these entities. Also the reality is all of the Building Trades training modules are available for free to anyone who wants them, so why would you pay for a formal apprenticeship? Training is not keeping pace with the 21st century, while some components of training require “hands on” the reality is most training can be done online and protected to the degree possible. The rapidly changing design of construction systems, underlying warranties & liabilities currently militate against the current form of training.

The Building Trades is keeping up with technology. 

Reality check is that is ABSOLUTELY NOT THE CASE!
Priority 1 is advancing our signatory contractors in the market, we can do that – we are not! We still are dabbling with inter & intra union website BS, which by the way we suck at!
Labor/Management advances the union construction industry. Reality check is where are the real “net” numbers that demonstrate that? This may have been a worthwhile endeavor, however it is unions selling to unions – bottom line! The ROI is the ROI, tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars invested of member’s hard earned money for a collapsing market share!
Keep in mind “little items” such as withdrawal liability, Obamacare for our H&W, RTW, Prevailing Wage etc…
If we continue “selling” the “Value on Display” message when no one is buying – how much longer do we have before this becomes a “hard” lesson learned?
Organize and stay the hell out of the NLRB and get off playing on the other guys field. We need hard increased numbers to solve the issues of the day & the power and leverage to be viable in the future. Organize 21st Century style!
 “if you see a good fight – get in it”


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Call for a Second Operation Dixie

 There are no fortresses for labor; no metaphorical stone walls that we can shelter ourselves behind to try and ride out the onslaught. MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the North Carolina AFL-CIO, said that we must “Organize the South or Die,” and she is absolutely correct. The fact of the matter is that without a deliberate, concerted effort to organize in the states of the old Confederacy, there will not be a labor movement worth speaking of within the next ten years, and all the gains for working people that brave men and women fought and bled and died for over the past century will be clawed back by rapacious corporate oligarchs bent on societal domination.
The notion that this is a crisis is massively underselling the problems facing labor, both organized and unorganized, right now. The destruction of PATCO, the air traffic controllers union, in 1981 was a crisis. The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement through a unified Democratic federal government in 1993 was a crisis. The recent “Civil Wars in American Labor” between the Service Employees International Union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, and UNITE HERE were a crisis. What the union movement faces right now is not a crisis, it is nothing less than a threat to the existence of unions in their present form, and with that comes a threat to the very basic minimums all workers in the United States can rely upon.

As we discussed in our previous piece, there is a cultural void in the South when it comes to labor. What we didn’t do is go into detail on why that is. There is a long and ignoble tradition in the South of active repression of workers organizing. Much of this tradition was exercised against the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the largest unionization drive in the South to date: Operation Dixie.
Operation Dixie was conceived because of a problem that may sound familiar to many today: companies were shifting their operations from the heavily unionized North and Midwest to the South, where unionism had comparatively not taken hold. The predominant focus of the campaign was on the burgeoning textile industry in the South, which stretched largely from the Carolinas through Alabama, as well as the wood products industry. The CIO committed 250 organizers and around $1 million in 1946 (about $12 million in 2013) to set about attacking the largest firms and the most recalcitrant workers within those firms. The organizers came from across the industrial spectrum, and the citizens’ committees were surprisingly diverse for the times, including workers from across the racial barrier, religious leaders, and recent veterans of World War II. It was a campaign that held much promise, and a victory in Operation Dixie would go a long way towards building a powerful labor movement in every corner of America. However, while there were some successes in organizing tobacco workers and workers in other smaller industries, the effort to unionize the textile and wood products industries were largely dead by the end of 1946.

Where did Operation Dixie go wrong? How did it fail? The biggest reason for its failure was the lack of preparation for the power of the business-carceral alliance: the cooperation between law enforcement and industry whose primary purpose was preventing the ability of their workers to collectively bargain. This alliance worked in numerous ways; the detaining of organizers, the harassment of pro-union workers, and the refusal to prosecute crimes committed against both groups (even murder) created an atmosphere of fear that kept many workers from signing up for the union from fear that they would be placed in the crosshairs of this powerful alliance. The organizing of workers across racial lines also caused problems, with the interracial organizing that was occurring being compared to a Communist takeover of Southern industry. Red-baiting was frequently deployed by the business-carceral alliance…and the American Federation of Labor (AFL).
Another obstacle to organizing in the South was the conservative AFL, which used Red-baiting tactics later seen by the likes of U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) in order to turn public opinion against the CIO’s organizers. Interestingly enough, at same time that then-AFL President William Green was using Red-baiting and race-baiting to halt the CIO’s progress in the South, he steadfastly refused to assist the Florida labor federations’ attempt to stop the first right-to-work statute in the United States from becoming law in 1946. Green’s tepidness in Florida combined with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act made it more difficult to sustain the successes that the CIO managed to wring out, as right-to-work laws spread like a fever across the South. The final reason that this did not come to pass is a simple one: a lack of resources. The amount of money and organizers committed to this project was tepid at best, and in many places, the union’s presence was stretched thin while it weathered attacks from the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the AFL at the same time. When the CIO’s balance sheet for Operation Dixie showed a deep hue of red, resources were cut back dramatically and eventually ended, as was the campaign itself.

There is so much more that can (and will) be said about Operation Dixie, but that will be at a later date. What we need to talk about is labor’s future in the South. In the wake of the recently-passed Resolutions #16 and #26 at the 2013 AFL-CIO Convention, it’s clear that the movement grasps the need to build power in the South and is willing to contemplate significant action to do so.

What is needed is nothing less than a bigger, modern-day Operation Dixie. Anything less would make these resolutions paper tigers: fine rhetoric that has been heard before with no chances taken or resources committed behind it. In some ways, the plan we propose is even more ambitious than the original Operation Dixie:
  • The AFL-CIO should, over a six month ramp-up period, hire one thousand organizers, half drawn from existing rank-and-file activists, half drawn from young activists who support the kind of worker self-determination that the AFL-CIO ultimately stands for. This massive hiring would exhaust the supply of organizers with union experience looking for work. Other organizers, such as those with experience doing field work for Democratic political campaigns or those who have worked for public interest research groups (PIRGs), would be a good place to staff up once all experienced union organizers were brought on board. However, all people hired for this project who have not either been a rank-and-file activist or on staff as an organizer for a union would have to go through a training run by the Organizing Institute to guarantee a minimum of capability.
  • Experienced organizers already working for AFL-CIO affiliates or with extensive experience in the movement would be shifted over or hired on to this project to provide day-to-day supervision of this cadre of activists, with regular local oversight of this project performed by the Central Labor Council (CLC) of the area it is operating in. The reason for the CLC performing oversight is twofold: it allows international unions, through their locals, to ensure their specific concerns with regards to this project are addressed regularly, and it allows union workers direct oversight over this work, as CLCs are the most elemental representative body within the movement.
  • Once this project reaches 85% staffing levels, the AFL-CIO would commit to keeping the resources for this effort in place for no less than four years, after which the Executive Council would decide to re-authorize, modify, or end this project in its current form.
  • Successful organizing campaigns would initially form locals that directly affiliate with the AFL-CIO. Once the first contract is negotiated by this local, it would choose an international to affiliate with, preferably with an international that has experience in the industry they are working in.
  • The South would be divided up into seven regions and would have seven regional offices from which this project would be directed for the duration, with other offices opened as organizing campaigns dictate. The headquarters for this effort would be in Atlanta, GA, and that office would oversee the operation across Georgia. Other regional offices would be based in Raleigh, NC (covering North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia), Birmingham, AL (covering Alabama and Mississippi), Tampa, FL (covering Florida), Baton Rouge, LA (covering Louisiana and Arkansas), Nashville, TN (covering Kentucky and Tennessee), and Austin, TX (covering Texas).
  • The importance of developing relationships with community groups is difficult to overstate. As such, this project would work to cultivate relationships with faith leaders, local environmental organizations, and other progressive political organizations in the South to address the needs of workers outside of the workplace and in their homes and neighborhoods. It would also work to shepherd the expansion of alt-labor groups like Working America in the places where it’s operating.
This is a monumental undertaking, and it will mean other worthy efforts will go under-resourced while this project is operating, but there is no other way forward. With a Democratic President, a Democratic House, and a Democratic Senate, we could not get the Employee Free Choice Act through at the federal level, and anti-union policies continue to advance through state legislatures. Unless we rebuild our power in a big way, there is no way forward for any of the significant improvements to public policy that the labor movement would like to see. Everything from an increase in the minimum wage to labor law reform will rot in committee while things get worse for working people in this country.

We make this proposal knowing full well the kind of resources it will take to carry this monumental effort forward. However, the time for quarter-assing things has long since passed and the hour is late for labor. It takes bold moves to counter bold foes, and foes like Art Pope, David and Charles Koch, Eli Broad, and the Walton family are nothing if not bold. The only alternative to a monumental effort like the one we are outlining is a too-timid outing that will only delay and not reverse (or even arrest) the labor movement’s accelerating decline into extinction.

Crossposted from The South Lawn  

Sources for historical info on Operation Dixie:
Griffith, Barbara S. The Crisis of American Labor: Operation Dixie and the Defeat of the CIO. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988. Print.
Goldfield, Michael. “Race and the CIO: The Possibilities for Racial Egalitarianism During the 1930s and 1940s.” International Labor and Working Class History 44 (1993): 1-32. Print.
Gall, Gilbert J. “Constant Vigilance: The Heritage of the AFL’s Response to Right to Work Legislation.” Labor Studies Journal 9.2 (1984): 190-202. Print.
Fones-Wolf, Elizabeth, and Ken Fones-Wolf. “Sanctifying the Southern Organizing Campaign: Protestant Activists in the CIO’s Operation Dixie.” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 6.1 (2009): 5-32. Print.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Danger of "Trickle down" Change.

The challenge facing the 2013 AFLCIO convention is not acknowledging the crisis or being willing to discuss solutions. The preconvention discussion has been exceptionally open and steered towards finding ambitious solutions to the myriad problems labor faces (even some frank discussion of the peril of failing to organize the south). I couldn't help be be disappointed with how little of the discussion was geared toward breaking employer resistance to organizing, but in general most people's contributions came from a place of an acknowledgment of the depth of the crisis and deep anxiety over how to make changes that would lead to labor's revitalization.

Fundamentally, the AFL-CIO's main challenge lies in driving titanic changes in the way it and it's affiliates operates to ensure any changes decided upon don't end up in an unused powerpoint on a jumpdrive somewhere or only bought into by a minority of exceptional affiliates. Without a well thought out approach to implementing the decisions made at the convention and ensuring the buy in of the maximum number of affiliates, the impact of any change that is accomplished will be stunted and limited once again to a far too narrow group of affiliates, labor councils and state feds.

This year's AFL-CIO convention opens on what could only be considered a high note considering the crisis of labor. The struggle against a low wage economy took center stage last week beginning with a strike by Port Truckers protesting being paid poverty wages for transporting goods out of the ports of Long Beach, and ended with a strike by fast food workers in over 60 cities around the country. This week Wal-Mart workers took actions in 15 cities with over one hundred people being arrested across the country after issuing them an ultimatum to stop retaliating against workers for organizing and to increase pay to a living wage.

While two of the three campaigns are sponsored by Change to Win affiliated unions and one by another that just re affiliated to the AFL (UFCW), these campaigns all had critical characteristics that are essential to the revitalization of our movement and are thus are worthy of more than a thought by those attending the convention next week:

 Organizing to Scale - The campaigns are all large scale in conception and seek to transform entire markets or industries that are critical to breaking into historically anti-union strongholds.

Comprehensive Strategic campaigns - The Campaigns were based on a well thought out strategy based on mobilizing a multi prong attack on a given target using public opinion, political pressure, community mobilization, and most of all direct action to exert pressure on the targeted company/sector.

Militancy and Boldness - The direct action in the campaigns rested on the willingness of groups of workers (of various size) to boldly confront the employer or group of employers themselves through varying forms of direct action such as strikes, marches on the boss, flashmobs and other creative tactics. A break from the past corporate campaign approach that exerted almost exclusively outside pressure.

The convention is an ideal opportunity for the rest of the labor movement and its allies to take stock of these events and incorporate the positive lessons into this weeks discussions of how labor can turn around its fortunes. The proposed convention resolutions are ambitious and clearly aim having a rich discussion on substantive changes to how the AFL-CIO and it's affiliates operate in today's reality.

Regardless of how rich the discussion is and how many solutions are developed, the chief weakness that the AFL-CIO must grapple with and overcome in order for its week of deliberations to have any meaningful impact on our future is how to move its program among affiliates. Historically, programs rolled out at AFL conventions are adopted in practice by the state affiliates and labor councils to greater or lesser degrees along with a minority of forward-thinking, progressive minded unions that are the ones influencing the direction of the discussion in the first place. This was true when the Sweeney program rolled out the focus on organizing that the AFL-CIO enacted in the mid to late 90's and the adoption of comprehensive immigration reform as a strategic goal since 2000.  Compelling affiliates to buy into and move a transformative program within its own top-heavy structures will be critical to ensuring that whatever plans that are adopted at this years convention become a true program for the vast majority of the labor movement that resides within the AFL to act upon.

The federal and voluntaristic nature of the AFL has been a longstanding impediment to the mobilizing capacity of the 12 million member organization and was one of the points of contention that were part of the debate that led to the split in the AFL that formed Change to Win. Certain key affiliates have built dynamic organizing programs that were supported, re enforced, and in many cases driven by AFL labor councils and state Federations, these efforts have more times than not failed to gain traction among the leaders or members of the majority of the affiliated unions. The result has been that labor councils and State Feds are loose federated bodies that mirror the structure at the top and are reliant on a minority of dynamic and visionary affiliated unions for capacity and resources with participation of other affiliates being sporadic at best.

Even into the lead-up to the convention, support has inconsistent at best among affiliates for all of the campaigns mentioned earlier and participation in street mobilizations continue to have the sense of a routine with the "usual suspects" showing up. In conversations with leaders of local affiliates you still get the feeling they they still haven't fully wrapped their heads around the fact that they are truly fight for the lives of their organizations

The convention is unlikely to be able to overcome the historic shortcomings of the entire labor movement, no matter how high the stakes and under even the best conditions. With that being said, the possibility of a larger groups of leaders coming out of this convention feeling compelled to take decisive action is a real possibility. It will be up to the most forward thinking leaders to take the momentum of this years convention to cajole, push, pull, and where necessary, demand that other leaders step up to the plate mobilize their memberships and throw themselves and the full resources of their respectable organizations into saving the American Labor movement and themselves in the process.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Building Fortresses or Tearing Down Walls? Thoughts on "Fortress Unionism"

Abandoned Fortress
Rather than scaling back and holing up in our strongholds as advocated in "Fortress Unionism", labor should be focused on tearing down the barriers obstructing workers' ability to organize in whatever form that is.

Rather than curling up in the fetal position hoping to survive the body blows, labor should launch broad campaigns that employ tactics aimed at pushing back on or circumventing exclusion from the right to bargain a contract and employer intimidation.

"Fortress Unionism" gives readers a crash course on the history of labor's decline from it's explosive growth in the 30's and the powerful upsurge of offensive strikes and organizing that ensued in the postwar period. Fear of labor's power provoked a swift and unyielding push to pass the Taft-Hartley Act which provided the seeds of labor's slide towards conservatism, capitulation to reactionary politics, stagnation and eventual decline. "Fortress Unionism's other great strength is the sobriety with which Yeselson looks at labor's dire straights and how deep and fundamentally existential this crisis is.

Yeselson moves on to outline a few main fundamentals of what he calls "Fortress Unionism":

Defend the remaining high-density regions, sectors, and companies.

Strengthen existing union locals.

Ask one key question about organizing drives: Will they increase the density or power of existing strongholds? 

Sustain coalition work with other progressive organizations. 

Invest heavily in alt-labor organizations, especially Working America.
 The last action the Yeselson proposes we carry out? :

 And then…wait. Wait for the workers to say they’ve had enough. When they demand in vast numbers collective solutions to their problems, seize upon that energy and institutionalize it.
I encourage people to take the time to read Yeselson's piece in it's entirety. The proposal made is one that flows from a a deep analysis and a sober critique of labor's strategic weaknesses. In the end though, Fortress Unionism's proposals would not only not aid in labor surviving it's crisis, it would likely result exacerbating labor's decline .

(Point of clarity: I should have been more explicit here about what parts of Yeselson's piece I agree with. I basicall agree with him on his proposals around ALT-Labor, strengthening local unions, and conceptually around building alliances with progressives. I do however not agree we should shrink into the background though to allow the progressives to be in the spotlight.)

"Fortress Unionism" is based on the premise that the root cause of why we cannot turn labor's fortunes around is that even with the development of innovative tactics aimed at organizing large swaths of workers,  labor cannot organize workers in large enough numbers for it to stop its decline and grow. Yeselson asserts that currently workers do not want to be organized and that we should protect our organizations where we have density and power and hold on to what we have until workers decide they want to be in unions again. This is where we part ways.

I have no idea what data Yeselson uses to back up this assertion that workers are "uninterested" in joining unions. I can only say that polling consistently indicates that workers would join unions if given an opportunity with the main obstacles being fear of management retaliation and/or exclusion from the NLRA. I also know for a fact that my union receives several calls a week of inquiries about how to join the union. The chief reason we never hear back from these workers is fear and disillusionment in the process of organizing under a gutted NLRA,  not lack of interest. Workers want to improve their lives or in many cases be able to hold on to what they have. Our dilemma is that labor lacks the capacity and a viable strategy that could lead to organizing on the scale necessary to prove to workers that they can win improvements without losing their jobs.

Our metric for success going forward should be our ability to find a path to worker organization and our ability to break through the two primary barriers to it, employer intimidation and broken labor law. Where we cannot immediately implement a campaign that results in a contract at a given employer, labor must create vehicles for those workers to begin organizing around their issues and create a way for them to join the labor movement immediately. This may be through the formation of affiliated associations, minority union organizing committees, or opening the door wholesale to workers joining existing unions as associate members and assisting them in building organizations at work labor can and must creatively look at ways to break out of the self imposed limitations of only allowing workers to join their unions once they have a contract.

Yeselson's critique of comprehensive campaigns has merit insofar that they have not resulted in organizing breakthroughs on sufficient scale that would stem labor's hemorrhaging of members. I find it hard to reject comprehensive campaigns when the overwhelming majority of unions have failed to employ them as a strategy or much less have any sort of coherent strategy to tackle their respective jurisdictions. It would be helpful if we were critiquing labor as a whole acknowledging its crisis and operating at full throttle to employ every tactic at its disposal to organize, but that is not the case.Given that comprehensive campaigns have not been dis-proven in their efficacy and that  there is still a possibility and need to organize workers who are not excluded from the NLRA,  comprehensive campaigns still have their place as one weapon in labor's arsenal.

Yeselson is correct that worker organization only grows in a qualitative "leaps" in periods of increased social struggle and that it is these types of struggles that generate pro-worker reforms. The problem is that increased and sustained struggle by workers has never been spontaneous. The upheavals of the 1930s and post war period were the product of intense long-term organizing both on the shop floor and in the streets by socialists, communists and other radicals of various stripes . With the formation of the CIO a vehicle was created that opened the floodgates allowing workers to form permanent organizations by the tens of thousands. Workers in the 1930's didn't just spontaneously "rise up" and nor will they now or in the future.

People stopped using fortresses for a reason
The fundamental problem with "fortresses" is that while they may be useful to establish and hold territory, they can also prove to be deathtraps for one's forces if they are not supplemented by a broader strategy. If encircled, fortresses allow the enemy the luxury of launching sustained attacks on a fixed position and eventually wearing down the defenses.

This analogy holds true with "Fortress Unionism". Retreating to the increasingly small number of cities or companies where labor has enough density to hold sway means abdicating entire regions of the country and  virtually the entire service economy. The result will be retreating from some of the most innovative organizing currently taking place as well as allowing our enemies to further strengthen their own "fortresses"  from which to attack working people ie. low density cities, states, and industries and continue the "War on Workers" that began in Wisconsin. These areas of relative strength should instead be used as "bases" from which labor launches "attacks" on the fortresses of the enemy and to strengthen and assist forces who are trapped "behind enemy lines".

Workers want to to find a way to improve their lives now more than ever. It is our duty as strategists and organizers to assist them in finding a way to break through the obstacles preventing them from self organizing, not to retreat out of a false sense of self preservation. There is no other option but to find a way to fight. The alternative is defeat. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Crosspost - One Big Union: Why community engagement is needed for labor victories in the South.

Today, labor faces both threats and opportunities in the South. If union density (which is at an all-time low in the South) is to grow, the way forward has to be community involvement and mobilization. It has been about this since the beginning:
“In the 1944 Florida election, the Miami Citizen noted that the principal backers of the bill ‘come entirely from the backward, low-wage sections of the state, where the lumber and turpentine interests rule their workers like barons of old, and laborers receive
little or nothing in groves and on the farms.’” (Shermer 2009)

One Big Union: Why community engagement is needed for labor victories in the South.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The South: Labor's Elephant in the Room #1ufuture

While encouraging, the recent uptick in discussions regarding the future of the labor movement will be limited in its impact unless the strategic nature of the U.S. south is included in the exchange.

Memphis sanitation workers strike, 1968
It is somewhat mystifying that while acknowledging the urgency of labor to address its shortcomings, the critical role that the U.S. south plays in stymieing labor's ascendancy has received little to no attention. More concerning is the fact that the south's centrality to labor's resurgence and ultimate survival is not even acknowledged in this increasingly vigorous discussion.

The combination of  anti-worker laws, repression against people of color and reactionary politics has allowed the enemies of labor to define an entire geographic area as a bulwark against movements for social justice. The south provides the critical majority of electeds who have held the line against pro-worker reforms (along with most other progressive legislation) and its laws have provided a template for laws passed in the "war on workers" in northern states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and New Hampshire.

The low regulation, low union density south continues to attract major corporate investment and the south's role in the global supply chain continues to grow. A majority of the largest ports on the eastern seaboard are located in southern right to work states and the world's largest airport is in Atlanta, Georgia which has steadily increased it's role as a major global air freight hub.
The port of Savannah

These and other facts are well known to every person contemplating labor's future. One can only speculate for the reason for it's lack of being included in the current discourse. It might be easier for some to use this as a political club with which to further illustrate the need for one of the many silver bullets suggested or to argue for the replacement of many of the various union leaderships. The more responsible path would be for those of us in labor who see the absolute necessity of labor's engagement in a discussion of the south to highlight it and demand its particular circumstances be taken into account with sufficient seriousness wherever we engage in discussions of organizing, politics and union structure within the current debate.

For the most part is is easy to see why labor continues its historic weakness in southern states. Most unions have responded to the lower memberships among their affiliated southern structures with a "you're on your own" approach to organizing, contract negotiations and political action. The logical outcome of this approach is unions that are structurally weak remain weak, the union density of their respective jurisdictions remains low and workers remain unorganized, and the reactionary, anti-union structures and laws remain in place to reinforce and maintain the status quo.
Sanitation workers march in Atlanta on Martin Luther king Holiday 2013
This does not mean victories don't happen in the south. UFCW's decades long organizing campaign that was ultimately victorious at Smithfield, Teamster organizing of school bus and sanitation workers and at UPS Freight (formerly overnite), UAW's renewed campaigns among foreign southern based automaker transplants like Nissan are bright spots where it is shown that successful organizing is
possible in the south. The Struggle of the Coalition of Immokolee Workers, the recently initiated Teamster/Change to Win campaign to organize port truckers in Savannah, Georgia, and various campaigns among southern public sector workers who lack the right to collectively bargain show the possibility of campaigns directed at workers who are misclassified and excluded from traditional collective bargaining.  Unfortunately these are exceptions, and campaigns like these would have to be replicated on a massive scale for labor to turn around its fortunes much less reverse its decline.

Seriously taking on the challenge that the south represents requires that labor, during its deliberation over its future, incorporate a strategy that recognizes the reality that labor cannot win without winning in the south.

 The question of resources  will obviously dominate any discussion. There should be no argument that increased resources should be deployed to compensate for southern labor's weakened state. How labor effectively deploys any increased resources will determine whether there is a break with failed strategies of the past or an embracing of effective ones.

Labors textbook approach to bolstering resources in to fly in organizers and other staff employed by the international union or, given sufficient gravity additional resources and staff borrowed from other local unions or other affiliated bodies, for the duration of a campaign and then move them on to the next campaign. While it will always be necessary to supplement staff and resources at key moments in a campaign the blitz model is problematic in that is does nothing to structurally strengthen unions in low density areas.

An alternative approach would be the pooling of resources to allow unions in the south to staff up as needed to increase capacity and stabilize their organizational existence. Some unions have created funds that are contributed to by locals in high union density areas to subsidize unions with less resources to increase their capacity to organize.  Grants provided to local unions or affiliated bodies to underwrite large scale campaigns and increase staff and capacity in other areas have been used in some unions, increasing the size, scale and availability of such grants would be necessary to meet current needs.

Shifting resources to win in the south necessarily means taking funds from other projects and revenue sources. In many cases this could create an internal struggle over the allocation of funds.There is no doubt feathers will be ruffled and fiefdoms will be threatened, but making a choice between labor's survival and comforting the sense of official entitlement will require political will that hopefully can be summoned.

Increased resources will not lead to winning campaigns without significant deployment of education and training resources that can assist local leaders in developing effective strategic plans that can lead to growth and organizational strength. Examples of best practices as well as the assistance in the development of regionally specific strategies that are tailored to the reality of the south must be made available and local leaders could be offered assistance in implementation.

As in all cases there will be local officials who will be hostile to any attempt to shift out of the present arrangement. Many have learned to exist in a weakened state (see "Right to Work: A Body Blow not a Death Blow") and some have carved out areas where they already exercise some degree of power. Every union has its own internal norms of the degree of local autonomy enjoyed by its affiliated bodies and will have to determine the degree to which new organizational norms might or can be imposed from without. It is pretty clear however that the current reality of laissez-faire federalism in many unions is at least part of the current problem. Coming to terms with the fact that aspects of local autonomy may need to be reconsidered in order to implement a broad based and effective approach will be essential.

Key to building public support is to organize among the overwhelming majority of working people in the south who have yet to join a union. Working America has shown great promise in its ability to conduct grassroots organizing and political mobilization of non-union working families. A broad campaign among non union workers in southern states educating them on working families issues would be of great benefit. One encouraging sign is Working America's recent announcement that it will expand its operations into all fifty states within five years. When the decision is made to make the move into the southern states hopefully it will be done with the need for supplemental consideration of the southern reality.

Putting the discussion of organizing the south at the center of the current discussion on the future of the labor movement would open up the possibility of actually building power in corporate America's stronghold and undermining their ability to maintain a stranglehold on our democracy. We ignore it at our peril.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Will to Change

(I have updated the last paragraph for clarity's sake)

The depth of labor's crisis has now been officially acknowledged by Richard Trumka.

That is a good thing.

All of us , inside and outside the AFL-CIO, should welcome the coming discussions leading up to the AFL-CIO convention later this year.

The space to discuss and debate strategy on how to best revitalize, invigorate, and most of important of all save the labor movement has now been expanded. Hopefully this will open the door to those who decline to comment, discuss, or even acknowledge labor's fight for survival out of a perceived need to "circle the wagons" so as not to feed into anti-union rhetoric.

Nissan workers organizing in Mississippi
While we should carry out this type of discussion with the intended goal of strengthening workers in as open of a way as possible, it should be acknowledged that many times discussions of "change" are often accompanied by rhetorical attacks on leaders of our movement from self-serving perennial critics. This has often led to a tendency of keeping discussions of deeper questions of strategy behind closed doors.

Much of the discussion seems to center around exploring "new models" and strategies that seek to make labor relevant to a broader spectrum of working people including those who are either excluded from traditional collective bargaining or who choose to organize in non-union organizational forms like the Restaurant Opportunities Center.

Bringing in workers that expand a historically limited vision of the labor movement is absolutely essential, but we must resist the urge to seek a path of least resistance as a substitute for developing and deepening proven strategies of breaking and neutralizing employer resistance in the private sector.

Large scale comprehensive campaigns that take on employer intimidation with smart, strategic tactics have not been given a chance to prove their viability to turn around labor's fortunes because for the most part the overwhelming majority of the labor movement has not even been employing an organizing strategy of any sort. Before people get their shorts in a bunch and become reflexively defensive of their individual unions, if you are getting mad I am probably not talking about your union.
Unite Here Campaigns for a fair Election Process at Station Casinos in Las Vegas

The fact is that far too many Internationals, local unions, joint councils, districts, grand lodges, and other types of labor bodies have no program in place to grow much less to to assist their affiliates  in developing and carrying out a plan. As I said before, I view having the political will to overcome this lethargic approach in the midst of such a crisis as the paramount challenge to leaders contemplating a way out of this mess. The latest new plan to win means nothing if it sits in the "to be read" box of blast faxes regularly sent out to mid and lower level union officers around the country.

Creating the resources necessary to carry out large scale private sector campaigns is another area that requires challenging longstanding structures and consciousness that does not correspond to today's reality. The questions of restructuring and mergers at all levels of the labor movement is a question that cannot be ignored. This has been a thorny subject in every debate because it means challenging establish structures that will resist attempts to consolidate where that means loss of positions and in many cases salaries.

The main question facing us now is do we have the courage to honestly look at ourselves and make the changes necessary to survive and grow? While we should always be expanding the labor movement to be the voice of all workers, we should remember that  there are still millions of workers who remain in industries that are not excluded from traditional collective bargaining who would join a union the moment they were given the opportunity. These workers have the right to organize and join a union under the law, but in fact are prevented from exercising any of the freedoms that they are supposedly guaranteed due to rampant employer intimidation and labor law that has no mechanism of enforcement worth talking about. They cannot be forgotten in this process.We can't let them down.