How to Be a Staffer in a Democratic Union

by Alexandra Bradbury , Labor Notes

If members run the local... what exactly is the union rep's job? We asked four experienced staffers how they approach their day-to-day tasks while keeping the rank and file in the driver’s seat. Photo: Jim West/

If members run the local… what exactly is the union rep’s job? We asked four experienced staffers how they approach their day-to-day tasks while keeping the rank and file in the driver’s seat. Photo: Jim West/

Suppose you’re a union staff rep. (Or a business agent, an internal organizer, whatever the local lingo is.) And suppose you believe in union democracy: the members should run the fight against the boss.

Where do you come in, then? What exactly is your job, and how can you do it in a way that keeps the rank and file in the driver’s seat?

The obvious danger: you work for the union all day, while members have their jobs to do. It can be all too easy for members and staffers alike to start thinking “the union” means the people who have desks at the union hall: the top brass and the reps they hire. That’s not only undemocratic—it’s a terrible foundation for building power.

We asked four experienced staffers how they see their jobs and how they translate the idea that the members run the union into their day-to-day tasks.

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A New Teacher Union Movement is Rising

Bob Peterson
Common Dreams

Teacher unions must unite with parents, students and the community to improve our schools—to demand social justice and democracy so that we have strong public schools, healthy communities, and a vibrant democracy.

Chicago Teachers Union rally in Daley Plaza in 2012. The nation’s public schools, writes Peterson, “must become greenhouses for both democracy and community revitalization.”, pbarcas / cc / flickr,

A revitalized teacher union movement is bubbling up in the midst of relentless attacks on public schools and the teaching profession. Over the next several years this new movement may well be the most important force to defend and improve public schools, and in so doing, defend our communities and our democracy.
The most recent indication of this fresh upsurge was the union election in Los Angeles. Union Power, an activist caucus, won leadership of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the second-largest teacher local in the country. The Union Power slate, headed by president-elect Alex Caputo-Pearl, has an organizing vision for their union. They have worked with parents fighting school cuts and recognize the importance of teacher–community alliances.

In two other cities –Portland, OR, and St. Paul, MN – successful contract struggles also reflect a revitalized teacher union movement. In both cities the unions put forth a vision of “the schools our children deserve” patterned after a document by the Chicago Teachers Union. They worked closely with parents, students, and community members to win contract demands that were of concern to all groups. The joint educator-community mobilizations were key factors in forcing the local school districts to settle the contracts before a strike.
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How Hassan Yussuff won the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) presidency

by Larry Savage

photo: May 8, 2014, Hassan Yussuff made history as the only candidate in the history of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) to successfully unseat an incumbent President. The convention was the largest in the organization’s history with over 4,600 delegates casting ballots. In the end, Yussuff won by a razor thin margin of 40 votes, capturing 50.4 per cent of the total valid votes cast.

Why did Canada’s labour movement opt for new leadership? There were multiple factors at play.
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Restructuring American Unions As Solution to the Crisis: Some Specific Proposals


Jack Rasmus

Jack Rasmus

Jack Rasmus welcomed back labor historian, Staughton Lynd to his radio program Alternative Visions, to discuss specific ideas how American unions might evolve their current organizational structure to better confront the growing crisis of American workers and their unions in the 21st century.  Jack and Staughton agree it’s time for solutions, not just talking about dimensions of today’s crisis in union strategy—whether political, industrial, bargaining, organizing—i.e. strategies that that are now failing across the board for American workers today.  Both agree that some new form of local union organization is needed that strengthens local unions to confront the massive legal web that has grown over decades favoring employers, government, and national union leaders.  Stronger local unions must somehow be developed, both argue, that organizationally integrate the community.

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Welcoming China’s labor federation back into the global union family?

TU vs. workers

by Eric Lee

[Ed. Note: This image shows strikebreakers sent by the local union federation attacking young striking workers at a Honda parts plant in 2010  The local union  was forced to apologize and a higher level federation officer helped negotiate higher wages at the plant.  A wave of strikes at auto parts plants in China followed.  -Paul Garver]

At the end of March, the International Labour Organisation’s Bureau for Workers Activities (known as ILO-ACTRAV) and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) signed a Memorandum of Understanding “to promote Trade unions South-South Cooperation in the Asia- Pacific region”.

The Director-General of the ILO, Guy Ryder, said “we need to find a way which so that the ACFTU can work more closely with other parts of the international trade union movement, sharing common objectives.”

Ryder is a former General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, which has decided to invite the ACFTU to attend its upcoming World Congress in Berlin in May.

These two events illustrate the fact that the trade union leadership in much of the developed world now seems keen on putting the past behind us and welcoming China’s trade unions back into our “global family”.

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Theses toward the development of left labor strategy


Concept paper:  Theses toward the development of left labor strategyPreface: The following is what used to be termed a “struggle paper,” i.e., a paper presented as an argument for a position. It is not presented as a final position, however. It is, instead, inspired by the content of the February Left Strategies web discussion on the labor movement. This paper does not try to present the ideal tactics or all elements of strategy. It does, however, attempt to identify–for purposes of discussion–issues and concepts for consideration in the development of a full-blown left labor strategy. Feedback is welcomed.

Book Excerpt: Campaigning for Union Office

Labor Notes Staff

jumpstartOur new book, How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers, shows how activists transformed their union and gave members hope. This excerpt tells how the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) campaigned for top offices, and won.

It’s one of the universals of organizing—first you make a list.

Elementary teacher Alix Gonzalez Guevara remembers staying up late transferring data about each school from a district-published book into an Excel spreadsheet: region, address, how many teachers, how many students.

This became a Google document, an online spreadsheet available to everyone working on the campaign. The schools were grouped by regions. Within each, a couple of lead activists took responsibility to find people to do outreach at each school. Continue reading

Outrage at Boeing Spurs Reformers’ Bid for Top Spots in Machinists Union

by Jon Flanders

When Machinists President Thomas Buffenbarger intervened to foist concessions on the union's largest district, at Boeing, he added fuel to his opposition's fire. A rank and file vote for top officers will be held this spring. Photo: Don Grinde. - See more at:

When Machinists President Thomas Buffenbarger intervened to foist concessions on the union’s largest district, at Boeing, he added fuel to his opposition’s fire. A rank and file vote for top officers will be held this spring. Photo: Don Grinde.

For the first time in more than 50 years, the Machinists union (IAM) will hold a contested election for top officers. The vote was ordered by the Department of Labor after member Karen Asuncion protested violations in the union’s 2013 uncontested election.

An opposition slate, IAM Reform, is headed by former Transportation Coordinator Jay Cronk. Cronk is a former officer because he was fired, after more than 20 years at the International, eight days after he announced his candidacy.

IAM Reform’s platform focuses primarily on internal functioning: nepotism, wasteful spending (a Lear Jet for international officers), high salaries ($304,000 in total compensation for President Thomas Buffenbarger), and excessive numbers of international officers, some of whom were appointed without ever having been an IAM member.

But since the initial appearance of the reform slate, under the pressure of events—principally the big showdown over concessions at Boeing—its nature has begun to morph into a broader opposition to concessionary contracts.

The membership vote will be held some time before June. Continue reading

AFL-CIO Repositions Itself to Speak for All Workers

Fletcherby Bill Fletcher Jr. and Jeff Crosby

The AFL-CIO Convention in September took an important turn to reposition unions toward speaking for all working people in the United States. This was a correction to the narrow focus on its dues-paying members and traditional electoral work that has cursed the movement for most of its history.

To argue that this turn represents an abandonment of current members, as Steve Early does here , is factually false and politically wrong.

It helps to understand what the federation is and is not. It is a collection of unions “held together by a rope of sand,” as a former federation president put it. From the central labor councils to the national organization, affiliates that don’t like the turn of events just quit. Continue reading

Postal Workers Elect New Leaders Who Pledge to Build a Movement

by Alexandra Bradbury


A newly-elected slate of local leaders pledges to change APWU’s direction. Till now, while pockets of postal workers have been marching and even sitting in, the national union has focused on lobbying. Photo: Adam Souza. - See more at:

A newly-elected slate of local leaders pledges to change APWU’s direction. Till now, while pockets of postal workers have been marching and even sitting in, the national union has focused on lobbying. Photo: Adam Souza. – See more at:

A diverse slate of local leaders pledging to take a firmer hand with management, increase transparency about contract details, collaborate with other postal unions and community groups, and mobilize members has just won national leadership of the American Postal Workers Union.

The Members First Team, headed by now President-Elect Mark Dimondstein, won seven of the nine seats it contested, the APWU announced last night.

The stakes couldn’t be higher for postal workers, who are battling wave after wave of attacks—post offices and sorting plants closing, work privatizing, delivery standards eroding. The latest nasty bill pending in Congress would kill Saturday letter delivery, replace door-to-door with curbside and neighborhood “cluster box” service, and ban workers’ time-honored no-layoff clause from future contracts.

“We’re at a crossroads,” said Dimondstein before the election. “At the core of this whole struggle is whether the post office is going to be decisively privatized and turned over to profit-making entities and low-paid, non-union jobs—or remain a public entity that serves all the people and maintains good-paying union jobs.” Continue reading


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