Admitting you have a problem is the first step. Finding the way to beat it is next.
Taking an honest look at the labor movement, it doesn’t take a genius to find it at a low that hasn’t been seen since the early thirties. Unions are taking a beating from politicians, who rather than taxing the ultra wealthy, take the “easier” road of demanding cuts on government workers. At the same time, private sector employers scrape more and more from the workers in order to maintain massive profits. No-strike agreements and open shop clauses in the private sector, and right-to-work legislation and restrictions on collective bargaining in the public sector, strike right at the heart of what’s left of organized labor’s gains. In that sense, I applaud the public statements of President Richard Trumka and the AFL-CIO in their recent meetings that recognize the fact that labor needs to change course in the US.
Changing course is not only the right thing to do; it has become necessary. According to the March 3rd In These Times article, the new AFL-CIO plan is searching for “new forms of worker representation,” including Working America, Workers Centers, and a general low-wage worker campaign at Wal-Mart and in the general service industry. It is a mixing bowl of good and bad ingredients. The approach labor takes with the ingredients will determine if what comes out is any good.
As far as Working America, the supposed 3.1 million-member community affiliate of the AFL-CIO, I have direct personal experience. I worked for Working America for a year and a half, rising to become one of a handful of Field Managers in Wisconsin. I traveled to different cities, attended leadership conferences, and met national leaders of Working America. I spent hours on doorsteps, signing up thousands of new “members” and raising tens of thousands of dollars for the effort.
Working America is not what its pumped up to be. There is almost no “community” involvement in Working America offices, given they are open only a few months of the yearwith three exceptions nationally. Working America is a traditional fundraising canvass, subsidized by unions, exclusively to gather names, addresses, emails and phone numbers for national elections. Quite frankly, very few people even recognize that they are “members”, nor are they contacted other than for “get out the vote” purposes or to be asked for more money. The “alliances” with community groups that Working America builds are hollow and empty, and usually involve, again, asking for money from already cash strapped community organizations and union locals.
One example from my time working in Wisconsin was the canvassing of the city of Manitowoc, WI during the Machinists Union Manitowoc Crane strike in 2011-2012. In “support” of the striking workers, Working America staff canvassed with discussion points vaguely linking to the strike in this small industrial town, fundraising as we went. The funds, despite demands from several of the staffers, did not go to supporting the strikers, instead going directly to Working America’s state and national accounts. These thousands of dollars could have supported the Machinist strikers who ultimately failed in their fight to oppose an open shop clause in the new contract.
It bears saying that a similar technique was employed during the Walker recall race, to great fundraising effect. While we only collected a scarce thousand or so Recall Walker petitions, we raised tens of thousands of dollars for Working America by promoting the Walker recall. In the end, we only canvassed for two to three weeks against Walker in the election itself. While Wisconsin’s trade unions gave the Walker recall every effort, the AFL-CIO put their efforts elsewhere.
Working America is a multi-million dollar part of the pipe dream of a better future with the Democratic Party. Labor leaders should have walked away from this partnership nearly 20 years ago with the passing of NAFTA under Bill Clinton. Instead millions in dues money are used to support politicians who either turn a blind eye toward, or actually vote against the interests of workers.
As for Workers Centers, they have exploded across the US, with hundreds now in existence. The question is, “Why, when labor union halls themselves are supposed to be centers for worker power and organization, do these new structures exist?” The answer: Largely because the labor movement had not been filling that role for decades, and in response, workers in these communities were forced to reinvent the wheel, struggling with tiny resources to accomplish something that a multi-million dollar union federation had failed to do: be an active voice in actual struggle on the shop floor, whether it is a fast food restaurant, retail conglomerate, or a steel mill. Over the past years the AFL-CIO has recognized the need to join forces with these labor centers. Let’s hope workers can gain union representation through them and not just be used.
Building in expanding areas of the economy such as retail, fast food, and service and joining with campaigns such as the OUR Wal-Mart movement should be the next logical step for unions. As a Warehouse worker and a Teamster I have a huge amount of respect for the folks I know fighting for better wages and working conditions in Wal-Mart’s warehouses. It is an enormous task that will take grinding effort and actual blood, sweat, and tears to accomplish. The millions of dollars lost on Working America’s current empty shell, and misspent on the Democratic Party, could be used to produce a tangible result. A victory in the warehouse struggles could be this generation’s 1937 GM sit-down strike, and change the face of US labor relations for decades to come. Providing that type of solidarity and funding it, to unionize these warehouses and corporate giants, should be at the top of the AFL-CIO list.
Will it be the top-down, four-letter-word kind of solidarity of the union leadership coming in to run the show and shepherd over workers, or will it be the solidarity that lends voice, leadership, and strength to the rank-and-file that, despite all the speeches, TV interviews, and news articles, doesn’t need to be told they’re overworked and underpaid. That for us, our own version of falling off the “fiscal cliff” is job-loss, homelessness, hunger, and the death of our dreams and aspirations as working class people.
Lets get down to brass tacks: union representation needs to grow. Community partnership, alliances with workers centers, and developing new campaigns in expanding areas of the economy are crucial, but the devil is in the details. What has been announced does not tackle the problems of our labor movement. No bold new strategy is going to solve what is in reality a simple problem of growth.
Want to grow the union? First make an example of the power union workers have, and show bosses and workers alike that we can fight in union workplaces that have been suffering from decades of management harassment and concessionary contracts. What we need is militant workplace action in our own shops. New organizing drives mean nothing, and signed contracts provide nothing, if we cannot demonstrate power in our own workplaces.
From a rank-and-file Teamster and union activist, here’s the strategy we need: cut the fat, get mean, curtail the spending on elections, and instead build struggle through funding ordinary workers fighting bosses in the work place.
Kas Schwerdtfeger is a proud member of Teamsters Local 344 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and works as a package loader on the Night Sort at UPS’s Oak Creek, Wisconsin facility. He had previously worked as a Field Manager for the AFL-CIO’s Working America program, collected Recall Petition signatures, participated in door-to-door Get Out the Vote efforts, and spent countless hours at the 2011 Wisconsin Capital Protests, staying and sleeping inside the Capitol building several nights.