Wisconsin Labor Educator Don Taylor on labor’s need to innovate

Union Labor News, publication of the South Central (Wisconsin) AFL-CIO  sat down with Don Taylor, Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin Extension’s School for Workers, for a wide-ranging interview on the state of the union movement.  We think the interview should be of  interest to Talking Union readers across the country,

Don Taylor

Don Taylor

“There was a time when being in a union was illegal.” Don Taylor from the School for Workers was talking about the ups and downs of the labor movement.

Plenty of downs have hit US workers in the past few years. Taylor rattled off a litany of other states and what they tried, and often succeeded in making illegal: Nebraska tried to abolish its state labor board; Massachusetts made health care non-negotiable for municipal employees; Indiana and Michigan passed anti-labor right-to-work laws and only a governor’s veto stopped it in New Hampshire; collective bargaining limits were overturned by referendum in Ohio; Tennessee tried to make it a felony to be on a picket line; the list goes on and on.

Wisconsin’s situation has been well documented. In the past year Wisconsin lost more union members than any other state in the nation, going from 13.3% to 11.2% of unionized workers. When asked if that was the intent of Act 10, which severely restricted collective bargaining for public workers, Taylor declined to speculate, but said, “That’s certainly its effect.”

The front-page story in Union Labor News in December warned about the likelihood of right-to-work coming to Wisconsin.  Taylor pointed out that the governor and legislative leaders are saying it is not on their agenda this session.  He says it is plausible that they wish to focus on other priorities, rather than introduce contentious legislation that could eclipse their other goals.  With a very slow economy to fix, Wisconsin legislators might not want to “kick that dog again,” said Taylor, noting that 2011 was not healthy for the state “no matter which side you’re on.”

On the other hand, he said, governors in Michigan and Indiana both downplayed right-to-work prior to passing it.   “Ultimately, all we can say is that anything is possible.”

Taylor said that the labor movement has been down before, citing the 1920s as one of those low points. Similar to our era, there were large numbers of workers then who were not unionized and unions had insufficient interest and tools to organize them. In the twenties that meant manufacturing and assembly workers. In our era it’s the big box stores and other low-paid, disrespected service workers.

Taylor argues that unions still work out of a model developed in the 1930s and that old reality is being negated. “History has always shown that workers will resist,” said Taylor. He believes a new labor reality will develop from something that’s happening now. Perhaps the occupy movement, the push for immigrant rights or even from Walmart warehouses.

Because we are now in a world economy, developing new labor structures has been a slow and uncertain process—and organized labor is far behind the business world, Taylor believes.  “When corporate goals are impeded by the laws of any country, multinationals seek to eliminate or supersede those laws.   A huge part of the current ‘free trade’ agenda is to create a global framework in which multinational corporations can operate without regard for the laws and customs of individual nations.”

While some US unions do participate in international activities, they are not nearly as coordinated as the business interests who have worked together across the planet to find ways to defeat, defund, and depress the labor movement.

While Taylor suggests increased labor cooperation internationally is important, he believes unions have to work at the other end too—getting its own house in order at the grassroots level.

“Any innovation is a good idea,” he said, encouraging unions to take a close look at their structures and processes. Specifically, he suggested four things unions could do to turn their fortunes around.

1. Embrace member education. Establish a clear goal of power at the workplace level, then develop a deeper understanding among a wider range of people about how to do it. Since education is the primary mission of the School for Workers, that is one place to start (see sidebar).

2. Take risks. Look at yourself critically and be willing to innovate.

3. Emphasize democracy and participation. Does every worker have a home in your union?

4. Frame your issues. Develop your own language and communications based around fair values.

Things learned from Don Taylor at the School for Workers.

Do you know…?

  • It’s not legal to fire strikers in Wisconsin. Truly. Of course, it is legal to permanently replace them.
  • There’s only one newspaper in the US that has a labor reporter, the New York Times. Most major papers used to have them.
  • Any other group can call for a secondary boycott (example: boycotting a store that sells Palermo pizzas), but if a union calls for one, it’s illegal.
  • Strikes, as most of us know them, are about withholding labor. Historically they had a second goal: stopping production. Kind of explains a lot of the violent history of the labor movement, doesn’t it?
  • Chicken or egg? When labor unions represented over 30% of the workforce, they were much more popular with the American public. Today, with unionization down to about 11%, less than half of the public has a positive view of unions according to recent Gallup polls.
  • The School for Workers is the oldest, continuously-operating, university-based labor education program in the country. The mission is to empower working people and labor organizations through a comprehensive program of lifelong adult learning opportunities.

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