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6 Ways to Juice Up the Labor Movement

Some of the smartest organizers and thinkers we know give us their suggestions on how to build a reinvigorated, vibrant labor movement.

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  1. Jane McAlevey, longtime organizer and author of Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell)

McAlevey points out that the entire structure of work has changed over recent years. That means that there are many workers who don't see how unions could work for them, and who have to be reintroduced to the entire concept of unions. “The way that unions can keep any kind of skin in the game is by rethinking their relationship to their own rank and file and rethinking their relationship to their broader community,” she says.

“How about budgeting the time and recruiting a ton of your top rank and file leaders to go out and meet with damn near every single member of the union, in their worksites, in their neighborhoods, in community meetings?” She suggests that from there, workers themselves could chart and track the relationships they have in their community, figure out their connections. “What is the social fabric of the relationships that the 16 million members of unions in this country hold?”

16 million, she notes, isn't a lot when it comes to the percentage of the workforce (7 percent of the private sector), but it's still a lot of people who have a lot of connections and can have conversations with their community. But to get there, the union members have to feel connected, have to take responsibility, and have to feel like they own their union and they care about their union. “There's no reason to expect that a rank and file member is going to prioritize and make time to reintroduce the value of their union to their community unless they value their union.”

This kind of work can be done, she notes, and must be done—the same way unions put together a Get-Out-The-Vote machine for presidential elections.

  1. Eric Robertson & Ben Speight, Teamsters Local 728, Georgia

When it comes to organizing under so-called “right to work” laws, Robertson and Speight know all about it. “What Scott Walker tried to do in Wisconsin is our status quo here. In Georgia, there's no recourse. You can literally be told 'I'm firing you for that union button, get out.' There's no board to petition for unfair labor practices. The only ability we have to organize is the discretion of the employer,” Speight says.

Robertson wants to see the labor movement create plans for growth across sectors, and evaluate whether they really have the resources to carry out those plans. “The issue of archaic structures that impede growth is a huge weight that is hanging around our collective necks.”

“Labor has to think far beyond the confines of what has been permitted for us to organize,” Speight says. “The solutions to labor's challenges now come from a recognition that we can only truly grow at the scale that's needed to bring about balance in our society and economy if we're able to compel owners to drop their weapons.”. That either comes through comprehensive labor law reform that brings in workers traditionally excluded from the protections of the NLRA, or, he notes, through massive action from working people and allies, making it impossible for owners to keep operating their businesses until they deal fairly with workers. It's time for mass action, Speight says. “There's the old saying that you can have collective bargaining at the table or have it in the streets.”

“We need to teach people, even longstanding union members, in practice what collective action looks like, how do we identify targets, how do we escalate tactics to make those targets say yes.” To get there, he notes, labor needs to “embark on a deep relationship-building effort with our allies, so that struggles, attacks on labor are not viewed as an attack on labor in isolation, but are viewed as attacks on fundamental democratic rights.”

 
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