Unions Get Smart: New Tactics for a New Labor Movement
In a time of growing income inequality, welfare state retrenchment, and the rise of contingent and less stable employment, organized labor is becoming a movement once again. With the inauguration of new leadership at the top of the AFL-CIO, innovations at locals and internationals throughout the country may soon add up to more than the sum of their parts.
Within the AFL-CIO today, major restructuring is taking place at both the top and the grassroots. For the first time in many years, the Federation will have an organizing department with real muscle _ and a $20 million budget. Union leaders increasingly see central labor councils, which gather all the unions of a city or town together, and state federations as important coordinating bodies for b oth renewed organizing and rebuilding labor's lost political muscle. "Labor 1996," the AFL-CIO's political operation to recapture the House of Representatives for the Democratic Party and re-elect Bill Clinton, is striking fear into the hearts of Republican freshman in Congress _ many of whom won seats by slim margins and are considered vulnerable. But the AFL-CIO itself represents only a fraction of labor's overall resources. Ninety-nine percent of members' dues, and most of the staff and organizational capacity, reside within individual international unions and their local affiliates. To revitalize American unions, these local and international unions must reestablish their loose monopoly over the labor market by organizing most of those working in a sector of the economy. Fortunately for American workers, much of what needs to be done can be and is starting to be done internally by the union movement itself. Certain unions are becoming more sophisticated at analyzing industrie s and the competitive factors companies face. They then strategize better to win higher wages and job security in an entire region. They are acknowledging that they can't just focus on the individual worksite if they want to organize the vast majority of private sector workers who are not in unions. They are building community coalitions and educating their members on the need to organize. In contrast, few labor-management cooperation schemes _ another recent trend _ have persisted in the face of economic turmoil. Of the ones that remain, none give labor a powerful voice in corporate decision-making and some have led to efficiency gains which later translate into layoffs. A company-based union strategy of workplace partnerships clearly has its limits, given American business's obses sion with short-term gains.
For inspiration, unions can look instead to Justice for Janitors, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and BUILD, a church/union alliance in Baltimore. These unions' initiatives are at the forefront of labor's new direction. A Union Rereads its own Past
As part of one conservative construction union's effort to leave behind its past _ in which it had lost control of its own labor market _ it has revisited its own history. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers' (IBEW) new revisionist history may not be exactly accurate, but its message _ that its problems and those of other construction unions are of their own making due to their exc lusionary practices _ has resonated deeply within the union. This new history, and union philosophy, is an innovative part of reform within a union that wants to change course. The rise of the non-union sector can't just be blamed on rising anti-unionism, economic recession and/or technological changes, the new thinking goes. Instead, the union now says, it suffered from its active exclusion of first women, blacks and immigrants, and eventually everybody except members' friends and families. Sometimes people had to pay to join. The new thinking is also linked to a change of strategy. The old top-down practice of signing exclusive agreements with contractors only succeeded when the unions controlled most of the labor force and contractors relied on them for skilled labor. Now most locals view recruitment of non-union electricians into the union as their top priority. Ralph Merriweather, an organizer for a Texas local, put it this way:
"There are 2000 electricians in this jurisdiction. The business manager represents the organized electricians. I represent the ones who are not in the union yet." But the IBEW also knew that its members had to support and even be involved in the actual organizing. So it developed a rank-and-file training program, COMET, to persuade them that organizing new members was the only way the union could be rebuilt. As o January 1994, 341 out of its 400 construction locals nationwide had held at least one COMET training program and 26,500 out of about 400,000 memb ers had been through a 4-hour COMET training session. Over the next few years, the IBEW intends to put most of its construction members through the training. This pioneering program provides a model of how to nurture a shift within the union's culture so that it encourages new organizing and promotes continuous reform. Climbing Jacob's Ladder to a Living Wage At a busy fast-food restaurant in downtown Baltimore in February, four activists discuss the previous week's successful action against Baltimore's Building Owners and Managers Association. "We showed them that we had power, so they had to listen to us," said Loretta Curry, one of the activists. Curry and her fellow activists are members of BUILD, Baltimore's affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the community organizing group founded by Saul Alinsky. BUILD joined up with AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) three years ago to organize low-income workers in Baltimore's burgeoning service economy. The alliance's most tangible success came in Decemb er 1994, when the city's Board of Estimate passed the country's first municipal living-wage ordinance, raising the hourly wage from $4.25 to $6.10 for 4,000 employees of municipal service contractors. The campaign also galvanized a new 700-member organization of low-income service workers. BUILD is constantly campaigning, since it must fight each year to win wage increases from the Board of Estima te. Following a campaign in the fall of 1995, the board raised the wage to $6.60. The most striking feature of the BUILD living wage effort _ and the reason the organization has been so successful _ is the extraordinary partnership that it forged between black churches and the labor movement. As the organized black church movement in Baltimore, BUILD is politically powerful _ perhaps more so than the local labor movement _ and it enjoys tremendous moral legitimacy in the eyes o f black workers. Its partnership with the churches helps the union's public image, and shows the labor movement going beyond the politics of particularism. Although most living wage campaigns remain coalitions between unions and community groups , the Baltimore campaign used the issue to build a new organization that crosses political boundaries. BUILD organizers describe the Solidarity Sponsoring Committee (SSC) as "a little bit of a church, a little bit of a union, a little bit of social service, and a whole lot of politics." Workers pay $10 a mont h in dues to become members, with $5 dedicated to "building the organization." The rest pays for a "modest benefit plan" that includes life insurance and discounts on dental care and eye glasses. Health benefits may soon follow. Now BUILD is reaching out to workers covered by the living wage law to ensure that it is being enforced and to recruit them into the SSC. To extend the living wage beyond the public sector, it is targeting private employers, including a minimum wage cleaning service owned by Johns Hopkins University and an institutional food service company. After negotiating with BUILD, the president of the Build ing Owners and Managers Association agreed to pay the living wage at three of his buildings and allow the SSC to collect dues directly from his employees' paychecks. BUILD keeps growing and devising new strategies: it plans to found a worker-owned temporary employment agency as a way to reach out to the growing contingent workforce. Unlike their cohorts, these temps will get the living wage and he alth benefits.
Justice for Janitors:
Labor Market Unionism
One Union. One Industry. One Contract. We're fighting for one master contract with decent raises, full health coverage, and job security for all 8000 union janitors in greater Los Angeles. Whether they work downtown, midtown, in the South Bay, on the westside, or in the valleys, janitors do the same work, pay the same prices for food and rent, and deserve the same pay and benefits.
_ Justice for Janitors "Campaign '95" Leaflet
The Service Employees' International Union's (SEIU) "Justice for Janitors" campaign to organize building janitors combines cutting edge industry analysis with effective tactics such as civil disobedience, direct action, government regulatory pressure and community coalitions. While unions once negotiated contracts with building owners and master agreements with owners' associations, in the 1970s and 1980s the owners increasingly used cleaning contractors instead of their own janitors. Union coverage began to drop. Fewer owners participated directly in contract negotiations and city-wide agreements gave way to individual agreements with contractors for specific building s. Owners became increasingly insulated from union pressures and thus less inclined to deal with unions. After analyzing the problem in the context of the entire industry, Justice for Janitors developed a strategy to organize all the non-union buildings and contractors in one segment of the labor market at the same time. Instead of pursuing elections overseen by the National Labor Relations Board,
Justice for Janitors built a campaign that presented itself to the public as a local civil rights movement. It sought to organize the unorganized, not just workers in previously organized buildings. Using information collected by its international office's research department, local organizers knew who the building owners were and what their relationships were with contractors. By both "getting the target right" and orchestrating dramatic public actions, Justice for Janitors captured the public's attention and sympathy through acts of civil disobedience. They got arrested for cleaning a non-u nion building for free and marched through the streets of L.A.'s Century City as the local media filmed policemen chasing and beating unarmed demonstrators. All of this helped turn the tide of the campaign in favor of the union. The success in Los Angeles fueled similar campaigns elsewhere by janitors and other service workers. Between 1987 and 1991, 25,000 janitors were newly organized and the union's presence was restored in sixteen cities. SEIU Local 509 in Massachusetts is using the same strategic insight of getting the target right in a campaign to organize community health care workers employed by private agencies t hroughout the state. Rather than working to halt the privatization of social services, the union realized that its members' paychecks were still coming from the same source _ the state. So it reoriented its strategy toward organizing the new, private agencies, and built a fruitful alliance with several private employers to lobby the state to maintain funding levels for social services. Now they ha ve developed a master agreement for the entire sector. challenges ahead
Several American unions are taking a new approach to organizing workers _ and they are succeeding! But the task facing organized labor is daunting. By most estimates, for unions to simply stem the tide of decline, they would have to organize 300,000 new workers a year for the next 20 years. To grow they will have to do much more. They would have to add 1 million new members each year for the next 20 years to reach their former height of representing one in three workers. Now fewer than 100,000 workers are organized each year through the NLRB election process. Only half of them ever get to negotiate a first contract. Fewer than half of those who are covered by a contract are still employed by the company three years later. A completely new approach to organizing, combined with a massive com mitment of resources by all levels of the union movement, must be undertaken. This process of organizational transformation and renewal is possible, but it will not be without tensions. Difficulties lie both within the unions and in the legal structure within which unions organize. For instance, unions can no longer devote the vast majority of their resources toward servicing existing members. They must devote more to organizing new ones. Since World War II, union members who pay the freight have gotten used to professional staff handling grievances, negotiating contracts and administering benefits. But now many organizers and labor educators are trying to convince their uni ons to shift their priorities toward organizing, since their power depends on their numbers. This shift requires educational efforts like COMET, which will show members that building numbers through organizing is key to increasing their own paychecks, benefits and job security. Other pitfalls unions face come from problems in U.S. labor law. Some scholars are calling for a rethinking of the ban on company unions in Section 8a(2) of the National Labor Relations Act while providing greater protection for workers to join unions. Intrigued by labor-management cooperation committees, and European works councils, in which unionists (and non-unionists) elected by workers have a
say in hiring, restructuring and new technology, these scholars say Section 8a(2) impedes experimentation that could give workers more of a "voice" in the workplace despite the extraordinary resistance traditional trade unions face these days. But from the point of view of many in the labor movement, the scholars are just strengthening the anti-union hand by suggesting that unions are outmoded an d a hindrance to workplace innovation. Instead, they suggest, these scholars should use their influence to call attention to the evisceration of labor law and the need to strengthen it, especially given the rampant union-busting efforts currently underway. Labor laws are generally toothless when it comes to protecting union protests, and they outlaw many of labor's most effective tactics, such as sit-down strikes. The movement tactics devised by Justice for Janitors may not provide the entire solution either. While Stephen Lerner may be right that "virtually every great non-violent movement of the twentieth century has been built around direct actio n and mass civil disobedience," in some cases these tactics may also turn away new members. Rick Hurd of Cornell and Larry Cohen and Seth Rosen of the Communication Workers of America (CWA) found in a joint project that many workers resisted a CWA union drive not just from fear of being fired, but out of a desire to put an end to the polarization and poisonous work atmosphere resulting from the long-term campaign. They couldn't fire the boss or get rid of the company, but they could get rid of the union. Does this mean the direct action tactics advocated by Lerner dampen instead of mobilize interest in unions? It's not an all or nothing answer. His campaign style added 40,000 members nationally to SEIU. We need a mix of tactics chosen in context and informed by the culture of the workers. Developing this mix is one of the labor movement's most pressing goals. Democrats or Bust?
No review of organized labor's new strategies can avoid the question: Can organized labor live without the Democratic Party? Organized labor has been a key part of the Democratic coalition since the New Deal in the 1930s, but its political influence has dwindled in recent years. Yet the grassroots have brought new political tactics to organized labor's table along with their new organizing tactics .
Some internationals and state federations no longer exclusively support Democratic candidates, and are channeling money into rebuilding labor's own grassroots political strength. These unions have established statewide progressive electoral coalitions with other organizations in New England and some parts of the Midwest and West. Some activists are calling for third party alternatives like the Lab or Party or the New Party, which have galvanized many labor leaders and elected impressive numbers of people to local office. In the wake of the election of the Sweeney team, activists are hoping to reshape labor's political participation. Some are disappointed by the AFL's wholesale support of the Democrats' campaign to "take back the House" and reelect President Clinton. Others think this support is a "no-brainer" regardless of what labor decides its long -term strategy will be. The future influence of organized labor in America may depend not just on the invigoration of organizing, but on how the labor movement manages to resolve its disagreements over its political course. n [B
Janice fine is organizing director of Northeast Action -- a network of unions, cc citizens groups and elected o citizens groups and elected officials - and a doctoral candidate at MIT. Richard Locke is associate professor of management and political science at MIT.
Sometimes unions have been able to turn an anti-union labor law against businesses. Lonnie Shaws, a business manager for a local of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Louisiana, remembered one such example: "In this state what we have now is a Right to Work law where you can't discriminate. And they've always used it against us union guys. They made us real careful when a non-union guy would come in and apply for work _ you better get him a job. Now we are turning it around with "salting." If we send in a union guy to a non-union contractor and he asks 'Are you a union guy?', he's just violated the l aw. Or we will intentionally go in with lots of union buttons and T-shirts and he'll say 'We are not hiring.' So we will let it cool for a day or two and then send in a guy with a bogus resume and the contractor will hire him cause he's not union and they've just violated the law."