Demonstrators from MoveOn.org and Working America picket against federal budget cuts outside John Boehner's office in West Chester, Ohio. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)
The country’s largest non-union workers’ group will soon announce plans to establish chapters in every state, achieve financial self-sufficiency and extend its organizing—so far focused on politics and policy—directly into the workplace.
“This organization has done really what nobody else thought could be done,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told The Nation, “and that’s recruit more than three million people without a union to be part of the labor movement.”
That organization is Working America, the AFL-CIO affiliate for workers without a union on the job. Created ten years ago, it now claims 3.2 million members—more than any of the individual unions in the AFL-CIO, or any of the other “alt-labor” groups organizing and mobilizing non-union workers in the United States. “We’re taking the momentum that we’ve built organizing workers in communities,” said Working America Executive Director Karen Nussbaum, “and beginning to organize a community in the workplace.”
As I reported in The Nation’s October 29, 2012, issue, Working America’s past efforts have taken place outside of work. Paid canvassers go door-to-door in what the group calls “working class moderate” neighborhoods, starting conversations about economic issues and asking people to join the organization (according to Trumka, two out of three people sign up by the end of the conversation). During election season, organizers come back to persuade and mobilize these members to vote for endorsed candidates, touting their stances on issues like outsourcing (they explicitly avoid discussing so-called “social issues”). Year-round, Working America supports union-backed campaigns on issues like supporting paid sick leave or opposing liquor store privatization; members write letters, lobby politicians and join rallies.
Nussbaum told The Nation that, following the group’s success in mobilizing workers who haven’t been reached by unions or other progressive organizations, “it was the local labor leaders who came to us last August and said, ‘We need you in every state.’” The organization plans to double its number of state chapters over the next three years, to twenty-four, and to create chapters in the rest of the fifty states by 2018. Working America’s most recent new chapters are in Texas and North Carolina, both Southern states with even lower unionization rates than the country as a whole.
Nussbaum, Working America’s architect since its founding, said she expects the expansion to require at least one staffer in each state. Given the expense of maintaining full-time, year-round canvassing teams, she said the group is “building on the base that we have and turning that into a more flexible, vibrant organization” that can “build out in a lot of different ways, meeting the immediate needs of whoever our partners are.” Nussbaum noted that Working America staff now include online organizers, who push members to take actions ranging from calling legislators to sharing “I support the minimum wage” on Facebook. But “at the end of the day,” she said, “we still think that face-to-face, one-on-one communication, that makes the difference in bringing new people into our movement.”