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Building Community Unions | The Nation

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Building Community Unions

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More organizing has gone on in the past few years than in the past twenty before them. Between 1997 and the end of 1999, approximately 1,375,000 new workers were brought into the labor movement; in 1997, 300,000 new workers were organized; in '98, 475,000 and in '99, 600,000. This is indicative of enormous focus and effort--but in the face of explosive job growth on the one hand and attrition of union jobs on the other, the labor movement has barely been able to maintain mid-nineties levels of density. Simply to maintain the status quo, the labor movement must organize 500,000 new workers a year. And while precise numbers for 2000 are not yet available, early estimates fall well below that threshold.

Janice Fine wrote this piece with support from the individual project fellowship program of the Open Society Institute. It is part of the Haywood Burns Community Activist Journalism series, supported by the New World Foundation and the Nation Institute.

About the Author

Janice Fine
  Janice Fine is Associate Professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at the School of Management and...

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The recent adoption of the "One Million Members" campaign, in which the federation will work with national affiliates and their local unions to achieve specific numeric organizing goals toward a target of 80,000 new members a month, is a move in the right direction. But what the recent statistics tell us is that despite much more emphasis on organizing, it's still not proving to be enough--labor is struggling to break through. A mismatch between old labor laws and the new economy, and virulent unionbusting by employers, with sanctions coming too little and too late, are two major reasons organizing is so difficult.

In this context, it has become increasingly clear that in order to succeed labor needs a new paradigm for organizing. For one thing, it needs a base beyond the worksite. In labor markets that are overwhelmingly nonunion (as most are today) and in which a growing percentage of the work force moves between jobs, firm-by-firm organizing is inadequate. Just as they did in the early years of craft and industrial unionism, many unions in recent years have concluded that they have to focus on geographic or industrial strategies in order to take wages out of competition across a city, region or industry. But most unions have failed to grapple with what that means in terms of community organizing and community partnerships.

As the Stamford project shows, workers can be organized effectively outside of worksites by building relationships with their ethnic communities, their neighborhoods and their churches. Indeed, in a sense, the community itself has become the new "unit" for labor organizing campaigns. To achieve their goals, worker organizations must gain community support by casting worker issues in broader terms; by speaking explicitly about social, economic and racial justice; by speaking on behalf of the working class, as opposed to a particular group of workers; by nesting pay and benefits issues within broader frameworks like quality of care and education; and by forging deep partnerships with community organizations.

To achieve the kind of expansion labor desires, a new generation of workers will have to be won over, and it won't be done solely on the basis of targeting and tactics--women and men, especially those of color, must be won to the mission of labor. Unions have become used to organizing the majority of a workplace and calling it a victory--and it is. The trouble is that this model of organizing has made many of them act like winning hearts and minds outside the workplace doesn't matter. When they stopped making their case to the broader community, they were tagged with the special-interest label. What unions need to pursue now are strategies that transform the larger community's power relations and its overarching political climate.

Despite the Stamford Organizing Project's impressive record, it and the other "geo" projects have had to struggle for support within the AFL-CIO. What's more, from the start, participating international unions worried that the projects would distract them from their industrial strategies, and even questioned whether the federation should be involved in organizing drives at all. Of course, there is no single answer to the question of how to rebuild the labor movement--depending upon the local context, different strategies will make sense--but as the AFL-CIO debates how to build its density and change the organizing climate, community-based organizing efforts like the one in Stamford provide clear examples of thinking outside the box.

As labor historian James Green, among others, has argued, during the epoch of organizing on a mass scale during the 1930s, unions benefited enormously from shifts in the broader political climate. It wasn't the bosses who suddenly changed their stripes--it was the public whose sympathies shifted. Unions also relied heavily on community organizations and newspapers that could reach ethnic communities. At its best, the labor movement was perceived to be fighting not for a particular group of workers but for the general interest of the working class. In the end, the greatest contribution of labor's community-organizing efforts may lie in challenging the status quo, recapturing the moral high ground and providing a gathering place and an entree into collective action for low-wage workers. That's enough to justify a sizable investment on the part of the labor movement.

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