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'Changing to Organize' | The Nation

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'Changing to Organize'

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Even the country's more successful unions--including many operating in the service sector--cannot rest on their laurels. Despite their notable victories, they too have yet to organize on the scale necessary for labor's revival. Ironically, part of the problem may lie in their haste to expand their ranks. Too many of these unions, along with the AFL-CIO, have shifted resources into organizing, at the expense of funding for union education departments and programs. Thus, at the very time the labor movement most needs structural and cultural change, it is depleting the funds of the single most effective force for that change--membership and leadership education. Increasingly this has meant that the frontline work of organizing is being done by a flying squadron of new and inexperienced organizing hires, not by member volunteers or rank-and-file leaders within the unit being organized. Instead of building a union from the bottom up, these blitz campaigns often are little more than flash-in-the pan mobilizations that fail to build the sense of ownership and commitment among the rank and file that is necessary to withstand the bosses' anti-union onslaught.

About the Author

Kate Bronfenbrenner
Kate Bronfenbrenner is the director of labor education research at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor...

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Don’t forget that political power is intrinsically linked to organizing power.

In addition, some organizing funds have been squandered on expensive public-opinion polling in a never-ending quest to determine which issues and which words receive the most positive response from unorganized workers. Not only has this been an enormous waste of resources that could be better directed toward actual organizing. It is also based on the false premise that the most effective efforts merely speak to workers where they are, rather than using education and action to move them to an understanding of what organizing a union is all about. The emphasis on polling also ignores the transformational process that triggers most organizing campaigns, when workers discover that there are some problems that can only be resolved through the independent collective voice and power that a union can bring.

Meanwhile, only a handful of unions are mounting the kind of comprehensive external pressure campaigns--targeting parent companies, investors, suppliers or customers in the United States and around the globe--that are required to win against the world's largest and most powerful multinational employers. And where these external tactics are being used, they are too often carried out by staff from the international union or the AFL-CIO, completely divorced from the rank-and-file organizing campaign. This undermines the external pressure campaigns themselves as well as the rank-and-file ownership and empowerment essential to surviving daily assaults from anti-union employers.

Exacerbating the situation is the persistent racial and gender gap separating union leaders and organizers from the workers being organized. It's true that significant progress has recently been made in recruiting more women and people of color as organizers, but given the demographics of current and future union membership, the representation of women and people of color among union organizers, and especially among union leaders, remains woefully low. For more than ten years, the majority of newly organized workers have been women and people of color. But too many unions still see these new members simply as dues payers for the status quo, failing to grasp that they expect a seat at the table and a voice and power in the union.

The labor movement has made important gains in its effort at changing to organize. Unions are running and winning more campaigns, and winning them in larger units. But they still have a long way to go before they are organizing on the massive scale promised by the new leaders of the AFL-CIO six years ago. It won't be easy. Not only do unions face ever more powerful external opposition from employers and government. There are serious internal obstacles as well--but these, at least, are within their control. The challenge is to move beyond a simple tactical effort to increase numbers, and to engage in the self-reflection and organizational change necessary to reverse the larger pattern of decline. Only then will labor be able to build a social movement powerful enough to take on global capital and win.

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