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Labor's New Push | The Nation

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Labor's New Push

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After working thirty-two years as a security officer, Roger Lasch was angry when Target "downsized" him two years ago, just months before he could collect his full retirement package. "There were still executives getting bonuses while I was losing my job," he says. "I found that insulting." So when some young people from a group promising to fight for good jobs knocked on his door, he signed up. A political independent from suburban Pittsburgh, Lasch soon became active in the group, publicly speaking out against corporate abuse of workers and making phone calls to other members.

About the Author

David Moberg
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, writes frequently for The Nation on labor issues.

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Lasch got involved because of "the desire inside myself to initiate some action to show that a few people can make a difference if you speak up, and some other people have the same feeling, and they get involved, and that starts the ball rolling."

The group he joined was Working America, and its ball is rolling. With 2.5 million members, it's the second-largest labor organization in the country (after the 3.2 million-member National Education Association). But it's not a union with members and contracts at their workplaces. The AFL-CIO calls Working America its "community affiliate."

Working America is one of the brightest new developments for a beleaguered labor movement--giving a boost to political work this fall at a time when traditional union membership has been declining in the long run (despite an uptick last year). After Labor Day, canvassers for the group will try to contact every Working America member at the door with a field-tested, two-pronged message on behalf of Barack Obama. They'll contrast the positions of Obama and John McCain on critical issues, especially healthcare, but they'll also talk personally about why they're working on behalf of Obama. "We will give people information they're not getting," says Karen Nussbaum, the group's executive director,"but we also will communicate the way people personally make their decisions."

The AFL-CIO launched Working America in 2003 as a pilot project in four states--Ohio, Missouri, Florida and Washington. (This year it will put over 450 organizers to work in eighteen states and contact active members in four more.) "There were changes in public consciousness, technological changes, and a readiness of the labor movement to do things in a big way," says Nussbaum. "That was combined with a very important election coming up in 2004."

After right-wing political dominance for decades, polls indicated American workers were increasingly sympathetic to unions, but corporate hostility and weak legal protections made organizing traditional unions in the workplace difficult. At the same time, the Internet made it easier and cheaper for an organization to communicate with supporters.

Individual unions and even the AFL-CIO had previously experimented with associate members, and independent organizers had formed institutions such as worker centers or 9 to 5, Nussbaum's earlier working women's group. The results from these experiments outside typical union bounds were mixed and modest but intriguing.

Although Working America extensively uses the Internet (as well as telephone, direct mail, and personal contact), it recruits most members through door-to-door canvassing, like many community organizations. This effective recruitment tactic also permits Working America to target membership geographically for political leverage, unlike purely Internet groups.

Initially Working America recruited mainly non-union households in suburban, predominately white and working-class neighborhoods that were politically independent--places where labor's message could resonate but was missing. But increasingly they recruit as well in central city or suburban neighborhoods of African-Americans and Latinos, using bilingual canvassers or, as in Detroit and Toledo, reaching recruits through networks of churches.

So its members differ from those of many progressive groups: 63 percent have not graduated from college; 41 percent go to church weekly (one-third are "born again"); one-third support the National Rifle Association; half are not strong supporters of either party. Working America, as Nussbaum likes to say, is a mass organization with a working-class base and a strategy to build power to win.

The group trains and continually briefs canvassers about both political issues and canvassing techniques (such as maintaining eye contact, keeping it short and simple, and using emotionally strong but friendly and optimistic language). At the door they quickly talk to people about a broadly defined issue. Now it's primarily affordable healthcare, but it can be good jobs, retirement security, overtime pay or local issues. Then canvassers ask potential recruits to take action, such as sending a letter supporting expanded funding of children's health insurance or signing a petition in favor of the Employee Free Choice Act to ease union organizing. And, of course, joining Working America.

"We had no idea if it would work when we started, whether the AFL-CIO association would be a problem," says Nussbaum. "We found it was a door opener, not a closer." Some prospects are anti-union or politically hostile, and others just aren't joiners, but the pitch works surprisingly well in all parts of the country.

According to Working America, two-thirds of people it contacts join, an average of about twenty-eight per canvasser each evening, and 89 percent give their home phone number. One-third give an e-mail address, 20 percent pledge at the door to take some action--writing a letter or making a phone call--and 95 percent share information on their occupation.

Most of the time canvassers do not ask for the $5 voluntary dues (although over 15 percent typically do contribute when asked, especially as Working America tries to renew memberships every year). Half of Working America's $32 million budget for the two-year election cycle comes from the AFL-CIO and Working America's own members, and the balance from other donors and reimbursements from sources such as ballot initiative advocates.

Working America faced skepticism initially from some unions, who did not want it to compete with their workplace organizing. But election results proved an eye-opener. Hart Research polling in 2004 showed Working America members voted 69 to 30 percent for John Kerry over George Bush, roughly the same margin as among union members (and voted far more strongly for Kerry than the general public, including 44 percent higher for white men).

Polling after the 2006 Congressional balloting and in gubernatorial races in states like Kentucky and Virginia showed similar results. And tracking polls showed a shift towards the labor-endorsed candidates in the months before the election when Working America shifts from recruitment to voter education.

Oregon state AFL-CIO president Tom Chamberlain credits Working America's canvassing in 2006 with Democrats winning a tough gubernatorial race, control of the Oregon House of Representatives, and campaigns against several right-wing ballot measures, as well as critical legislative and budget victories last year. Now aiming to expand Working America four-fold from 2006, Chamberlain wants to integrate Working America with the state federation and expand its role in local politics.

Working America's initial contact with most members may be fleeting and shallow, but it follows up with both telephone and Internet questions about members' priorities as well as an economic populist message that many members rarely encounter elsewhere. Through its website, it sponsors a contest about who has the worst boss (this year's winner was a particularly abusive operator of a fleet of defective private ambulances), collects healthcare horror stories and provides a "job tracker" to identify companies that close work sites and relocate. It offers an "ask a lawyer" service about workplace rights as well as a package of credit card, health and legal service discounts. The website provides new avenues for involvement but also focuses attention on who's causing workers' problems, such as the fleeing company or bad boss.

"Our contribution is scale, especially among people who have been left out of the progressive movement," Nussbaum says. "As we mature, we pay more attention to depth." Increasingly canvassers identify "hot contacts" who may be willing to tell their stories or go to a meeting, film showing, or rally. In some areas, Working America members join canvasses and phone banks to reach fellow members or, as a group of women did in Kentucky, gather to write personal letters encouraging Working America women to vote. Working America members also sign petitions or letters supporting unions (such as nurses organizing in St. Paul, Minnesota) or join labor rallies (such as backing Pittsburgh hotel workers in a contract dispute or Ohio union members advocating labor law reform).

In a few instances, unions have used the Working America membership lists to strengthen organizing drives. In Jackson, Mississippi, fifteen Working America members became the core of a successful Communications Workers campaign to organize county employees, and both the Teachers and Auto Workers unions found crucial organizing contacts from Working America.

Inspired by his work with unions in eastern Europe, Central Labor Council President Tom Lewandowski started Working America in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with financial support from local unions and union volunteers rather than hired canvassers. Lewandowski reports great success, even recruiting lower-level managers and Wal-Mart workers, but the volunteer effort has also re-energized the local labor movement.

"The unanticipated outcome that's gotten us so excited is not the people we sign up but the people who sign them up, what it does to them," he says. "The people in our labor movement get so juiced up. It gives us legitimate hope that more people out there are like us, and the potential of solidarity is greater than we thought."

Working America is no substitute for workplace organizing. But the labor movement has long relied on community support and been organized in ways that extend beyond the workplace, from the Knights of Labor--who organized district assemblies of varied workers--to the community mobilization that spread organizing in the 1930s.

"We shouldn't believe that the only way unions can organize is to protect workers through the collective bargaining contract," argues Harvard professor Richard Freeman, who thinks that Working America could have the political clout comparable to AARP, especially if it can find ways to wield influence on workplace issues.

Working America faces many challenges. Beyond continuing its rapid growth, it needs to push its nascent efforts to engage members more deeply (and give them even more of a role in guiding the organization) and to become more financially self-sufficient. It needs to find more ways to support workplace organizing--especially if Congress reforms labor laws to ease organizing--and to wield its influence in the workplace and against anti-union employers.

But it has already demonstrated its value to people like Roger Lasch. "It just made me feel better knowing I could say something and be heard and not be just a voice in the wind," he says. "It's a wonderful feeling having an organization behind you making you feel you accomplished something. There's big strength in numbers. When you join an organization like Working America, I think you build a better future for America and your family."

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