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.”
The AFL-CIO’s investment in Working America is born out of a crisis for organized labor. Union leaders and supporters argue that the limits of labor law, the rise of union-busting and the prevalence of retaliation have made it a near-impossible task for many private sector workers to win collective bargaining rights and a union contract. Given the ongoing decline in US unionization, and the repeated failure of union-backed labor law reform efforts, the AFL-CIO and major US unions have increasingly been studying, supporting and partnering with non-union labor groups, whose numbers have exploded over the past two decades—from handfuls to hundreds, according to a tally by Rutgers labor expert Janice Fine.
“We want to figure out a way to make membership more open, to make membership in a union not depend on workers being willing to endure trial by fire in an election or extended pitched battle with the employer for voluntary recognition,” AFL-CIO General Counsel Craig Becker told The Nation earlier this month. “Now that might not immediately lead to collective bargaining, but in some broader sense it should.” Becker, who served as a member of the National Labor Relations Board during President Obama’s first term, has been tasked by Trumka with overseeing a comprehensive overview of labor’s current predicament in the run-up to the AFL-CIO’s September convention.
While expanding to new states, Working America plans to enter the workplace. Following a series of local pilot programs and a membership survey, early next month the group will launch a new website, “Fix My Job,” where workers can share complaints about their workplaces and get ideas for collective action. “We’re building the capacity to give workers the tools they need to just get in motion,” said Nussbaum, “whether it’s five people who want Twizzlers in the candy machine, [or] people who want higher pay.” Nussbaum declined to specify what forms of workplace activism the site will support.
Trumka expressed hope that the political activism and sense of community shared by Working America members would prepare them to take up action where they work, which in turn would lay the groundwork for ongoing organizing—including unionization efforts. The AFL-CIO president predicted that non-union workers’ efforts would secure improvements in areas like workplace safety, and that “in some cases it won’t get completely done, and they’ll reach out for different forms of organization that they think can help them.” “We hope,” he added, “that we will have the seed planted for people to understand the importance of collective action.”
“I believe that it’s the experience of winning that helps workers conceive of having a permanent relationship that equalizes power with the boss,” said Nussbaum. “And it’s the leadership skills that people gain in the doing that make them the kind of capable leaders that can organize to be represented and win contracts.”
And what if companies respond to Working America activism by illegally punishing the workers involved? “If that happens,” said Trumka, “I think workers, if they stick together, they’ll be able to defeat that.” He added that Working America offices would stand ready, with support from AFL-CIO affiliates and allies, to “bring down justice” if companies cracked down on activists. “In some cases,” Trumka told The Nation, “who knows, there could be consumer boycotts organized.” He added that any retaliation would offer “another reason” for workers “to come together even more.”
Working America’s expansion will be funded in part through a new Tenth Anniversary Fund, to which the AFL-CIO and major unions have pledged donations; Trumka said the AFL-CIO is “substantially” supporting the organization. But Nussbaum told The Nation that Working America is also grappling with how to eventually achieve an elusive goal for alt-labor groups: financial self-sufficiency. Lacking union contracts with automatic dues payments from members, such groups generally draw the majority of their funding from donations from unions or non-profits. “In the long run, that’s the litmus test,” said Nussbaum, “because worker organizations that aren’t self-sustaining can’t be democratic.” Groups that are “dependent on outside funding,” she added, can “meet objectives, but they don’t sustain and build the labor movement in the long run. And I think that’s the challenge for us at this point.”
Ai-jen Poo, who sits on Working America’s board and directs the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told The Nation last month that, as additional revenue sources, NDWA is exploring offering citizenship services to workers or matching employers with employees. Nussbaum said that deepening members’ relationship with Working America could put the group “on the path to self-sufficiency,” potentially through more consistent dues from members or fees for providing them with services.
Organizers said last year that 15 percent of Working America’s members pay dues (suggested payment: $5 per year); they acknowledged that its membership ranks include people who no longer remember signing up in the first place. At the other end of the spectrum are the “community action teams”: members who meet weekly with organizers to make plans to pressure politicians and involve new members. Nussbaum said that Working America currently has such teams in “a few dozen” places, “and we’re going to be expanding those all around the country.” Overall, said Nussbaum, “when you operate at the scale that we do, when a majority of our members identify with us to one extent or another, that’s a lot of people.”
University of Texas Law Professor Julius Getman called news of Working America’s expansion “a sign of new life” at the AFL-CIO. “Because they’re in trouble, and because of some shifts in personnel, I think they’re more open to new things,” said Getman, the author of Restoring the Power of Unions: It Takes a Movement. He suggested that Working America could be valuable in part because “it puts the AFL-CIO in direct contact with workers, which is something that doesn’t always happen”; given the AFL-CIO’s structure as a federation composed of affiliated unions, he said, “there are lots of layers of bureaucracy and authority between the AFL-CIO and workers on lots occasions.” Getman said Working America could “develop a greater sense of working class solidarity” among non-union workers, and offer “a sense of being important, and being involved in something worthwhile.”
“I think collective bargaining is one of the tools necessary—to actually bring down inequality, that’s one of the best ways to do it,” said Trumka. “But there are other tools that we will experiment with.” Trumka noted that Working America, which faced “significant opposition” among union leaders when Nussbaum first proposed it a decade ago, is now one of an array of alternative groups the federation supports. “I think we’re going to have a whole bunch of different models,” said Trumka. “And some of them will work.”
Across the country, students are wrangling with their universities to cut ties with Adidas over its labor practices. For more, read this week’s Dispatches from the US Student Movement.