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.
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.