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Organize From Below!

A Message to Young People Who Are Considering Taking a Job as a Union Staffer - by Richard Mellor and John Reimann - Thursday, April 11, 2004

Richard Mellor is a member of AFSCME Local 444 in Oakland CA; John Reimann is a carpenter expelled from the Union for leading a wildcat strike.

Each time I receive a call from one of the local unions in my area that are having a rally or informational picket these days, the caller is invariably a young high school or college graduate. I was on an HERE picket line some time ago, where we were picketing a brick wall so as not to block the entrance to the business therefore impeding the customers. I approached one of the organizers, a young woman in her late teens or early twenties, to ask why we were picketing the wall. She couldn't really answer that so she approached the older, more seasoned staffer who informed her that it would be against the law to impede the customers' right of way; she then passed this valuable information on to me, the uninformed union-member.

If my memory serves me correctly I think this young person had come through the Union Summer training program. I think she said she was from the Third World Institute, an NGO funded among others by the Ford Foundation.

Having been to thousands of ineffectual picket lines over the years I knew what the answer would be, but part of my motivation was to see what this young person would say. It irked me that many of the organizers and picket captains or monitors at these events were young students. Where were the rank and file members? Where were the young shop stewards?

Many of these young people enter the Union movement through the AFL-CIO's Union Summer program that was launched in 1996 after the election of John Sweeney as President. The Sweeney slate, that included Richard Trumka of the UMWA and Linda Chavez-Thompson of AFSCME, made many promises, most since broken, but there has been an increase in organizing drives among some Unions.

There is no doubt that many young people who are drawn to the AFL-CIO's organizing programs or who want to work for Unions as organizers, enter this field for the right reasons. Union members should welcome young people from the high schools and universities to the movement. Young people invigorate any movement. They bring audacity, courage and boldness. And we should remember that historically, young people have played the leading roles in labor's struggle against capital.

But for what purposes are these young people being drawn in to the Labor Movement? A young organizer for SEIU describes his experiences:

"The Union I work for has many locals, but the number is shrinking as a result of the international's policy of pushing locals to consolidate their memberships along industrial lines. They want to have big locals that represent single industries in entire regions and so that they can concentrate their resources on increasing "market share."


It would be great to see a broad opposition develop within this union -- while I have learned a good deal about the nuts and bolts of organizing in a working class context, I also have learned the ways in which the union's organizing policy can really miseducate workers. I'm on a team of 4 organizers organizing a large employer. My Union, as you may know, has a neutrality agreement with this employer. All the flyers and leaflets we put out have to be run by a censor of the employer. Right now I am collecting quotes and pictures from workers in the departments I'm responsible for to be put on a "Vote Yes!" flyer that will be mailed out. Naturally some workers want to put things like "This company just cares about the bottom line, while we care about a good work environment and caring for patients. A union will help us take back some power from management." I have to tell these workers, who I've won the partial confidence of and have been working with for more than a month now, that they can't write that because it violates the Agreement between the union and management!

The "Agreement" (it's always spelled in caps) also takes away the workers' right to strike, picket, sick out, or in general mobilize, for years. The current contract negotiations, which will occur between tens of thousands of workers and management, are blanketed by a no-strike agreement and will leave the workers' fate up to the hands of an arbitrator. The company violates the Agreement all the time -- sometimes even firing workers trying to organize, sponsoring vote-no committees, etc, but we can't violate the agreement, ever, at the orders of the organizing directors. These are all reasons that I've decided to leave, I feel dishonest organizing people under this wretched agreement... I'm glad that the Union is expanding -- organizing is definitely the orientation of the organization -- but the organizing occurs in a very bureaucratic way which often utilizes the workers more as extras than as the central actors of the process. I'm glad that workers are getting a union, but I don't want to be complicit in selling them out or misleading them."

The policy that this organizer is describing is the following:

  • Seek to put pressure on the employer to grant union recognition (more dues) while at the same time offering him the carrot of not really organizing the workers to fight in their own interests.
  • Make sure that nothing is done to help workers see the inherent enormous power they have when organized and fighting on their own behalf as an independent force in society.
  • By no means pose demands that will inspire workers, demands that if won would transform workers lives, but would also be too costly to the employer.

This policy, imposed from above, has been a disastrous failure for workers as proven by any objective measure.

This approach has been totally unable to help workers maintain their standard of living. Corporate profits, which come out of workers' pockets, are surging. In fact, the share of national income that is composed of corporate profits is at its highest level since 1977, while the share that goes to wages is at its lowest level in 37 years (Business Week, 4/12/04).

At the same time, this approach has meant a decisive decline in union membership. In 2003 only 12.9% of wage and salary workers were union members compared to 20.1% in 1983. Only 15.8 million workers belonged to Unions in 2003. In the public sector 37.2% of workers were in Unions compared to 8.2% of workers in the private sector, a decline of almost 50% over the last 20 years.

This approach has meant a worse life and lower morale and confidence for millions of workers. A grocery clerk told a customer she knows, "I hate my life." Shocked, the customer asked her why. The clerk described how management jerks her around. When asked what the union is doing about this, the clerk frowned and said, "the union ain't worth a dime." A young carpenter apprentice told an older journeyman that he is living in the past because he (the older carpenter) opposes giving up wages and conditions every contract; he wants to see carpenters move ahead, not backward. A city worker says of his union leaders, "they're sleeping with the enemy." A teamster, on taking an anti-war leaflet, after agreeing with the leaflet and getting into a discussion about the unions says, "The unions are all corrupt." (He meant the leadership.) They're all corrupt and don't you tell me they're not, because if you say they're not I'll take this leaflet of yours and throw it in the garbage."

Tens of millions of workers have vastly increased stress in their lives, have much worse working conditions, a lower standard of living, lower hopes for their children -- and have a feeling that they are powerless to do anything about it. This is the result of these disastrous policies of the union hierarchy - the policies that the young staff organizers are hired to carry out.

Let's face it. If the heads of the AFL-CIO were CEO's of a major corporation they would have been fired for not producing returns. Workers built unions to improve our material well-being and to protect us from the employers' attacks. The AFL-CIO leadership has failed on all fronts. Strike after strike has been defeated despite tremendous heroism and sacrifice on the part of the rank and file union member. The recent grocery strike in southern California was the most recent in a long line of defeats for Organized Labor. Wages and benefits are being eroded as well as workers' rights on the job. In most cases, the Union has no workplace presence except when the issue of elections or the collection of dues arises.

There are some differences and divisions within the union hierarchy. Some feel the pressure of the members more than others. Some of them, and some of the unions they control, come from different traditions than others. There are also the personal and political rivalries. However, on this general policy of granting concessions to the employers, of opposing any mass, open mobilization of the members to fight the bosses - on this they are all absolutely committed.

One thing must be said of this leadership: They did not get to where they are by being stupid. They will not hire and continue to employ a staffer who is seriously trying to change these policies - changes that can only be brought about by a movement from below.

We urge young activists to get involved in the unions - but with a "rank and file" perspective. Get a union job and fight to make your union what it should and can be. Or get a non-union job and start to organize among your co-workers, help to build the union on the ground floor, become rooted in the rank and file as any serious struggle against the employers will inevitably bring you in to conflict with the Union leadership whose policies demand cooperation. It is only the power of an organized membership that can challenge the failed policies of the Union leadership.

For anyone who is still at school but wants to help strengthen the union movement, there are numerous groups who have members in Unions or who are helping rank and file movements to develop. You can help build a union at your school. Remember, workers need young people and want you in the Labor Movement but not brought in from above attached to these failed policies.

This article and its contents are the product of the publisher, and their opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the IWW. It's included here for information purposes only.