By Harry Kelber | January 22, 2007
Fifth in a series of six articles
Were not going to make much headway in organizing the hundreds of thousands of workers employed by strongly anti-union corporations if we stick to the traditional ways of trying to recruit them. We’ve got to start thinking "outside the box" and adopting new approaches that will make unions a visible force in communities where workers live and earn their livelihood.
Here is one idea: Why not create a chain of "Union Recruiting Centers" in storefronts in 100 major cities, each store to be directed by a well-established Central Labor Council and subsidized by local unions in the area. The U.S. military has used recruiting centers successfully for years. So could we.
Each store could have window displays and colorful signs to attract the attention of passersby. It could be equipped with books, pamphlets, newspapers, documents, posters and paraphernalia, highlighting the benefits that organized labor has brought the American people. The store could be staffed by knowledgeable volunteers, working in shifts, who could answer questions about unions from curious visitors. It could also sell union-made products,
The store could sponsor lectures of interest to community residents. It could hold an "open house" night once a month, when it could feature a pro-union movie or some entertaining event or popular speaker. The aim would be to establish the store as a recognized and respected part of the community, where workers can find a congenial environment.
Volunteer Speakers Can Build Community Support
Just about every fair-sized local union has a few members who are both articulate and knowledgeable about the labor movement’s history and current activities. They should be welcomed into a "Speakers Bureau" to be coordinated by the local central labor council. With some special training by a professional speech instructor, they should be available for a variety of speaking assignments. They should be ready to debate anti-union pundits at talk shows and press conferences, especially when economic and political issues are being discussed. (Unions could insist they be heard, even if it means to picket the TV or radio outlets to get their agreement,)
During organizing campaigns, speakers could challenge employers to debate whether workers need unions to represent them. They could offer to explain unionism to interested community organizations. They could be effective at union rallies. They could offer convincing refutations to the outright lies and half-truths that unorganized workers hear on radio and television.
A brigade of volunteer speakers, functioning in central labor councils around the country, would be a marvelous support-group for unions involved in multi-plant organizing campaigns, Since we’re not getting that kind of assistance from the current leadership of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, why don’t the CLCs go ahead with the Speakers Bureau idea?
How to Combat the Firing of Pro-Union Workers
We must let the nation’s employers know that we will not tolerate their practice of firing pro-union workers, and that we will use every means at our disposal to win their reinstatement. When firings do occur, the union’s organizing campaign must be transformed into a broad, community-wide civil rights struggle.
The unfair and illegal firing of the workers must become a cause célèbre for the organizing campaign. Stories about each discharged worker should be featured in press releases, radio spots and news articles, with leaflets widely distributed to community residents. The union can set up an informational picketline in front of the employer’s business and ask members of other unions to join the demonstration. It can urge influential citizens to meet with the employer to discuss the reinstatement of the discharged workers.
The union can also apply the militant tactics that were so successful in the civil rights movement of the 1960s: marches, sit-ins, boycotts and other forms of protest. Pressure should be put on local politicians to use their influence to restore the jobs of victimized workers. The employer’s suppliers and customers should be contacted with a plea for their support.
Every battle over reinstatement comes down to a test of strength between the union and the employer, the outcome of which will be closely watched by the employees and the community. .If the union fails to win reinstatement, a cloud of fear will remain in the workplace, and the union will have great difficulty in conducting a successful campaign.
But if the union can compel the employer to rehire those individuals, it will remove a huge obstacle to organizing‹namely, fear of the employer. How much easier it will be to get employees to sign authorization cards and win union recognition!
Our national labor leaders have been meeting and talking with each other for years, not only at conventions but also at private gatherings, both business and social. They thought that they were smart and experienced enough to come up with a plan to rebuild the labor movement without involving masses of union members. Predictably, they have failed, because participation by the rank-and-file is an essential precondition for success in large-scale organizing campaigns.
Our national leaders are also facing a personal crisis. Many feel helpless as they see their unions becoming smaller and weaker, so they plan to ride out the storm until they can retire with a well-padded pension. Others would like to change course, but realize they have neither the talent nor the personality to inspire our members. Still others fear that any deep involvement of members in organizing would open the door to radical reformers, who could create chaos within the labor movement. That’s why they are united in maintaining the status quo.
Are there any "generals" who are both capable and willing to lead an army of volunteer organizers? None on the horizon. But strange things have happened before.
Article 6: (Final Article): "An Army of Volunteer Organizers" will be posted here on Friday, January 26, 2007