By Harry Kelber | January 11, 2007
Second in a series of six articles
In past years, millions of union members stood on the sidelines, expecting their officers to deliver a contract with a sizeable package of wage increases and benefits in compensation for their dues payments. That scenario has all but disappeared. Many unions are being compelled to make substantial concessions to get any kind of a contract.
Our basic problem can be stated simply: unions have suffered tremendous losses in members and economic power, and employers are taking full advantage of our weakened condition. Today, unions represent barely 12 percent of the nation’s work force, compared with about 33 percent in the 1950s. Working families were doing a lot better when one out of every three workers was a union member, than at present, when only one of eight workers belongs to a union.
The answer to our problem is to organize the vast multitude of unorganized workers, who should be our allies, not our competitors. Polls show that as many as 57 million workers say they would like to join a union. This opens up a great opportunity we should take advantage of. But our national labor leaders have no plans to reach out to these workers in massive organizing campaigns. So, unless countless thousands of members volunteer their skills and experience as organizers, we can expect the labor movement to continue its decline, with disastrous consequences for working families.
Union members have a strong self-interest in wanting to help their unions become bigger and stronger. We know that unless we raise the wages and benefits of unorganized workers, the reverse will eventually take place: they’ll drag us down to their level, and we’ll be competing with them in "a race to the bottom."
The best option — and probably the only remaining one — for rebuilding union strength is through the involvement of millions of union members in current and future economic and political struggles. An army of volunteer organizers would give unions an enormous increase in staffing and resources, so they would be able to multiply the number of their organizing campaigns and, for the first time, tackle corporate giants, who until now have been untouchable.
Union volunteers are best qualified to get the attention of unorganized workers, since they themselves were once non-union. In one-to-one conversations with workers in the same industry, they could answer specific questions about workplace problems, citing their own experiences, as well as producing copies of the union constitution, contracts, payroll slips and other data to support their comments.
These volunteers would be more effective than the bright college youth that many unions hire, who have never worked in the industry they have been assigned to organize. And volunteers are considerably less costly than the "outsiders," who are added to the union payroll. It is also a fact that unorganized workers will be more outgoing and show more trust to volunteers than to the professional staff.
There are roughly between 13 million and 15 million union members, working and living in major cities and towns throughout the United States. They represent, potentially, a very powerful economic and political force. It would take considerably less than one percent to create an army of 100,000 volunteer organizers. Could it be done? What would be required?
The first step would be to call on the nation’s influential labor activists to join a Provisional Committee of 100 that would lay the basis for the proposed democratic army of volunteer organizers.
As a top priority, the committee would use all available means, especially the Internet, to reach out to union members in workplaces and local labor organizations throughout the country with a convincing message of why it is imperative that they become active in rebuilding the labor movement. Union members have to realize that their jobs are in jeopardy, and they can no longer leave it to their officers to fight the aggressively anti-union corporations.
(To become a member of the Committee of 100, send an e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org, giving your name, address, phone number; international and local union and what union position you hold.)
Local unions in both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win will be urged to publicize the campaign for 100,000 volunteer organizers in their workplaces, at union meetings and in their publications. Many members will feel flattered to be asked to help the union — probably for the first time — and if the invitation is properly presented, quite a few can be expected to respond favorably.
The Committee of 100 should take whatever steps are necessary to achieve its goal: an army of 100,000 trained volunteer organizers. It will elect a pro-tempore group to function in between meetings of the committee.
When the army of volunteers is fully activated, it will be able to provide experienced staffing and additional resources to unions that are planning to undertake major organizing campaigns.
We welcome your comments and suggestions.
Article 3: "Building a Democratic Army of Volunteer Organizers" will be posted here on Monday, January 15.