Sustaining Majority Unions

P1010005 (2) Philadelphia It was a lot of fun to be the guest speaker at the annual Labor Lawyers reception to support Philadelphia Jobs with Justice.  It was a good, there were people, old friends and comrades came out of nowhere, and once we got to the problems of “majority unionism” as discussed in Citizen Wealth, and the questions were excellent and interesting.

I was not surprised because part of the reason I had agreed to support the great work in Philly lay at the footsteps of a good example of the potential of majority unionism.  For several years JwJ here under its director Fabricio Rodriguez had been involved in the long, arduous process of supporting the building of an organization among the 175 security workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  After several years the organization had navigated the obstacles for security workers in organizing and recently had transitioned to an independent union, filed, and won a representation election handily, and not surprisingly having already proven the organization at the workplace long ago.  Now, they challenges of bargaining away, but that’s another story.

Majority unionism is what I have called the process of changing the labor organizing paradigm to allow workers first (not employers!) decide they want an organization, build strength through direct membership and direct action, and using that power along with community and political leverage to win recognition and advances regardless of any other obstacles in law or habit.  This kind of strategy led to the huge success in our generation among informal workers (home health and home day care) which have added more than a half-million members in the last 30 years to the ranks of organized labor.  This is also the heart of the successful pilot we led in Florida several years ago to prove that Wal-Mart workers could be organized a different way.

The hard question asked by several of the union lawyers and reps in the room, was how do you make the organization sustainable over the time frame necessary to win?  This question was particularly important because the examples from home health care and Wal-Mart were based on more modest dues levels (in some cases only $10/month) than what many of them were accustomed to seeing in existing unions.  Certainly this had also been our challenge as well, and led to our independent union becoming part of the SEIU, and kept us from continuing the Wal-Mart Workers Association as an independent entity.

The answer I was too well mannered to give was that this question lies at the heart of the dilemma between being a union movement and an institutional structure.  The efforts among farmworkers, home care workers, and others – including what we are doing with ragpickers and cartoneros now – are rooted in deep political, individual, and organizational commitments over long time frames of sacrifice and struggle until victory is achieved.  These are projects that don’t fit the normal box of excellent wages and benefits for union organizers, but will be driven by rare organizing zealots willing to pay the price for years in the conviction and passion that success will justify the climb long into the future.  There’s a crazy, courageous history to this, but my friends were right:  it’s not a model.

But it is a way to shift the paradigm and turn the tide, especially if we can convince unions and others to help balance the books while the work is done until what I, perhaps crazily, believe will be the inevitable victory.  The workers want organizations.  They want power on the job.  Eventually, we are going to have to pay the dues, and give them what they demand, even if it is harder than we like and different than what we know.

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