Depressing Reports on the State of Union Organizing

USW campaign to organize at Pitt

New Orleans   Just by the luck of the draw in a 48-hour period I happened to have a chance at some “state of the unions” shoptalk with three former high ranking union officials with deep backgrounds in organizing as well as a younger former organizer whose current work forces him to try to find the pulse of union organizing around the country from the rank-and-file forward. Spoiler alert: it was really depressing, especially in these times that cry for a revival of a workers’ movement demanding change.

Let’s have some good news first.

There’s been progress in organizing adjunct professors, graduate students, and other university employees by several unions. These kinds of workers may not be at the heartbeat of the labor movement in some peoples’ estimation, but more pink and white collar workers in unions is always good news for the future and a hope that more trickles down. The shifting emphasis by unions like the Service Employees towards airport-based workers and subcontractors is achieving some successes, especially along Atlantic Coast cities. A unit here and there of hospital workers breaking through to win elections on the West Coast still holds hope as well. There was some hints that some workers’ centers are migrating from service provision, job training and referral to assisting immigrant workers in organizing unions.

And, now for the rest of the news.

The McDonalds’ initiative and much of the Fight for Fifteen which propelled some cities and states to raise their minimum wages, seems virtually all over but the shouting. The encouraging efforts supported by large unions and federations to develop what I have called “majority union” strategies among Walmart workers nationally and warehouse workers in the Imperial Valley of California have now seen their support wither so substantially, as their sponsors have pulled the plug, that they are trying to subsist at some level almost like advocacy organizations hoping to score foundation and various philanthropic funding.

In fact several conversations veered dangerously into the “grasping for straws” area of how to shore up declining organizing prospects and membership dues support for worker organizing with private monies. A social media action network that seemed to be growing rapidly to support organizing and union work was trying to figure out how to appeal to foundations. Workers’ centers who were debating helping organize unions, shop to shop, were asking for advice in mapping the borderline between their tax exempt, nonprofit status, and the more direct work entailed in actually union organizing, which is not exempt.

Several former officials speculated that membership figures of various unions were being propped up by “creative accounting” of associate members and various affiliations of worker associations in order to maintain the public claims of membership strengths even as actual full-fledged dues payers were dropping precipitously. Such moves might be politically tactical and even defensible in a more expansive view of worker organization, similar to what I have advocated, especially in these trying times, but are certainly not strategic as organizing strategies, and, needless to say, are not sustainable. Meanwhile published reports indicate that a lawyer being vetted for a seat on the National Labor Relations Board is a certified and registered union-buster or “persuader” as they call themselves, currently involved in trying to take away recognition for over 20,000 home health care workers in Minnesota in the ongoing efforts to push back on the area of greatest organizing success for organized labor in the last generation of organizers.

What’s the old saying, “if it weren’t for bad news, there wouldn’t be any news at all?”

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Anti-Union Forces Leaving the Courts and Statehouse to Hit the Doors

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Freedom Foundation Campaign Ad

New Orleans   The assault on unions is getting very personal. The legislative and legal attacks are part of the environment of constant struggle between unions and companies of course. People try to talk about America as a classless society, but when it comes to the labor-management tussle at work and in community, the class struggle is still part of the everyday experience.

Recently this has been politicized more crisply, especially after Citizens’ United and the surge of money into politics, when mega-rich, hyper-conservative gazillionaires realized that unions were one of the few institutions on the other side of the political divide that had the base and motivation to cobble together the dollars to meet them partway. What started with hate then morphed into strategy, and from there the tactical targets were clarified.

The right realized that the deep labor union pockets were still in the public sector since the industrial and private sector membership was falling like a rock towards 5% membership, if not below. If public sector unions and their membership could be eroded, then there was an almost open field for the right. So we’ve had Harris v. Quinn that broke union shop for homecare workers starting in Illinois. We’ve had near misses for union shop for school teachers with Justice Antonio Scalia’s death allowing us to dodge the bullet. And, thanks to the Koch brothers and their allies with ALEC, we’ve seen one statehouse and legislative chamber after another go right with new right-to-work campaigns and successes even in states like Michigan, an evisceration of public employee unions in Wisconsin, withdrawal of recognitions for lower wage workers in homecare in Michigan and Ohio, and more.

Now, they are engaging in hand-to-hand combat with teams of canvassers going door-to-door to attempt to convince union members to drop their membership and leave their unions. The Wall Street Journal reported on this new alarming anti-union tactic. A group called Freedom Foundation has raised a budget of more than $3 million in 2015 to employ hundreds of outreach people to work the list of union members in Oregon and Washington, available through public information, and do home visits with the sole purpose of getting home health and home childcare workers to withdraw from their union, which is the Service Employees International Union in this instance.

Tom McCabe who heads the Freedom Foundation claims that they have “knocked on the doors of about 15,000 home health-care and child-care workers out of about 50,000 overall in Washington state since July 2014.” He also claims he is targeting about 35,000 workers in Oregon. He also claims “the number of unionized child-care workers has fallen by 60% since he started the effort.” If true, they might have done 4000 or so home visits and convinced a couple of thousand workers to drop their membership at a cost of about $1500 per drop. That might make his program too pricey even for the mega-rich. Putting even more cold water on his claims, the head of the union in Washington, David Rolf, was quoted as saying that McCabe, “talks a big game, but they just aren’t having the impact they claim to be having.”

I’m sure Rolf is right, but that doesn’t mean this is any less painful for the union. This is about money. This kind of door-to-door, hand-to-hand combat means that a good part of the money the union might have spent on “offense,” in expanding rights, wages, and benefits for its members or new organizing, is now having to be spent on “defense,” to put organizers and others in the field to offset withdrawals and increase membership percentages. The objective of the conservative forces is to reduce labor’s expenditures on politics, and a field program like this has to be met in full and in force, allowing conservatives to win at either heads or tails if they reduce the level of contributions unions can make to advance their members’ interests.

The article in the Journal was obviously sales-and-promotion for McCabe and his so-called Freedom Foundation. He says he wants to take this door-to-door attack to California, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. We better hope he doesn’t succeed, but in the meantime, his advertisement, needs to also be our call to action.

Freedom Foundation Door Knockers

Freedom Foundation Door Knockers

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