Some Lessons for Labor in Unite’s 100% Campaign

London     The last several years the treat at the end of the trail has been lunch with an old friend and comrade somewhere in London’s Chinatown where we catch up on labor union developments and organizing around the world.  Given developments in the USA where unions are contemplating losses of literally millions of members if the decision of the Supreme Court on agency fees goes backwards, as most widely expect, we mined deeply for good news and were rewarded with some deep veins.

One encouraging development continues to be airport worker organizing both in the US and, importantly since this is a global industry, around the world.  The organizing has significant leverage and vital tactical strength in the impact of potential worker action in forcing the hands of airlines, airport contractors, and their legions of subcontractors.  The recent backtracking by low-cost and fiercely anti-union, Ryanair, is a prime example when pilots upended their schedule.  There’s much work to be done though even there.  Flight attendants working the aisles are paid as little as thirty euros a flight!  That airline and many others are routinely breaking all manner of European Union minimum wage and labor standards requirements, so one of the challenges, just as in North America, will be getting real enforcement of the rules.  Work is being done there that seems promising.  This is an ugly secret of worker exploitation that can’t be sustained by the EU.  Another challenge, perhaps more difficult, is within the house of labor itself where the organizing, and eventual bargaining, means moving more than thirty different unions onto the same page.  The chief negotiator better have a bottle of aspirin ready at his fingertips!

Another bright spot we discussed, that surely has international impact, has been the success of the 100% campaign by the giant UK labor union, Unite, so USA unions take note.  The campaign has focused internally where Unite had collective agreements but didn’t have workplace strength in membership, so they set their organizing department at the task of focusing on internal organizing in order to fix this weakness.  Reportedly they have netted almost 100,000 members thus far, and it is now a badge of honor in the union and a minimum standard objective to achieve 100% membership density or darned close to it in every shop.  That’s wildly important and powerful.

As right to work becomes nationalized in the US for public sector workers, just as it has been in more than half the country for years, perhaps United Kingdom unions can teach US unions something that they have tried to ignore in the challenges faced by their southern locals for decades.  These are good lessons learned from hard work.


Unionbase and the Base for Unions

New Orleans   Union work has its ups and downs every week.

At week’s end I got an excited call from two of our organizers in New Orleans. They had just finished a meeting with nursing home workers in the city after following up on a call. Rather than a visit with one lone soldier, they had met fourteen workers that were redhot. We had been celebrating new contracts in a four of nursing home contracts in Shreveport where base wages would now be over $10, none of these workers were making more than $8 even as certified nursing assistants. This big home had once been owned by a huge national chain, but in one sale and transfer after another had clearly been on a slide on the other side of the moon. The organizers were ecstatic with fingers crossed, since we haven’t had a successful nursing home drive in the city for years.

Organizing is hard work, and even though there seems to be great leadership, enthusiasm, and a look-the-other-way Labor Day weekend with cards moving behind the scene, the odds now are always against success, so our fingers are crossed, and, as always, every optimistically, we read the tides like fisherman hoping against hope that this time they are finally changing and the current we need is finally coming to guide our harvest. It’s always slippery. Even while getting ready to sign the new contracts in Shreveport, we realized that the company had snuck in a couple of words that would take away pro-rata holidays for the few part-timers on the schedule. Also this week, in demanding recognition from a new janitorial company we represent that cleans city-controlled buildings in New Orleans, we have been navigating their delays as they pretended to have fired more new employees that might stall our successorship. In Houston our school workers are on pins and needles about when, and if, the 172 schools underwater will open, but somewhat comforted when the district announced it would pay workers in full while schools were now battened down after Harvey.

Ever vigilant, always optimistic, and often disappointed is the lot of union organizers and too often their members these days. In that spirit I read a piece from Fast Company that was forwarded to me about a young man in DC named Larry Williams who leads a small independent union of workers at the Sierra Club who has been working in his spare time to build some kind of social media site called Unionbase, that would connect union members and in the hype of the magazine perhaps revitalize the labor movement. On the Unionbase website debuting appropriately on Labor Day, the site claims to be home to 30000 local and national unions, but that may be aspirational. Knocking on the door of the same early problem that Facebook, the site requires unions to “register” and before union members can connect to each other, the local union has to verify their membership. On one level that is very smart. Keeps out interlopers and company lawyers and goons, but it also pushes the decision to union leaders who are not necessarily the most tech savvy demographic in the current universe where too many have secretaries still printing out their emails. Furthermore, many cautious and conservative union leaders will see this as a nuisance for them to check and verify, and more importantly a potential risk in having members able to communicate unfiltered and directly with each other rather than through union meetings and sponsored events. Union leadership is based on elections from a political base among workers, not building workers as a political and economic base, and I would bet that very few will quickly embrace Unionbase for that reason alone.

Which is too bad. The work is crushingly hard and almost any experiments this side of crazy are worth a try just on the slim chance that they could be the match that once again lights the prairie fire.