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.

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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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