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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