A Top-ish Down Twist on a Bottom-up Campaign

New Orleans       At the Year End – Year Begin meeting of our principal North American organizers with ACORN and Local 100 United Labor Unions at NO-MAC at the Rathke Residence in New Orleans, we continued to push out the discussion on ways to expand our mass-based organizing past the inevitable ceilings of staff-size.  There were many interesting suggestions and evaluations of our work against this increasingly important measure.

Orell Fitzsimmons, Local 100’s Texas state director and longtime field director, was paired with Toney Orr, Arkansas state director and newly appointed field director, to lead a workshop on “How We Can Spur More Organizing without Organizers” in a swansong performance as the clock winds down on his last days as a regular staff member before his retirement after more than thirty-years.   Orell once again discussed the successful campaign the union had conducted over several years in the Houston Independent School District (HISD) to move the wages up for custodial and food service staff. We’ve been able to go from $8 per hour to $10 per hour to $12 and now near $14 per hour.  Workers and our members who have led the campaign are obviously ecstatic.  In this workshop, Orell took the discussion in a surprising, but logical, direction once he laid it out.

Wage compression is a key concept in understanding wage policy for union organizers and negotiators, and really for anyone who works or manages workers.  The best way to understand it is to recognize the obvious that when senior workers see junior workers right on their tail in terms of wages, the there’s a wage compression problem.  There’s no space in terms of wage differential that explains why one worker is rank-and-file and another is supposedly a supervisor or mini-management.  As the Houston Local 100 organizers visited the almost 300 schools in HISD and talked to workers in the cafeterias, they also talked to plant operators and cafeteria managers who on the chain of command are somewhere between lead-workers and full-bore managers.  They don’t have the ability to hire and fire, but they do supervise work and write people up.  At the same time, they are still “on the tools” and do the work.  The problem at HISD is that even as we won the raises for the workers, the plant operators and food service managers were stuck at roughly $14 per hour as well creating a huge wage compression opportunity for the union.

Fitzsimmons argued in this workshop that having the union campaign for these lead workers and mini-management to get a raise now as well would not only benefit them and provide the union with hundreds of new members, but provide other benefits.  On one level creating more wage differential for those workers would help our current membership push for a higher level as well.  On the critical level of building the organization, running a campaign and delivering for these sometimes-supervisors would also allow us to push them to organize and enroll their workers.  As workplace leaders they would be excellent at signing up members, and on this workshop, that was the point.  The union could expand its membership past its organizers using the campaign and mobilizing these supervisors, who we normal eschew.

It might be a semi-top approach that is not common for the union, but working through a bottom-up campaign, would benefit all the workers and teach us more lessons about how to get the most out of our members, regardless of the size of our staff.

We’re going to miss Orell Fitzsimmons on our team.

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