Can’t Lose Campaigns

NLRB Unions

           Chicago           At the Labor Notes conference, I was drawn to another panel on non-NLRB organizing, largely in the South where most of the rules detail what you can’t do, including engage in public employee elections or collective bargaining.  This session was a meticulously prepared and presented showcase for the Campus Workers Union, an affiliate of the Communication Workers of America, and their work largely in Tennessee, that has also spread to Georgia, Arizona, and other states.  This is an area where our union has done a lot of work for decades, and something I have thought a lot about and promoted relentlessly with mixed success in the house of labor, so it was a must see for me.

CWA has been a longtime pioneer and practitioner of this organizing methodology.  Their work in building the Texas State Employees Union from its beginnings under Eliseo Medina to Danny Fontante, Judy Graves, and a ton of other organizers proves that persistence and clarity of vision works.  It is also a credit to CWA’s Larry Cohen and Chris Shelton and their administrations because they have continued to be committed to these projects, nurtured them, and subsidized many of them in the long march towards sustainability.

The Campus Workers’ representatives said that over the last twenty years they had worked their way up to 2000 members in Tennessee, growing by 1000 over the last 10 years.  They attributed their success to a number of things, but discipline and persistence deserve huge credit as well.  Being willing and able to stay the course and maintain the support of their national union growing at a pace that averages only 100 members per year is a lesson in patient organizing that would be well learned by many unions in many organizing campaigns.

It’s a bit of what we’re seeing in the VW victory and the UAW’s persistence over 10 years organizing in that plant.  It’s a lot of two and three decades worth of stories of what has added hundreds of thousands of home care workers and home day care workers into SEIU, AFSCME, and even the CWA in New Jersey.  These organizing models are not unique, even if they are different to some degree from workplace and geography.  They work, and they are worth it, but it takes a long-term vision and commitment that is often difficult for union leaders to sustain when they have to show big results and big gains every election cycle.

The CWU team in their panel discussed various tweaks and twists to their view of what brought them to where they are today.  Among other things, they emphasized framing issues into something they called “can’t lose” campaigns to escape the polarity of win-or-lose efforts.  I get it, but their work, and that of many others, is that the real “can’t lose” lesson for organizing campaigns is that we only lose when we quit organizing and stop fighting forward.  Props all around for staying the course until workers finally have the organizations they need and can sustain into the future against all odds.