Category Archives: Organizer Training

Legislating Labor Settlements

Vancouver: In the first morning of the training for the first cycle of organizers in our new Community Leadership Centre, we got lucky – at least if you can call it that.

On the front page of the Vancouver Sun there was a huge headline and giant pictures heralding a late night settlement the night before of a public hospital workers strike which had become a call for a general strike.  One paper’s headline said only:  WHEW!  Our brand new organizers on their first day had the opportunity to talk to Tom Dufresne, President of the Vancouver ILWU and a member of the executive of the BC Federation of Labor, which had brokered the last minute deal with the conservative government, and to John Shields, who had run a large public employees union and in his time also been on the executive of the federation. 

A general strike in the lexicon of labor is as close to an atomic bomb as unions ever have.  Like an atomic bomb, it is something one never wants to let loose and historically they have been few and far between.  In the midst of this hospital workers action though the forces had pulled themselves together to call for a general strike and unions of all strikes were stepping, no matter how sprightly, up to the mark and indicating they planned to throw down and all hit the bricks.  From a one union crisis, this had become something that Jim Sinclair, President of the BC Federation, had to now handle in the middle.

In British Columbia it is a difficult dance though.  According to the labor leaders addressing the organizers, fifteen similar strikes by public workers had been settled by legislation by the government, and once again the government had moved to create a law to “settle” the strike, dictating the terms of the final agreement, which were unfortunately even worse than what the members of the hospital workers had rejected earlier in January of this year.  The fines were also going to be huge — $10 per worker per day which with 43000 members meant almost a half-million dollars – because the union in defying the legislature was now also going to be held in contempt by the courts. 

For years in the United States we have come to believe that Canadian labor law is superior to our own, but we had never quite calculated the topsy-turvy way in which the winds of political change could create repressive laws to settle individual labor conflicts, one by one. 

We also learned how dicey these terrible settlements can be.   The government started leaking word that there was going to be a settlement late Sunday afternoon, and at one point the deal seemed done, and the leadership started dispatching part of the bargaining team for a “beer run” that had been hard earned.  All heck broke loose and the deal started unraveling as a virtual typo created by the government put pressure on them to not renege on a settlement and in a hard bargain for labor at least gave them back $5,000,000 for a “mistake.”

The devil is indeed in the details, and our novice organizers learned a lesson in their first hours of training right from the battlefront, which neither they nor I will ever be able to forget.

John Shields (lower left) and Tom Dufresne (top right) explain to the first cycle of Centre organizers how a general strike was diverted at the last minute the night before.

Getting Out the Vote Door-to-Door

Chicago The Organizers’ Forum has been hosting a 2-day meeting of over forty community, labor and other organizers in a quick immersion discussion of new developments in political methodology here at Cenacle Retreat Center a few blocks from beautiful Lincoln Park along the Lakeshore.  The sessions have gone remarkably well due in large part to well prepared and thoughtful presentations from some of the best out there.   For once we are going to have to say that if the progressive forces lose this time, it’s not for lack of trying!

 In a few weeks you will be able to access the notes of this dialogue on the Organizers’ Forum website at or read about it in some depth in a coming issue of the magazine, Social Policy.   For now you will just have to take my word for it.   Look at the lineup alone and you will see why this was such a powerful session:  Cathy Duvall, National Organizing Director, America Votes (on the new alliances and configurations); Orrin Baird, SEIU Legal Department (about the new legal framework); Caitlin Murphy, Lake, Snell & Perry (on the pivotal single women’s constituency!); Professor Don Green from Yale (on what really works on GOTV efforts); Greg Naylor, ACT (on how the PA voter registration effort worked); Zach Polett, Executive Director, Project Vote (on how we are registering more than 1,000,000 new voters this year!); Sarah Buecher, Working Assets (on how they are funding a million new registrants); Jeremiah Baumann, PIRG (on how they are pulling out youth voters this election); Madeline Talbott, Illinois ACORN (on the turnout and registration efforts that lay beneath the Barack Obama landslide in the IL Senate primary); Will Robinson, MacWilliams, Robinson & Partners (on tying issues to voting and messaging); Charles Lester, Political Director, Los Angeles County AFL-CIO (with a case study on the GOTV and coalition effort behind the Inglewood victory in stopping Wal-Mart); Dan Cantor, Executive Director, Working Families Party (on the power of fusion politics); and Holly Minch, SPIN Project (on communicating messages).  Wow, huh?

 It’s hard to pull out all the gold in these mountains.  Some nuggets:

  • It was surprising to hear how much of accepted political truth about what works in media and mail was not been tested, and often when tested against control groups turns out to make little or no difference in motivating voters.
  • Single white women — of virtually any age — are angry about politics and dissatisfied with government and if we were really organizing them to participate, and they did so at the level of other women, they would tilt the elections in the swing states!
  • A non-profit, membership organization, even though not tax-exempt might be classified as a 527 committee under the IRS — this will not mean much to the casual reader, but it sure caught me short.
  • Tax-exempt organizations are close to the edge because of all of these new requirements, and one wonders how many organizers have good enough lawyers to keep them out of trouble?
  • Amazing what it can cost some organizations to register voters, when money is no object!
  • We learned there is such a thing as a “soft-hard PAC” — which sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it?
  • Framing matters and we need to be able to look separately at what it takes to reconstruct our messages to win.

We were all taken to organizing school by the Forum in Chicago, but after taking a lot of notes and benefiting from a lot of discussion, we are good to go, and we’ll get all of you there with us, too!

Charles Lester of the Los Angeles County AFL-CIO shows people how turnout made the difference in Inglewood in beating Wal-Mart.