Workers’ Committees

SomosUnPuebloUnido-RallyLittle Rock     Sometimes it helps to get a gentle reminder of what we know, but don’t always practice. At our union we live and breathe “majority unionism” by which we mean trying to organize as many workers as we can, in as many ways as we can, with or without demanding direct recognition or collective bargaining, but by trying to organize workers to be union members where they work to protect and advance themselves, act collectively, and build power on the job. Some people call this minority unionism because the union does not have exclusive representation rights on the job which are common in collective bargaining agreements in North America, though this strategy of direct membership recruitment is common in many countries around the world from France to India and beyond.

A piece by Steven Greenhouse, the former labor reporter and now freelancer for the New York Times, recently detailed the success that Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a 20-year old immigrant rights group was having in Santa Fe and elsewhere in New Mexico by assisting in organizing workers’ committees and winning important victories for workers in low wage and service industry jobs that are largely non-union, but desperately need protection and organization. The committee structure allows the workers to trigger the protections for collective action provided by the National Labor Relations Act for workers acting as a group that is not available to individually aggrieved workers. Few civilians realize that the NLRA offers virtually no protection for unions, but lots of protection for workers, especially when they are engaged in concerted activity.

Greenhouse quotes several experts on this score:

“A lot of people thought the National Labor Relations Act could be used only during unionization campaigns,” said Andrew Schrank, a labor relations specialist who recently became a professor at Brown University after teaching at the University of New Mexico. “They’re finding that the National Labor Relations Act is much more expansive than many people thought.” Richard F. Griffin Jr., the labor board’s general counsel, said a 1962 Supreme Court case — involving a spontaneous walkout because a factory was so cold — makes clear that the National Labor Relations Act protects nonunion workers, too. “It’s important that people understand that the law applies to all private sector workplaces and protects activity outside the context of union activity,” Mr. Griffin said.

Somos has put together a good track record using these tools thus far. They have filed charges with the Phoenix office of the NLRB in 12 cases, and 11 complaints of unfair labor practices were won for workers as diverse as carwash attendants, hotel housekeepers, and restaurant workers. Needless to say perhaps, Somos has won reinstatement for many of these workers along with backpay. Not only that but in many cases once the workers have organized they have also realized they were victims of wage theft and other labor violations leading to some six-figure settlements paid out to workers from employers for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act as well.

Supposedly other workers centers in other cities are taking a look at the Somos track record. For our part we’re glad to have fellow travelers after all of these years, and it helps us hew to this path of direct organizing to win power on the job now with or without the employer’s consent but using all the tools we have at our disposal from citizen wealth to direct unionization.

In my organizer’s Spanish I think Somos Un Pueblo Unidos means All the People United. It’s hard to imagine a better slogan for working men and women in any language.

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Union Membership Continues to Tank in USA, Time for “Majority Unionism”

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Picture from the latest issue of Social Policy, available at socialpolicy.org

New Orleans               The Bureau of Labor Statistics has released the figures on union membership and density for 2014 and for workers in general.  The good news is that there are more jobs and more people are working.  The same ol,’ same ol,’ bad news is that the weakening labor movement in the United States has fallen behind even farther, since growth in jobs no longer equals increasing membership.

The USA numbers are frightening.  There are now 14.6 million union members.  7.4 million are in the private sector, where most of the jobs are.  7.2 million are in the public sector which is under assault.  The density of union membership for public employees is 35.7% even in the face of massive resistance in Wisconsin and elsewhere with more predicted on the horizon as Republican controlled legislatures settle into their new power.  The density in the private sector is now down to 6.6% giving credence to the handwringing of the past when union organizing directors for the AFL-CIO would warn the troops that without work we would soon be at 5%.  Sounds like we’re knocking on the door now.

In These Times reported on a recent conference in DC called “American Labor Movement at a Crossroads.”  Reading the report the only encouraging news was that finally more leaders and organizers are embracing the notion of organizing workers into unions outside of the obsession with “exclusive representation,” in what I continue to call a “majority unionism” strategy, and others refer to as “minority” unionism.  There’s traction now, as we’ve argued, following the UAW’s effective strategy with Local 42 in Chattanooga where they are well on their way.  Other unions are being forced to learn how to operate in this way increasingly in the wake of the Harris v. Quinn decision hammering homecare worker agency shop payments for our sister union in Illinois.  The rising tide of so-called “right to work” legislation is also going to force the issue of whether or not something is better than nothing and any union is better than no union at all.

The In These Times story underlined a dispute in the conference between labor strategist Rick Yeselson who seems to have argued that we should build a “fortress” around existing labor strongholds and hope something good emerges in the future and David Rolf of SEIU 775 in Seattle who rejoined that “adaptation is the lesson of species survival.”  No doubt, Brother Rolf scored on the riposte, but sadly Yeselson’s argument seems what most unions, including SEIU, are doing in many regards when it gets down to money spent and boots on the ground.

It’s hard for me not to drink deeply of my own Kool-Aid when I review reports from our Local 100 United Labor Unions organizers on our year-to-year struggles to grow and hold on to our 2000 members in Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana, and talk to Suresh Kadashan, ACORN International’s organizer in Bengaluru where we have seen our unions grow to 35,000 members in the five years we have been concentrating on this strategy.  My comrades at our recent Year End/ Year Begin meeting were taken aback when I recounted my conversation with the organizing director of the 3rd largest union in the United Kingdom on their program to try to move as many of their 500,000 members as possible from dues checkoff to bank drafts and direct debits so that they could recast their organization around their members, rather than their employers.

The universal law of organizations has always been that you either grow or die.    For me it’s not enough to be right.  I want to see our work survive and our members thrive.  There really isn’t much choice anymore.

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