Tag Archives: The Organizer

Life Stirring in “Remnant” Unions in Pacific Northwest

public lands in Seattle for housing

Corvallis    Driving through rush hour on both sides of Portland early in the morning in route to Oregon State University I was listening to an interview on KBOO, the 50-year old community radio station broadcasting from that city.  The interview was with a professor at Berklee Music College in the Boston area who didn’t teach music but political science.  He had written a book he was promoting about eco-socialism, and they were discussing it enthusiastically.  At one point, the host mentioned the Dakota Pipelines fight in 2017, and the fact that a number of building and trades unions had supported the pipeline against the native peoples and many progressive groups.  He bemoaned the fact that what he called “remnant unions” were so often on the wrong side of environmental issues.

Remnant unions?!?  Wow, we think of the fact that unions are embattled, losing court cases, fee payers, and overall density of membership compared to total jobs, but even though we know intellectually that only one in twelve workers are now in unions, there’s something about calling these once mighty workers’ organizations “remnants,” like they are the last of a dying breed, that is a gut punch.

Talking to union organizers and activists at the screening of “The Organizer” in Seattle at Southside Commons organized by LeeAnn Hall, Derek Birnie, and Jonathan Rosenblum and sponsored by SEIU locals, UAW, One America, and others and listening to the questions after the documentary was reassuring though.  There’s still life stirring in unions on the coast.

I caught up with an organizer involved in a UAW drive at Tesla in Fremont, California for the last three years, who was hopeful given worker response to the Elon Musk craziness of recent weeks.  He reported that they were more upset about the constant pressure on production and confused about the hundreds of “volunteers” who are Tesla-fan-owners who come in to help boost sales at the end of every quarter for this desperate company.  Another big bunch, also with the UAW, was organizing student teachers and adjuncts at the University of Washington, and were raring to go.

An organizer from California told me about working closely with ACCE, the former California ACORN, on trying to unravel the impacts of Prop 13, finally!  He was more discouraging on the prospects of the coming statewide referendum that would allow cities to enact rent control in California cities that ACCE has been leading, but it’s still a fight, so no one can count them out yet.

An organizer reported booming out to work with the great provincial union and ACORN ally in Canada and internationally, the British Columbia Government Employees Union.  He had his hand in the municipal elections there as well as being blown away about the progress BCGEU has made in achieving over 50% density among casino workers in BC.  Ok, that’s Canada, but getting back to the US, I caught up with old comrades with SEIU as well.  One organizer told me about the plans moving forward for SEIU to spearhead a project to build 500 units of affordable housing in Seattle where average housing sale prices have been astronomical and have priced workers out of the city.  They had convinced the Washington State legislature to allowing surplus state land to be used for such publicly beneficial purposes for free, rather than requiring market price acquisition, making such projects feasible, which could be a real breakthrough for both labor and the community.

In the questions and comments part of the screening, people advocated for hard discussions about mistakes we were making in organizing and a clear-headed evaluation of our organizing models.  I even got a great question about organizing in Argentina! For sure, there’s still signs along the Pacific of union revival, but it was also clear why I support these screenings.  They are great organizing tools to bring the community of organizers together, and that gives me hope on many different fronts as well.


Good Spirits at the Auckland Trades Hall for “The Organizer”

Auckland       How many times do we get to travel most of the way around the world?  If lucky, as I have been in life and work, sometimes, but it’s still rare, so it was a gift to hear from Mat Danaher that he was now living and, even better, working in New Zealand.  I knew Mat from several annual meetings I had with him when he was working in the London headquarters for Unison, the 2ndlargest union in the United Kingdom.  He knew I was on vacation, but wondered if I was up for a screening of the THE ORGANIZER and talking about my book, Nuts & Bolts both of which he had been following on FacebookMy answer to his generous offer was not yes, but, heck, yes!

So, we found ourselves trying to figure out parking nearby the Auckland Trades Hall building on a Tuesday night as the wind was almost knocking us off the hillside on what passes for a winter night in New Zealand.  All of that was an hour before the scheduled start time for the event, but when we went through the door of the union hall, there were already a half-dozen people scurrying around in preparation.

They know what they’re doing in Auckland!  Mat of course was making sure the projector and speakers were set up to the screen and working, but the rest of us got to work setting up tables in a semi-circle which is the preferred method for the unions and the Auckland Labor History group sponsoring the event.  It took us a while to figure it out, but it turned out there was a bar and snacks being prepared by the Working Women’s Collective, so that by the time the documentary began showing there were tablecloths on each of the tables and bowls of food everywhere including a “nibbles” table in the back.  Ah, now we get it!

Not sure that’s the whole explanation for why there were already a score of people there a half-hour before the event?  Folks seemed genuinely glad to see each other.  They were chatting over a beer or glass of wine, even as they were making apologies for the traffic holding others up that they knew were on the way.  The film in fact started with over forty in attendance at five minutes after the scheduled six o’clock time – where does that every happen?  It turns out New Zealand is the answer – what great people in a great country.

with old comrades from the Philippines now working with unions in NZ

Not surprisingly the crowd warmed to the film, laughing and crying in all of the right places.  The questions, as expected, were direct and to the point about the impact of media on organizing, the ever-difficult question of expansion versus maintenance, the prospects for the rebranded groups and the potential of ACORN returning in the United States.  The unanimous verdict was that the film was inspiring.  There was also interest in whether or not there might be a place for ACORN in New Zealand, especially given our experiences organizing the ACORN Tenants Union in the United Kingdom.

The family consensus, walking back outside hours later into the wind, was straightforward:  the film was better, but the people in the audience were wonderful!