Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #33 November 6, 2001

Can Labor Councils in ‘Union Cities’
Become a Genuine Organizing Force?

By Harry Kelber

For the past five years, the AFL-CIO has poured huge amounts of money, staff time and other resources into an ambitious plan to restructure 51 state federations and more than 500 central labor councils. These local and regional bodies, they reason, can and should become more influential in their communities.

With union membership down to 13.5% of the U.S. work force, and organizers falling far short of the federation’s recruiting goal of 700,000 new members a year, union leaders are now convinced that central labor councils should also be given a larger role in organizing campaigns.

Traditionally, CLCs spent most of their budgets on lobbying rather than organizing. Council headquarters usually consisted of a small office with one or two officers and a secretary-receptionist. Many operated under charters issued more than a century ago, with jurisdictions, structure and goals that no longer apply to today’s labor movement. Some local unions considered them so irrelevant that they refused to join.

After lengthy consideration of the central labor councils’ potential to boost labor’s organizing efforts, the AFL-CIO Executive Council in 1997 adopted the “Union Cities” program under which each CLC would engage in heavy-duty organizing and aim for recognition of the community as a “union town.”

Union Cities grew out of a 1996 meeting of 150 labor council leaders in Denver. They proposed that each CLC complete an eight-step process to equip itself with the knowledge and skills to become more effective. CLCs must pledge to commit 1% of their membership to participate actively in organizing-related activities.

Today, the AFL-CIO can point to 163 CLCs that have fulfilled all requirements and can now be considered “union cities,” according to project director Scott Reynolds. Councils in Los Angeles, San Jose, Milwaukee, Seattle, Atlanta, New York and elsewhere have made real progress both in organizing campaigns and in helping to promote “living wage” ordinances and other labor causes. But there are still many councils struggling to justify their existence, and some will be merged into larger, better-functioning councils.

Councils in “Union Cities” take part in the AFL-CIO’s annual “Seven Days in June” events, each preparing their own actions to expose anti-union employers. Many convene roundtable discussion sessions where organizers compare notes. They develop “street heat” tactics to mobilize union members and supporters quickly when a group of workers is up against an anti-union employer.

A task force of national union leaders spent nearly two years appraising the state federations and local councils to determine how they could be made more productive. In March 2000, the AFL-CIO announced another initiative, called the New Alliance, and conducted dozens of meetings to restructure its state and local affiliates. Rank-and-file members were invited and encouraged to take part in drafting proposals for organizational changes.

The restructuring process will sometimes require wrenching changes in leadership and past practices. It has been completed by three state federations so far: New York, North Carolina and Maryland. (In Maryland, for the first time, an African-American, Fred Mason, was elected president and a woman, Donna Edwards, secretary-treasurer.)

A big hurdle that central labor councils have had to overcome is the lack of financial support and participation from many local unions in their jurisdiction. In some CLCs, the non-participation rate by locals has been as high as 30%. This is changing because international unions are now urging locals to affiliate — and as CLCs become stronger, locals find it more advantageous to join.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and members of the Executive Council have already visited CLCs in several cities, including Houston, Cleveland and Washington. D.C., and they’ll go to San Diego, St. Paul, Minn. and Kansas City, Mo. before the end of the year.

Union Cities and the New Alliance have made remarkable progress in transforming laggard, poorly-equipped State Feds and CLCs into proactive, community-oriented organizations. But restructuring doesn’t guarantee long-term success, especially when there is a shortage of qualified union organizers. Labor organizations at all levels need to upgrade training programs to develop new ones.

It is pleasant to imagine that someday, dozens of communities will be known, deservedly, as “union towns” But in the meantime, let’s not forget that 22 entire states fly the “right-to-work (for less)” banner, and we’re a long way from hauling it down in any of them.

“Inside the AFL-CIO” can be viewed at every Tuesday. Our “LaborTalk” column appears on Mondays.

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