American Labor in Crisis (August 6, 2007)

Central Labor Councils Can Be Key
To Restoring Labor’ Former Power

(The fifth and final article)

By Harry Kelber

After more than two decades of aborted and failed organizing campaigns, national labor leaders have yet to learn the hard truth: you can’ build a bigger and stronger labor movement unless tens of thousands of union members are inspired to play an active role in a massive recruiting effort.

Leaders of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win have no strategic plan to reverse the decline in union membership and bargaining power, except to wait and hope for Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), after which unions will have a favorable climate for organizing. Under the best of circumstances, that would take, realistically, at least two years and probably longer if we fail to get the 60 Senate votes for an up-and-down vote on EFCA.

So what do our leaders propose to do in the two-year interim? Sit on their hands while unions continue to decline and are compelled to make concessions in order to survive? Does their silence mean they have run out of alternatives?

International unions may have many useful functions, but they have proven to be ill-fitted to conduct local and regional organizing campaigns. Those vital tasks can best be undertaken by the more than 400 central labor councils that are located in cities and towns throughout the United States. Here are at least six reasons why the locus of organizing power should reside in the CLCs rather than international unions.

(1) CLCs are closer to the rank-and-file of their affiliated local unions than are international unions. They are in a better position to call on the average union member for assistance in organizing campaigns and electoral politics.

(2) CLCs have an obvious advantage in gaining support for their various activities from communities and their residents, because that is where their members work and live.

(3) CLCs and their local affiliates can create a feeling of solidarity, in spirit and action, since their members come from various trades, occupations and backgrounds.

(4) CLCs have a wealth of experience in carrying out the economic and political campaigns of their national labor federations.

(5) CLCs are better situated than internationals to inspire union members to become involved as volunteers. in organizing campaigns.

(6) There are more than 160 central labor councils in 43 states, each of which the AFL-CIO has designated as a “Union City,” after they had completed an eight-step process to equip them with specialized knowledge and skills for union organizing and political action. One of the requirements was a pledge to commit one percent (1%) of their membership to participate in community and organizing-related activities.

Useful Work for Thousands of CLC Volunteer Organizers

Each CLC should make strong efforts to recruit volunteers from its affiliated local unions by offering them interesting and rewarding assignments and making them feel a part of the overall organizing campaign. There are as many as eight or ten task forces where the labor of volunteers can make a difference between a poorly-run campaign and a successful one.

Volunteers will be needed to make house calls, research non-union companies and their employers, write and send out press releases, serve as speakers at rallies and public functions, build community support, canvass organizations for pro-union contacts, work on the phone bank, fund-raising, leaflet distribution and other tasks. The more volunteers, the less the burden on each of them.

If neither the AFL-CIO nor the CtW has a plausible plan for revitalizing the labor movement, doesn’t it make sense to try the Central Labor Council option?

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