Labor's Voice for Change (5) January 20, 2009

The Lessons Organized Labor Can Learn
From Obama’s Journey to the Presidency

By Harry Kelber

Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States at noon on Jan. 20, in a ceremony that was watched — and applauded — by people around the world. The event was the climax of an extraordinary journey that Obama undertook, starting out as an African-American community organizer in Chicago, then surmounting a series of incredibly daunting obstacles and finally defying the Washington Establishment, to win the presidency with a near-landslide majority. As one pundit put it: “Obama climbed the Mount Everest of American politics.”

President Obama’s victory marked an important milestone in the struggle of black people for racial equality and social justice. It also changed the landscape of American politics. It will inspire every ethnic minority to see the advantages of political participation. The labor movement, in particular, has much to learn from the Obama team, whose brilliant campaign made his victory possible. Here are several of their special features that organized labor ought to consider adopting:

1. Obama coupled an inspiring vision with a sense of urgency.
Neither the AFL-CIO nor the Change to Win has a message that excites the interest of their union members. They talk constantly about the American Dream, but have no plan on how to achieve it. Whereas Obama energized his supporters by saying “the time is now,” our labor leaders are largely “business as usual.” If Labor hopes to grow bigger and stronger, it has to develop an inspiring message that will motivate the rank-and-file to action.

2. Obama’s speeches resonated with huge audiences.
Very few national labor leaders have proven they can make persuasive and attention-getting speeches to a national radio or television audience and leave them with some understanding of the role of unions in our society. But unless we train our leaders to become knowledgeable and articulate speakers, we’ll be leaving the field to our enemies, who are constantly maligning “Big Labor” and “Labor Bosses.”

3. Obama attracted tens of thousands of young people.
Although union members are growing older and grayer, unions are doing almost nothing to attract young people, who are the latest entrants to the nation’s work force, What little organizing has been done in the past few years (awaiting passage of the Employee Free Choice Act), almost none of it has focused on young workers. Since unions are continuing to lose members, shouldn’t they make a strong effort to recruit young people, whose needs are different from those of older workers?

4. Obama’s team raised tens of millions of dollars from loyal supporters
The AFL-CIO and Change to Win leaders do not strive for our loyalty, partly because they do not need us to hold on to their power. Raising funds through the Internet would compel them to be accountable — that’s the last thing they want to happen. Besides, they get their extra cash by raising the per capita tax every few years, and we give them enough dues money to pay for their six-figure salaries and expenses. We never get a chance to vote on whether a per capita tax is justified or whether union dues should be raised (never lowered).

5. Obama’s team exploited the Internet for recruiting.
The Web sites of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win don’t make sufficient use of the Internet’s potential for two-way communication. Important labor leaders may use e-mails to send out directives, but they don’t want rank-and-filers bothering them with their opinions, especially criticisms. The Internet provides unions with a democratic method of quickly testing their members’ opinions on any issue, but no union, to the best of my knowledge, has used the Internet for a referendum vote of their membership.

6. Obama’s team holds large rallies and also encourages small gatherings.
An Obama rally can be as large as 75,000 people or as small as a gathering of a dozen neighbors at a house party to plan a local event. The people at Obama rallies come from all walks of life. A sense of solidarity pervades the audience. The AFL-CIO’s infrequent rallies are not well-attended and uniformly dull with all the speeches predictable. Members of one union rarely talk to or support members of another union, even in strike situations. The concept of labor solidarity may crop up in a speech, but not in reality.

It will be interesting to see if the Obama phenomenon has rubbed off on some labor leaders who are ready to buy into the mantra, "time for change!” and “the time is now!” and lead a democratic reform movement supported by the rank-and-file. Stranger things have happened before.

Article 6 of “Labor’s Voice for Change” will discuss “Non-Profit Health Insurance for All.” It will be posted on Thursday, January 22, 2009.