LaborTalk for January 9, 2008

Many Unions Put Organizing on Hold,
Waiting for a Law to Curb Employers

By Harry Kelber

The messages that the AFL-CIO and Change to Win are sending to unorganized workers actually discourage them from wanting to join unions. These workers are told repeatedly that employers currently have too many ways to intimidate them, including firing them; that unions will be in a better position to organize them when Congress passes the Employee Free Choice Act.

The two labor federations continue to publicize scary statistics to document employers' ferocious attacks on workers suspected of being pro-union. As an example: according to American Rights at Work. "every twenty-three minutes a worker is fired or discriminated against for her support of union organizing."

Surveys show there are more than 50 million unorganized workers who are interested in joining unions. That's a tantalizing potential for labor organizers. If even a third of this enormous group were recruited, it would double the size of the nation's union membership and add substantial economic strength and political influence to the labor movement.

Yet Stewart Acuff, director of the AFL-CIO's Organizing Department, says: "We've lost the right to organize in this country. American workers have lost any effective right to organize and bargain collectively." Imagine the reaction of non-union workers to this defeatist talk by labor's top organizing official.

How can we win the loyalty of these workers, if they hear how unions are constantly advertising the employers' power over their workforce? Why should they trust unions that won't act in their behalf until Congress passes a law that makes it easier to join unions? If unions are that weak and hesitant, why would they even think of joining?

Why Unions Appear Weak and Defeatist to Unorganized Workers

Despite their rhetoric, unions don't seem to be in a hurry to launch campaigns that reach out to large masses of unorganized workers, nor have they developed new strategies to replace those that haven't worked. It's easy to blame corporations for the lack of organizing progress, but you rarely see union leaders blaming themselves for costly blunders. Indeed, even union members rarely know what's really going on among the top rung of labor leaders, who are habitually silent and unaccountable.

Most unions have been downplaying and retrenching on their organizing efforts, because they haven't figured out a winning strategy. They are living with the fragile hope that Congress will pass the Employee Free Choice Act. But under the best of circumstances, that can't happen before the spring of 2009 — and it might not happen at all, even if the Democrats win the White House and enlarge their control of both houses of Congress. It is also worth noting that neither the AFL-CIO nor Change to Win have sought to involve unorganized workers in the fight for EFCA, who would be the presumed beneficiaries if the legislation were passed.

The opponents of EFCA include some of the wealthiest and most powerful corporations in the country that are prepared to spend countless millions to defeat the pro-union legislation. And don't underestimate their right-wing allies. So what if EFCA fails to pass and remains an issue for years to come? What, specifically, do we do in the next 15 to 20 months before Congress acts? Mark time? Let labor continue to decline? Or shall we expand and intensify our organizing efforts? And how do we do that?

It is a tragic fact that today's labor leaders have not come up with a plan to build a "bigger and stronger" labor movement. Andy Stern, SEIU president, promised to do that. It was his declared purpose for splitting the AFL-CIO. For a variety of reasons discussed elsewhere, he failed.

Is organized labor doomed to decline still further, as some pundits predict? Not at all. But significant reforms have to be made before there is a resurgence of union membership and power. Each of the next three LaborTalk articles will propose reforms that are both necessary and feasible, after which we will describe a novel organizing plan that requires few risks and offers greater opportunities for success.

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