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
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
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.
Our weekly column, "The World of Labor," reports the
struggles and victories of unions in countries around the globe. Check our
web site: www.LaborEducator.org.