It's a fact that the AFL-CIO and Change to Win are not making a serious
and sustained effort to organize the 50 million workers who say theyıd like
to join a union. If they don't organize a substantial number of them,
unions will continue to decline, and current union members will lose the
advantages they still enjoy.
The two labor federations have no national plans to reach out to these
unorganized workers. They don't know who they are or where they are
situated. And if unions can't find a way to communicate with them and
respond to their questions and fears, how are they going to organize them?
It's quite understandable that workers would like to know more about
unions before they join. They may have questions about dues, contracts,
members' rights and obligations and the actual process of becoming a
member. They will want to know about strikes and financial benefits, and
what the union will do for them if they should get fired. It will be
helpful if organizers give them honest, straightforward answers.
One of the principle responsibilities of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win
is to create a favorable national labor climate that would improve their
organizing efforts. They haven't done so. There is no national labor TV or
radio program, no newspaper or magazine that will promote unionism. (There
are a few good regional labor radio programs and publications that
occasionally touch on organizing problems, but avoid criticizing top labor
leaders for their shortcomings.)
Top union leaders rarely appear on talk shows and press interviews to
explain labor's views on public issues. There is almost no effort to refute
the anti-union barrage of half-truths and lies (and some truths), which
workers get from the business-controlled media and right-wing groups Since
labor leaders rarely respond to slanderous anti-union propaganda, workers
tend to believe they are true.
Of course, a major difficulty for organizers is the fierce resistance
to unions by many of the nation's major corporations. But that is an
attitude that has persisted in the U.S. for about 150 years and won't
disappear even if Congress passes the Employee Free Choice Act. In the
1930s, employers hired strikebreakers and security police to beat up
unionists and smash their picket lines. But that didn't prevent the CIO
from organizing hundreds of thousands of workers, including women and
The biggest obstacle to mass organizing is the attitude of the leaders
of the two labor federations, who avoid facing up to a rock-solid truth:
unions won't be able to organize on a mass scale without participation by
their members. In the past 30 years, top labor leaders have tried to dream
up an organizing strategy that would need little involvement from their
rank-and-file. As smart as they thought they were, they could not reverse
An army of volunteer organizers, recruited from the nation's17 million
union members, could be a powerful asset in any full-scale effort to
rebuild the labor movement into a "bigger and stronger" worker
organization. There could be important assignments for all volunteers in
well-planned campaigns. They will be needed to research non-union companies
and their owners, make house calls, write and send out press releases,
serve as speakers at rallies and public functions, build community support,
canvas the community for pro-union contacts, work on phone banks,
fund-raising, leaflet distribution and other tasks. The more volunteers,
the less the burden on each of them.
Moreover, union members are the best-equipped people to answer the
various questions that unorganized workers raise, because they can talk
from personal experience about why and how they joined their unions. They
can also show copies of paychecks, contracts, by-laws and newspaper
clippings about union victories. The one-to-one meeting is often the best
way to convince workers to join.
But in the tightly-controlled AFL-CIO and Change to Win, leaders have
not shown any willingness to call upon their members to become active in
organizing campaigns, either because they think it presents a risk to their
power, or they simply don't know how to do it.
We remain stuck in a paralyzing quandary: if we can't even talk to
non-union workers, how are we going to organize them?
Why They Don't Join (4) will be posted on Wednesday, January 23, 2008.
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.