LaborTalk for January 16, 2008

If unions are so good (and they are!) for workers,
why aren't millions of them rushing to join? (3)

Unions Aren't Reaching Unorganized Workers
With a Message That Deals with Their Concerns

By Harry Kelber

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 minorities.

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 labor's decline.

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: