At the summit: AFL-CIO organizers map organizing directions.
About two weeks later, the graduate employees of the University of Pennsylvania had a very different experience. According to newspaper exit polls and organizer assessment sheets, they voted overwhelmingly to be organized and represented by the American Federation of Teachers. We don't have an official vote count because the AFT and the University of Pennsylvania workers used the National Labor Relations process and the University has the election tied up in court and no one knows when the ballots will be counted. The employer doesn't have to bargain yet.
Likewise, when the 190 miners at the AEP mine in a southern Ohio began to organize a union with the United Mine Workers (UMW), 30 of them were "laid off." Still, the miners carried on the organizing. One week before the election, the miners eligible to vote were given bonuses of $1,000 plus for performance--even though just five weeks earlier the company laid off 15% of the mine's workers. Not surprisingly, the miners lost their Labor Board election and their bid to be union.
What was different about the UAW/North Carolina experience? How did they organize without the NLRB election process?
More and more, unions are finding creative ways to organize without relying on the Labor Board process. The UAW had negotiated a neutrality and card check agreement with Freightliner's parent company, Daimler-Chrysler, using the bargaining strength of unionized Chrysler workers in America and Daimler workers in Germany. The effect of that agreement was that union and company officials spoke together at the plant-wide meetings, told the workers it was their decision whether or not to be union, and agreed to honor the results of a count of union authorization cards--a "card check"--that workers were free to sign on the job, at home, or anywhere else convenient.
When the grad workers and miners--plus millions of other workers--used the NLRB process to establish representation and bargaining, they were subjected to weeks of forced meetings, intimidation, harassment, and termination. The numbers are clear. According to Cornell researcher Kate Bronfenbrenner, when workers try to form unions through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB):
* 90% of employers hire anti-union consultants and attorneys to undermine the law and the workers' efforts.
* 70-80% of employers force workers to attend meetings designed to intimidate.
* 50% of employers threaten to close or predict that the facility will have to close.
* 30% fire union workers.
The internationally respected Human Rights Watch published a 300-page study of 2-1/2 years documenting that American workers have lost the right to organize and that the United States is in violation of international law for failing to protect the right of American workers to freely form unions.
It has taken too long, but the AFL-CIO and its affiliate unions have finally faced the fact that American labor law works against organizing and the process of collective bargaining and that America's unions must change the way we organize.
Everyday the fundamental human rights of American workers are denied--in violation of international law. American labor law not only does not work, it works against the interests of workers, organizing, and collective bargaining.
The consequences are disastrous: growing inequality, weakening of progressive politics and the broader movement for social justice, more time at work and less time for family, increasing healthcare and retirement crises, rightward drift of our politics and our society.
It is time for the labor movement and its allies to act like we are in a crisis--to recognize that the rights of thousands of American workers are routinely dashed and dismissed.
It is time to act on our anger as well as our intellect. It is time to call for justice with the rage of ancient prophets and in the manner of wise women and men long ago. We must make every organizing campaign a local referendum on human rights, every violated worker a cause celebre, and every unjust employer a social pariah.
NATIONAL ORGANIZING SUMMIT
On January 10-11, 2003, the AFL-CIO held the first National Organizing Summit in half a century to bring together a large number of some of the labor movement's key and top organizers for a series of unscripted discussions about the erosion and abrogation of the legal right to organize and what to do about it.
Some 230 organizers and 70 others connected to organizing from 45 national unions participated in 23 small group discussions and four plenary sessions. Seasoned organizers from national affiliate unions led the small group discussions and most of the plenary sessions.
For organizers from a very broad array of unions, economic sectors and traditions, it was a remarkably fresh and frank series of discussions that led to a surprisingly broad consensus on how to move forward.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney opened the summit with an angry analysis of the inadequacies of American labor laws and a charge to the organizers to produce ideas to limit vicious employer opposition to organizing:
What we face ... is the most central moral challenge of our time: the challenge of helping working men and women come together to improve their lives. The challenge is to find ways to organize despite the obstacles that have been placed in our way by the corporate forces that have seized control of our workplaces, our capital markets and our government.
The first set of small discussion groups led by Larry Cohen of CWA, Patti Devlin of the Laborers, Tracy Abman of AFSCME, Jeff Farmer of the Teamsters, Roxie Herbekian of HERE, Bob Callahan of SEIU and Keith Mestrich of UNITE reported concerns and several points:
1) The AFL-CIO must re-energize its effort to help allies, other unions, and state and local AFL-CIO bodies to support workers who are organizing.
2) The AFL-CIO and affiliated unions must conduct a deep and broad education effort aimed at existing members about what happens when workers try to form unions as well as the depth and seriousness of employer opposition.
3) We should all expand our work with allies and make stronger connections with organizations promoting the rights of women, immigrants, young people, and people of color.
4) We should expose employer abuses of workers who are trying to organize.
Those unfamiliar with this history may think the 30 "laid off" miners of the earlier-told story are an isolated exception to the rule. Not so. The NLRB says about 20,000 people are fired every year for organizing activity; last year, the NLRB ordered back pay for 27,000 pro-union workers. Employer abuse is so common in organizing campaigns that good organizers routinely inoculate workers against it, predicting what will happen, when it will happen, even sometimes the language the employer will use.
5) We should all commit ourselves to minimizing competition between unions and maximizing cooperation.
Two striking facts: 91% of the private sector workforce is unorganized; polls indicate that as many as 47% of America's unorganized workers want a union. In this context, competing for the same group of workers is just wrong. We should be moving to more strategically target our organizing efforts by industry and employer so that every victory builds power with a given employer or in a given industry. The "turf" is hard enough without competition; further, competition often confuses workers. Finally, competition potentially weakens solidarity--a key component of union power and moral force.
6) The AFL-CIO and affiliated unions should require politicians to support workers who are organizing before they get political help.
7) The labor movement must increase the scale and pace of its organizing and commitment to organizing.
8) We must frame the issues so that they resonate better with union members and the general public.
9) We have to challenge ourselves to take more risks--to stretch, to invest for the long-term.
10) We have to plan, develop, and implement comprehensive and strategic campaigns.
11) More unions need to be focused on core industries where they have a base.
12) More unions must work through an internal change process to invest more money, resources and talent in organizing.
13) More unions must identify internal leverage and challenge relationships with employers under union contracts to create organizing rights for non-union workers.
14) We should mobilize our current members to support organizing and engage them in campaigns.
15) We should explore the formation of an independent organization to build broader support for the right to organize.
The AFL-CIO and a number of affiliates have actively discussed the need for an independent organization to speak out on the broader social need to restore workers' right to organize. The advocacy and education work of this organization would, among other things, clearly connect the right to organize and union power to the growing wealth and income gap, the growth of multi-job parents and households and the rightward drift of U.S. politics.
Much of the rest of the summit was spent comparing notes and examining tactics and strategies for organizing in spite of the law, including cutting edge work on non-NLRB strategies. Senior organizers conducted workshops and facilitated discussions on identifying and using leverage to get an employer to honor workers' desire to organize, recognition strikes, multi-site campaigns, using political support in organizing and card check campaigns.
THE CRISIS IS REAL
It is time for us to fill the streets, plant gates and entrances, and corporate headquarters with angry preachers, pastors, priests, nuns, rabbis, imams, union members, progressive politicians, community leaders and people of good will in defense of workers trying to organize for nothing more than a little security, dignity, and better quality of life for their kids.
It is time for us to go to jail when we don't know when we'll be released.
It is time to turn our despair into righteous anger and our righteous anger into action and militancy.
It is time to fight as if they are trying to destroy our labor movement, our priorities, and our dream ... because they are.
Stewart Acuff is AFL-CIO Organizing Director He has served the AFL-CIO and its affiliates as: Director of Field Operations, President of Atlanta Labor Council, Executive Director of Georgia State Employees Union/Service Employees International Union Local 1985 and "on the ground" organizer In 1977, he graduated University of Missouri in sociology with honors. He worked as a community organizer in Missouri, Texas, Tennessee and New Hampshire with ACORN and Citizen Action affiliates. His writing has appeared in magazines, local newspapers and labor-related books. He is a member of Atlanta's First Iconium Baptist Church, and is married with two children.