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Which Direction for Organized Labor? Essays on Organizing, Outreach, and Internal Transformation.

Which Direction for Organized Labor? Essays on Organizing, Outreach, and Internal Transformation. Edited by Brace Nissen. Detroit, MI, Wayne State University Press, 1999, 260 pp. $28.95, paper.

There is surprising consistency in these essays by union officials, labor activists, and labor educators. All of them want to see a revitalized, expanding American labor movement. Some union observers may find their recommendations unsettling and controversial. I think some are hopeful rather than proved, but they deserve a hearing by those interested in the future of American labor unions.

Many of the authors call for broad community-based "members-only organizing" (aimed simply at adding members to the union)--in contrast to National Labor Relations Board election-oriented organizing based on a worksite, industry, or occupation. They emphasize long-term grassroots community coalition-building to expand union membership, with appeals for social justice and class solidarity, rather than gearing membership drives to union recognition or contract negotiations. This agenda suggests a much stronger role for central labor councils and community action.

A related aim is to transform unions from service organizations relying on grievance, arbitration, and contract negotiations to "organizing models" which aim not only at "internal organizing" in the work situation but also, and more important, at "external organizing" in the local community.

"Unions will have to spend more time and money on organizing and less on servicing members and contracts," says labor journalist David Moberg. For organizing and bargaining success, unions "must recruit public support and organizational allies to turn a labor dispute into a community battle over social justice," Moberg thinks.

"A reinvention of jurisdiction is long overdue," says Wade Rathke, a Service Employees organizer. Because of high turnover of transient workers, he thinks that "Organizing the firm often means the union is simply manning the turnstile at the job," instead of dealing with wages, benefits, and job security.

Organizers must impart confidence, leadership skills, and vision to workers "too intimidated to stand up for themselves," says UNITE organizer Eve Weinbaum. "Leaders must consider it their main responsibility to identify, bring forward, and train new leaders at every level.

Stewart Acuff, president of the Atlanta AFL-CIO Labor Council, describes a successful, militant, local community and statewide labor mobilization. "The best tools of power for CLCs are electoral action, solidarity, mobilization and militancy, and coalitions," says Acuff. He gives a detailed account of the 1990-96 campaign, to make Olympic Games construction and service jobs open to union workers. The campaign involved coalition-building, politics, plant gate rallies, mass picket lines, exploitation of media, confrontation, and in 1992 a 10,000-person march in downtown Atlanta, "one of the largest displays of union force in the history of the South."

Building trades unions are fighting back against a 20-year anti-union campaign by the Business Roundtable and the Associated Builders and Contractors, according to Jeff Grabelsky and Mark Erlich. They describe the unions' Construction Organizing Membership Education Training (COMET) "designed to explain to members why local unions must organize unrepresented construction workers in order to regain control of the skilled labor supply, recapture market share, and rebuild bargaining strength." The authors find race and sex discrimination still a problem, but they see promise in the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department campaign to organize construction workers not trade-by-trade but through "multitrade, marketwide, workforce organizing." The results of this effort are not yet in, but it is a new direction for the building trades.

This is a stimulating collection of essays for those interested in union organizing and in the future of America's labor unions.

--Markley Roberts

Labor Economist formerly with the AFL-CIO
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Roberts, Markley
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1999
Words:594
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