Saturday, June 21, 2008

Saturday five

Per our conversation from yesterday, name five things unions can do to improve public confidence in Organized Labor. I'm looking at this as essentially a PR question, rather than "what can we do to improve the labor movement," although there's obviously some overlap. On top of that, some unions already do some or all of the things I'm going to mention - you can think of this then as a sort of (forgive me) "best practices" type question.
  1. Transparency, transparency, transparency - People should know how unions arrive at the decisions they do, and members should know how to access the decision-making process
  2. Invest in member leadership development - When people think "union," they should think of their co-workers, neighbors, and family members instead of an international president or paid staff person (not that those other two aren't important). People have more confidence in people who are close to them
  3. Push community involvement - while bread and butter issues will always have a central role in the life of a union, they should also find ways to become involved in their communities beyond just collective bargaining
  4. Stop selling out workers - This is directed primarily at Andy Stern
  5. Manage inter-union conflicts better - This one's kind of vague. I'm not suggesting a quieter or less vigorous politics within and between organizations, or shying away from competitive campaigns. But at the point where squabbles overtake the welfare of the workers we organize, we should have a strong cup of calm-the-fuck-down

All right, kids! Add yours and rip apart mine in the comments!


lexdexter said...

I want to make clear that any discussion of labor's identity politics is overdetermined by the corporate media's resolute bias towards portraying the labor movement as an antagonistic, bureaucratic special interest group. Strikes, federal investigations and scandals are the contexts through which a new generation of Americans has been "introduced" to labor. It's a fucking problem, this representation, though again it's not as important as the problem of organizing workers right now.

1) One reason labor needs to organize and win is because labor needs _to be seen winning._ Not only do we need to pass EFCA in 2009, we need to have quick and strong membership growth that shows the country that unions have regained momentum and remembered their organizing roots.
Who knows if the NYT would abandon its fetish for discussing UAW concessions for long enough to notice a labor renaissance...but it's worth a shot.

2) Labor needs to maintain a political identity, and practice political action, which is separate from that of the Democratic Party. Both unions and the Dems do better when they work in coalition, rather than when they confuse themselves with each other, or confuse electoral politics with the politics of work, etc.

3) Relatedly, the labor movement needs to build novel coalitions with other movements, outshining the Dems as the preeminent progressive voice on popular issues like immigration, healthcare, climate change and poverty. So doing, it can regain its status as the democratic voice for working people, not merely that of a "special interest" group.

4) While labor is faced with many fecund topics for popular, nonpartisan political organizing, they must make sure that themes of CEO malfeasance and corporate excess work as sort of "master signifiers." This country often seems incapable of asking critical questions about capitalism; but nonetheless, Americans are prone to strong moral outrage when faced with imagery of management excess, chaotic financial speculation and soaring profits. The broader labor movement would do well to follow the SEIU's willingness to highlight private equity in particular and finance capital in general... We cannot frame the debate without a villain, and the American people have spoken: they hate executive douchebags. Us, too.

5) No more sports bar blues or coal miner songs at any public events, ever again. We can keep "Solidarity Forever," though.

wobblie said...

If I can't have some old tymey Kentucky coal miner song at my rally, I don't know that I want to be a part of your movement.

Chad said...


Which side are you on, Lex?

dave3544 said...

1. A strong second on Lex's point #5, there are current songs that speak to alienation, rebellion, discontent, and what have you, we don't need to think that old fights are the only fight worth remembering. More to the point, we are no longer a society that sings; the labor movement needs to stop thinking that a sing-a-long is a key to building community.

More to the point, we'd be a lot better off if we would stop portraying the union movement as something that was important and fantastic in 1877, 1921, 1933, 1944, and 1958. We have modern victories to celebrate, but also we need to stop portraying the union movement as something that used to be awesome. No doubt that those victories (and defeats) we hugely important, but people have forgotten what industrial capitalism was like before the union movement. The challenge would be to re-educate them and then have them thank the union movement. This makes no sense.

The bumper sticker "The Labor Movement: The Folks that Brought You the Weekend" is a great example. While we should be very proud of what we have done for all working people, after awhile the question "What have you done for me lately?" become pertinent. (Not that we should give up the bumper sticker, mind you, but maybe it shouldn't be the public face of labor.

2. Related to this point...we need to stop reaching back to the past so damn much. How many of us have attended a union function where a significant portion of time is not spent lamenting the loss of high-paying industrial jobs in the private sector? How many times have we heard about what the academy used to be? Not only does this backward focus prevent us from preparing for the future, it also stops us from celebrating what is working in today's union movement. We do too much lamenting and not enough celebrating.

Also, there is no doubt that there are race and sex aspects to the glorying of the post-war private industrial labor movement. I have always gotten the sense that the labor movement puts the private sector above the public sector. "Family wage jobs" has always sounded like code for "men need high paying jobs to raise their families," which has always worked in tandem with "men should get preferences for jobs because they are raising families." Let's not forget that these arguments we still being advanced by unions little more than 20 years ago.

3. Everyone is right that the corporate media has little interest in portraying the labor movement in a positive light. Still, the labor movement needs some sort of coherent public relations campaign. We seem to be stuck in a belief that all working people are desperate to join a union, but the bosses stop them or convince them otherwise. We need to remind people why unions were created in the first place. Fundamentals, basics. Right to collectively bargain, dignity, reasonable grievance procedures. is running this campaign against us...what is our response?

I do not know where labor gets it's pr people, but they suck. Bad. I don't know why, but this must be fixed.

4. We must improve the image of public employees. Public employees (and their unions) are constantly under attack. We might do this by reminding people that firefighters and cops are public employees. Public employees are seen as lazy, overpaid, and focused on their overly-generous retirement. We need to counter this message.

5. Unions are disliked partly because of the "union boss" meme. This must be countered. Even something as radical as "no union officer can receive a stipend higher than the salary of the average worker in their union." Reform programs like this would be helpful.

Battery dying...

wobblie said...

Your nos. 1 and 3 suggest an interesting tension to me, Dave. I agree with both points, but the fundamentals and basic rights you mention we need to appeal to are going to need to be contextualized in something to make them concrete, and that, I think, requires some sense of history of the labor movement. People need to know why these rights are important rather than just on principle.

Unfortunately, if we learn labor history at all, I'm willing to bet that a massive chunk of what we have learned came from another labor activist - who's more than likely prone to the romanticism you call out in #1.

And just you wait 'til we're old enough to tell "back in my day stories," which I imagine we'll be serenading ourselves with in between menacing those damn neighbor kids.

dave3544 said...


My #3 didn't mean history, but modern day reminding. If we can't think of a reason for unions to exist other than it used to suck to work in America, then, well...

I understand that labor is under attack and we need to fight a regard action to a certain extent, but I'm not sure educating people about labor history is entirely necessary. A good portion of the rhetorical power labor derived "back in the day" was through a vision of a better future. Labor strove toward a day when men and women could throw off their metaphorical yokes and live free.

We envisioned the 8 hour day, the weekend, minimum wages, vacation, etc. Some envisioned much more, but we had a vision of a better future. I am not sure we have that today.

The sad fact is that unions will be in huge trouble unless we get young people involved. Some of our older brothers and sisters get this, most do not. Our involvement and ideas challenge them and their power and they don't like it. Not to say this isn't expected, but I'm not sure that the "union" offers young workers much of a vision of the future to fight for. Without going there too much, I do think the boomers are particularly noted for believing they are the be-all end-all and our generation is particularly noted for not paying homage much.

Here's another thought...history is what you give someone once you already have them hooked. You don't hook people by telling them how hard it used to be, how lucky they are, and how much they owe the people that came before them (which, is unfortunately, how it gets played). You get someone hooked into today's struggles and then you give them the back story.

Lastly, what does it mean that the most effective bit of pro-union propaganda I have seen in a long time is the AFSCME video? I'm going to have to think about that.

wobblie said...

I definitely don't disagree with the main thrust of what you're getting at in terms of the need to have a forward-looking agenda or that rehashing the past can be counter-productive. But I do think that in convincing people that "another world is possible" and that unions can be a vehicle for that relies in some in understanding that what we have now was accomplished by our predecessors. We definitely shouldn't dwell on it, but like I said, contextualizing the struggle is important, and I also think there is some value in creating a sense of shared history which binds us, limits us, and provides the foundation to move us forward.

That said, I think it's difficult to be forward-looking when we've been mired in a thirty year struggle to prevent the erosion of the very things the labor movement has accomplished. The yearning for the past in many ways is a defensive posture, I think. The trick, I suppose, would be to reframe the central tenets of labor in a manner which avoids sentimentalism and romanticism.

dave3544 said...

Musicians Don’t Idolize ‘American Idol’ and More Bargaining News

The headline from the AFL-CIO blog. I mean as long as something is hugely popular, the AFL-CIO should definitely highlight its opposition.

'Course, only the young whippersnappers like this show anyway and we all know they don't join unions. Now, if it was Matlock or JAG...

cps said...

Dave you surely aren't suggesting that if the kids like it then the Big House should be for it regardless, right? OK, I know you aren't (are you?!), but this does beg a question that I think goes to the heart of this debate about the future of labor, which is the tension between larger socio-political-economic issues vs. what existing members want which often gets translated as younger vs. older members.

Existing locals are charged with protecting their members' interests. That isn't to say that they shouldn't be concerned about the larger issues--the should--but sometimes there is a real disconnect between the here and now vs. those larger issues. (think: GTFF members in the math department or a certain campaign about academic staffing.) This also seems to go to the debate about gas prices--not to bring that up again.

So it seems one question here is what to do with this tension between current (older) members' interests vs. larger industry/social/national issues. And is the generational issue here, just that?

Anonymous said...

Re: outshining the Democrats as a progressive voice--that should take about fifteen minutes these days.

I personally am thinking about putting a "The Labor Movement: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend" bumper sticker and a "Management: The Folks Who Brought You the Labor Movement" bumper sticker right next to each other. Mind f$#%!


dave3544 said...

I am saying that if the kids like it and it's the most popular thing in pop culture right now, maybe the AFL-CIO doesn't need to come out against it. The actually blog entry is about the Idol musicians getting screwed, which the kids are probably against, but the headline shouts "labor unions hate the Idol!"

To a large degree, I do think that the issues are generational and I fear that many of our older workers equate whatever is important with whatever they are concerned with. Which, to a certain degree makes some sense; I am sure they are in the majority and they have put the time and risen to positions of power. But, the labor movement cannot take this position and simultaneously wonder why the young people are not getting involved.

As we have all heard too many times in the last few years, our unions really do face generational crisis, with older workers set to retire in massive numbers and younger workers remaining aloof from the labor movement. Unfortunately, this situation is more noted than it is worked on. There are some programs out there, AFT does a fantastic job with the AGEL program. AFSCME has a Green(?) Wave program.

But then there are other times when this generational disparity is not so well handled. I recently attended a meeting where the chairperson asked everyone over the age of 50 to raise their hands. About 2/3 of the room raised their hands. He then asked everyone under the age of 30 to raise their hand. About 1/4 of the room did so. This was all that was said about the subject. The people under 30 took this demonstration to mean that they were out numbered and they should shut the hell up with all their crazy ideas. That the rest of the weekend was conducted so as to reinforce this message did not help.

Yes, unions are charged with serving their members interests, but if that means telling the young people/adjuncts/environmentalists to shut the hell up, then we won't have a labor movement in 20 years.

Or, a more hopeful Dave might argue, we'll have the chance to radically re-envision the labor movement. Which might be why we're here today.

cps said...

Two separate thoughts.

Dave in your example of the bad meeting, I noticed that I wouldn't get to stand up. Now perhaps it is my not quite boomer not quite X status, but I do think that those in that age group get missed in this debate and are an important group--particularly for the kids to be talking to--since many of them are about to become leaders.

Second--the Big House went to e-communications more for financial reasons than to be hip, but is there a possibility that engaging in that forum (specifically their blog) more actively is a way for a younger cohort to start expressing opinions more directly? It would be an easy forum to have a major voice in--predictable caveat that comment on a blog isn't organizing, yada, yada, yada.