The search for a mass organizing strategy

Today, many unions are beginning to realize the need to organize unorganized workers. Some are still learning how to organize. Only a few have had marked success. Perhaps only the Service Employees International Union has had the mass organizing successes we look for in the rest of the movement – and those wins came after years of effort.

One approach unions are looking at is multi-union organizing – organizing campaigns involving a number of unions coordinating efforts on a large employer or a large number of workers at single or multiple work sites. It might involve a large hospital or university, or a number of employers in the same industry, such as hotels, metal shops or construction. In this scenario, a number of unions would be going after a section of the target or targets, but in a planned, coordinated effort. Optimally, these campaigns would be coordinated by the Central Labor Council (CLC) with help from other unions, Jobs With Justice (JwJ) and community forces.

There have been some successes with multi-union organizing, Las Vegas being the most notable, where most of the hotel industry, from construction to daily operations, were and are union. But for the most part, we find a single union, with little or no help from other unions or the wider community, carrying out organizing attempts.

While individual unions are struggling with the difficulties of organizing – hostile government, anti-union laws, lawsuits and a well-organized, well-funded, corporate front – the state and local central labor bodies are still weak and ill-equipped to provide much help.

Even in cities with a strong CLC, unions are only beginning to examine multi-union organizing strategies. Such an approach requires a certain level of understanding and trust on the part of the unions involved, as well as experience in working together on other projects. It would also need a strong central body to help coordinate such efforts. Ultimately, an approach that is cooperative, coordinated, commonly funded and has an attack mode mentality against corporations, will be the most effective way to get over today’s hump where union membership remains static.

The labor movement must make advances in a few arenas before a mass breakthrough in organizing will be realized.

It must significantly increase its political power. This includes developing its own political apparatus involving union members, and electing more trade unionists to political office and being able to help set the political agenda and atmosphere during elections. It must demonstrate that unions represent the concerns and needs of all working people. Finally, it must be concerned about maintaining a strong political presence between elections and become a permanent and continuing champion of working families.

Increasing labor’s power is critical to a mass organizing strategy for at least two reasons:

First, to demonstrate labor’s political power to workers by fighting for the interests of working families. Workers who see unions fighting for public education, a living wage, and affordable prescription drugs for all will have a better view of unions, one that will be harder for employers to undermine during an organizing drive. This is particularly true regarding issues of concern to the African American and Latino communities, where many of the workers who will join organizing campaigns come from.

Unions must demonstrate their political power if they are to utilize the influence of elected officials in organizing drives. Public officials can write a letter or pay a personal visit to the company, threaten to eliminate a tax rebate, or pass a resolution or ordinance in city council. Effective electoral/political work includes more than getting candidates elected. It also includes educating them on workers’ rights and the need for elected officials to support these issues.

The organizing campaigns that resulted in the building of the CIO only took off after the Wagner Act was passed and FDR urged workers to join unions. Before passage of the Act workers were fired for trying to organize, companies broke laws with impunity. Mass organizing in such a climate will not happen. Therefore the need to change the climate and to demand that elected officials and candidates help make that change.

The most critical and immediate development necessary for multi-union organizing is for unions, especially CLCs, to continue to advance coalition activities with community and friendly issue-oriented organizations. A classic example is Jobs with Justice, now 11 years old. Once looked upon with suspicion by most union officials, it is now an integral arm of the labor movement.

This coalition has served to unite labor and the wider community. Its activities around living-wage bills, fast track and the FTAA, accessible health care, affordable prescription drugs, and other issues have served to inter-relate so-called workers’ issues with community issues, to bring a greater understanding to union and non-union groups of each other’s issues and how to fight for both.

JwJ coalitions have been a very important factor in organizing drives, struggles for card-check union recognition, first contract struggles and in bringing wider support for strikes and lockouts. Most often, support has come in the form of demonstrations, one-time actions or a series of actions. Its Workers Rights Boards, comprised of prominent local figures, have monitored card checks, met with company directors and drawn unwanted media attention to recalcitrant employers.

Clearly, union organizing drives have been the most successful when they got the support of forces outside their own membership. These successes moved other unions to ‘see the light’. However, some unions have never called upon “outside” groups in their organizing efforts and have had more failures than successes.

As the labor movement becomes more successful in coalition building, recognition of the need for multi-union organizing will grow. Elected officials will become more involved in organizing. The workers being organized will be more receptive to unions. As labor’s political work should seek to set the agenda in politics, so its coalition work should seek to create a positive atmosphere for mass organizing. Joining a union will move up on the to-do list of working people. As unions become more socially acceptable and joining one becomes less of a risk, working people will begin joining in large numbers.



John Gallo is a trade union leader in Cleveland. This is a contribution to the organizing discussion kicked off on page 5. The author can be reached at pww@pww.org