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U.S. Department of Labor Futurework
  Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century
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New organizing and organizational strategies toward a reinvented labor movement…

Rethinking Union Structures, Rebuilding Union Capacity

bullet Organizing Innovations: The Role of Local Unions
bullet Coordinating Regional Efforts: Central Labor Councils
bullet Crossing Boundaries: Multi-Union Organizing
bullet Refocusing National Leadership: The AFL-CIO

The overriding conception that many Americans have of the labor movement is one of dwindling membership and power, with rigid and bureaucratic structures struggling to regain ground as the economic landscape shifts rapidly beneath them. What few have recognized is that the labor movement is attempting to transform itself at all levels: from the bottom-up, as local unions engage in new strategies for organizing workers; from the center-out, as central labor councils and multi-union organizing draw together previously disjointed efforts; and from the top-down, as the AFL-CIO takes the lead in reshaping the movement at the national level.

Symposium presenters discussed the retooled strategies of the labor movement at all of these levels and also reported on new experiments around organizing and capacity-building that have been initiated across employers, industries, and the nation.

Organizing Innovations: The Role of Local Unions

Saul Rubinstein of Rutgers University has been tracking the activities of innovative union locals that are rethinking their strategies, roles, and structures in response to competitive pressures or through negotiated opportunities such as cooperative partnership agreements. While the characteristics and industries of these locals—affiliated with national unions as diverse as the CWA, IBEW, UNITE, USWA, UAW, and SEIU—differ significantly, they share one fundamental characteristic. All have expanded their activities beyond the traditional function of union locals. Common principles are also emerging out of their wide variety of experiences:

Man building with blocks The labor movement is transforming itself at all levels:from the bottom- up,as local unions engage in new strategies for organizing workers; from the center-out,as central labor councils and multi-union organizing draw together previously disjointed efforts;and from the top-down,as the AFL-CIO takes the lead in reshaping the movement at the national level.

bullet A Changed View of the Role of Management. “Management is seen much more as a function, not as a class of employees,” said Rubinstein. “The locals know that if they introduce the voice of labor in the management function by actually taking on management decision-making, it is a way to increase the representation of collective interests.” To be successful in this arena, however, local union representatives must also be involved in setting the decision-making agenda—not just in responding to one management has already set. In addition, Rubinstein reports that many of these locals are involved in areas that historically have been the sole purview of management: strategy formation, product development, technology selection, and the implementation of new forms of production, budgeting, finance, manpower allocation, supplier and employee selection, and actual operations management.

bullet Expanded Capacities and Skill Requirements. Given these new managerial functions, the capacity and skills of locals and their representatives have been stretched in several ways. “The first is the ability to balance responsibility for representing individuals whose rights have been violated, collective representation, and collective bargaining with contributions to business decisions,” Rubinstein explained. The second is the development of local leadership with a cross-functional understanding of a firm’s business in order to contribute broadly to decision-making. “Locals have had to organize resources around these multiple roles, with a new division of labor within the firm and in the reshaped structure of the local itself,” he said.

bullet Targeted Organizational Development. To both manage the union and engage with management, innovative locals have been forced to grapple with structural problems that require organizational development. Traditional local structures have a division of labor that provides resources to support individual representation through grievance committees and collective representation through a bargaining committee. According to Rubinstein, this organizational form is poorly suited to the pursuit of new organizational responsibilities such as strategy formulation, finance, budgeting, and product development. In order to balance the needs of representation and co-management, many locals have undertaken internal reorganization, developing forums for reporting to the rank and file and receiving its input.

bullet A Proliferation of New Structural Forms. Related to the organizational realignment required to carry out these new functions, many locals have created a variety of both off-line and on-line structures. “The off-line forms are for the local’s leadership to widen governance responsibilities in joint labor-management committees with their non-represented counterparts,” said Rubinstein. “This strategy allowed the firm to engage in cross-boundary linkages with customers and suppliers as well as the corporation and national union.” On-line efforts include involving the membership in self-directed or –managed teams or embedding them in managerial positions within the organization.

bullet Challenges Around Solidarity. “These new roles and capacities raise an issue around enterprise unionism versus solidarity with other locals,” said Rubinstein. “Locals tend to have an enterprise focus in order to engage in business decisions, but there’s some question about whether this role compromises their solidarity with other locals and the national union.”

Coordinating Regional Efforts: Central Labor Councils

The historic role of the approximately 600 Central Labor Councils (CLCs) around the United States has been to engage in regional political and legislative action around elections, fundraising, and lobbying, as well as to coordinate union response to and participation in community activities and service provision. As Susan Eaton of MIT’s Sloan School of Management explained, local unions are not required to affiliate with their CLCs, and the “voluntary” nature of their membership raises a set of issues around relationships with constituencies and the availability of resources. “Since revenue is primarily from membership dues, with some support from the AFL-CIO,” said Eaton, “CLC leadership had to convince locals to affiliate or they would lose their funding. Yet they represent the labor movement generally—the AFL-CIO at the territorial level—and are not directly responsible for organizing workers or negotiating agreements.”One of the first actions taken by John Sweeney as the new president of the AFL-CIO was to assemble CLC leaders at a conference to discuss ways of revitalizing the fundamental role of these councils. Sweeney and the Executive Council reorganized the struc-ture of the AFL-CIO and increased its diversity, creating four new regions and appointing regional and state directors as well as some local representatives. The new officers, in partnership with the Central Labor Council Advisory Committee comprised of a cross-section of CLC leaders, also launched the Union Cities campaign, which created an entirely new role for CLCs. “The idea of Union Cities was to create strong communities and permanent alliances with community-based groups,” Eaton explained. “CLCs now have a new role in union member education and mobilization, which is very unusual since they traditionally had stayed out of matters internal to local unions and the role of organizing.”

In many cities, CLCs have risen to the occasion, developing rapid response mechanisms for supporting organizing, contract battles, and community campaigns. CLCs have also continued to work in the political arena, but have begun to focus on building power and religious/community coalitions, as well as on developing regional training programs as part of economic development efforts. The AFL-CIO may seek to further reinforce all of the work being done at the state and local levels through a new program—to be called “The New Alliance”—which will be voted on this fall at its convention in Los Angeles.

While the changes enacted by Sweeney and the new leadership represent a great deal of promise for the future of CLCs—particularly around local collaboration and community building—Eaton believes that open questions remain about the effectiveness and sustainability of the CLC’s reinvented role:

bullet Can the community focus of the new CLCs win support among the public and their allies, as well as recognition that they represent all working families, as they seek to do, rather than unionized workers only?

bullet How will the CLCs raise additional funds to support their new organizing and educational roles?

Man holding up blocks

As part of a move to reinvigorate the labor movement, the AFL-CIO is spearheading a series of experiments involving strategic organizing across unions and in conjunction with the national federation.

bullet How will CLCs support organizing efforts—a demanding role that constitutes a fundamental charge in their missions—while still engaging in political activity and fulfilling the expectations of union members?

Crossing Boundaries: Multi-Union Organizing

As part of a move to reinvigorate the labor movement, the AFL-CIO is spearheading a series of experiments involving strategic organizing across unions and in conjunction with the national federation. According to Jane McAlevey, who heads the Stamford Organizing Project for the AFL-CIO, these initiatives are intended to develop and test innovative practices and, ultimately, to determine how lessons learned might be brought to scale. The campaign’s primary motivations are to organize workers in greater numbers and in less time, while their secondary motivations are to reframe labor’s relationship to the community, as well as how the community views the labor movement. These highly collaborative projects have engendered innovative institutional structures that transcend many of the boundaries that, historically, have fragmented labor efforts.

McAlevey’s campaign represents a geographically-based, multi-union organizing partnership between the AFL-CIO, three international unions, and four union locals: the SEIU, HERE, and the UAW. The partnership is managed by the Federation, which provides a campaign director, a strategic researcher, a community organizer, and an office manager; the local affiliates agree to send staff to serve as organizers. “With this organizational structure and shared funding between the locals and the national federation, we have a common office and share staff as needed on each other’s campaigns,” said McAlevey. “We also share a collective approach for the public campaign aspect of our community campaign building.” The Project’s advising structure is also collaborative, as it maintains a collective board with representation from the local presidents, the lead organizer on the Project, and the Federation.

While the Project is propelled by national support and collaboration, it has a local focus. In this case, organizers have drawn together to address the egregious income inequality in Fairfield County, Connecticut, and the exploitation considered to be rampant in the county’s predominantly service-sector jobs. “After systematically analyzing the power structure in the area,” said McAlevey, “we realized that we had to retrain our thinking as unions and reframed our public message to eliminate the notion that unions are somehow separate from the community: workers are the union; workers are the community; therefore the unions are the community.” The Project began to train its leaders to take an active role in both the campaign and in community work, as well as develop ties to local legislators, clergy, and civil rights groups. Thus far, the Stamford Organizing Project—in existence for only one year—has forged a sustainable and truly community-based campaign around workers rights and economic justice.

Using the leverage gained by collaborative work and support from community leaders, the Project has won substantial victories and influential allies in an incredibly short amount of time. When fighting one company’s anti-organizing campaign, the Project gained the support of the state legislature, including the majority leader, who made a public call for neutrality. In a major public-sector campaign to organize health care workers, it helped to move the leadership of the legislature to have District 1199 win a $210 million allocation from the State of Connecticut for salaries and improved staffing levels, and even changed the legislature’s funding formula.

Refocusing National Leadership: The AFL-CIO

Ron Blackwell of the AFL-CIO recounted a defining moment in the renewal of the American labor movement: “When Sweeney won the contested election in 1995 he said, ‘The problem is not who heads the labor movement, but where it is headed—toward irrelevance.’” The acknowledgment was that, at least at the national level, labor needed to expand the scope of its organizing efforts to meet the needs of a rapidly changing workforce with many new concerns. “The labor movement in the United States had always maintained the ability to contribute a measure of dignity for people at work, to lend fairness in the way income is distributed at the bargaining table, and to be a voice for social justice,” said Blackwell. “But we had, over the years, become less relevant to our membership—to addressing changing conditions at work, at the bargaining table, and in society.”

Under Sweeney’s direction, the AFL-CIO has arrived at a strategy for revitalizing the labor movement that consists of four major components: organizing; building political voice and power for workers; helping unions change in order to give workers a voice in a rapidly changing global economy; and helping unions change to give workers a voice in their local communities.

“We recognize that the economy is changing—and think that it is moving in the wrong direction,” said Blackwell. “We want to put the power of the national labor movement behind our local affiliates to help unions become influential in developing the strategies that will put us back on track.” The AFL-CIO has reorganized its offices and initiated a series of strategic programs in order to meet this challenge:

bullet Developing worker education programs to support organizing efforts. According to Blackwell, many workers no longer recognize that the problems they face at work are actually work-related problems. As an example, he questioned whether Texaco’s African-American workers were attributing discrimination by their employer to racism in society, not racism in the workplace. The AFL-CIO is developing an education program to help workers recognize that the problems at work are, in fact, work-related; that collective, rather than individual, action is often necessary for solving these problems; and that unions can serve as effective vehicles for such action.

bullet Directly supporting highly focused organizing campaigns with the potential for success. The AFL-CIO’s Center for Strategic Research is targeting entire sectors of the economy for organizing at a pace and scale never attempted before—a strategy that requires a two-fold focus. First, unions need to win in organizing campaigns that matter for helping unions rebuild power in their traditional jurisdictions. Second, unions must reposition themselves to organize in places where the economy is growing.

bullet Paving the high road—and blocking the low road—toward corporate responsibility. “We want our employers to be successful. They have to be successful—our jobs depend on it,” said Blackwell. “We want them to meet their competition in ways that don’t disadvantage the people who work for them and are not indifferent to the communities in which those companies are active.” Blackwell explained that paving the high road involves identifying businesses and competitive strategies that focus on product quality, promote continuous innovation, stress customer service, and meet price competition through increases in productivity. At the same time, the labor movement should work to block the low road—pressuring companies that insist on remaining competitive by weakening unions, undermining job security, and slashing wages and benefits.

bullet Organize pension funds to yield high long-term returns to retirees by supporting high-road corporate competitive strategies. The AFL-CIO’s Office of Investment is focusing its efforts on how capital markets can more effectively meet the needs of working families. The Center for Working Capital is an independent non-profit organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO that will press for a greater voice for workers in global capital markets.

bullet Fostering training for local economic development. The AFL-CIO-affiliated non-profit Working for America Institute focuses on a traditional union function—training—with an updated approach that includes the reform of work organization, industrial modernization, and technological change in the context of regional economic development.

Where does this range of effort—at multiple levels—leave the American labor movement? The reality is that despite these innovations, the decline in union density has not yet been reversed. Other strategies will be needed to appeal to a broader cross-section of the labor force. How to accomplish that reversal still constitutes an open debate within the labor movement itself and among those who believe in its value to society.

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