How to build our union movement: Ideas from LA

LOS ANGELES – As the AFL-CIO prepared to open its national convention here, two dozen committed union members and supporters voiced a slew of ideas for revitalizing the U.S. labor movement. They gathered here for a two-hour “listening session” Aug. 26, one in a series of over 200 such sessions around the country in the lead-up to the convention, which is taking place Sept. 8-12 in Los Angeles.

The theme of the convention, in light of the noticeable decline of unions in recent years, is building a broad coalition between labor and community strong enough to carry forward the struggle for a decent life for working and middle-class people. How and what can we learn from the rank and file, from union leaders, and from non-union workers?

The listening session here was sponsored by the Workmen’s Circle and the National Writers Union L.A. Chapter, with the significant presence of California School Employees Association members. Other unions represented included SAG/AFTRA, SEIU, Teamsters, Newspaper Guild, and Utility Workers. The session was notable for its multiracial and multicultural character. Chloe Osmer, an AFL-CIO organizer for the “carwashero” car-wash workers organizing campaign, and specialist in organizing strategy and immigration reform, moderated.

Here’s a telegraph-style summary of their animated, wide-ranging conversation:

Community partnerships and grassroots power:

Educate the community and the consumer on the advantages of unions…. Education about our history and gains must start from inside the rank and file…. Bring education to community college students, and encourage student organizing around key issues…. Use social media to engage young people where they are already getting their news…. Create our own media to combat the mainstream culture’s branding of unions…. Bring the music back! Use labor choruses and other forms of music and art to bring people together and take the social pulse…. Re-establish Sunday schools for workers to educate the working class and their children…. Find a central strong slogan to unite labor and community with positive messages…. Take back and redefine the union image…. Research and understand the role of religion in union workers’ lives…. Listen to community partners’ needs: Coalitions involve listening to others, not just getting others onboard your issues…. What is our vision of America with a more developed public sector?

Creating a voice for all in the global economy:

Create partnership between labor and corporations, as in Germany, even though business in the U.S. is not interested because its agenda is to destroy the labor movement…. Promote international solidarity of workers: We’re all in same fight…. Labor needs not to be afraid to run our own candidates…. We need politicians to be labor minded; campaign reform must happen…. We need a Labor Party!… We need to understand the impact of war on the economy, and the forces driving the current state of labor and wages…. We need global consumer education: Vote with your dollars!… Regrettably, we see that unions are not held accountable for taking work and members from other unions. Unions are often not supportive of each other, and that keeps the employers in power and money…. Workers are not held accountable for violating union rules.

New growth and innovation in organizing and politics:

How do we open up unions to new workers and leaders, especially youth?… Develop a “Tweet” pitch…. Encourage youth leadership through mentoring…. Expand scholarship programs for young union members…. Many young workers are shortsighted due to inexperience: The union movement must appeal to immediate needs and wants of the workers…. Engage the rank and file, and non-union members, to create a grassroots “stakeholder” organization with a steward structure not just for elections. Engage members directly….Establish clear defined goals for the movement to create a trajectory toward positive gains…. Hold both yourself and your union to a higher standard as you continue building skills…. Remember that new tech has created new cyber sweatshops…. There are a few extremely well-paid workers, like unionized sports stars who make millions, but the owners make millions more!… Develop messaging emphasizing the direct correlation between the downfall of the middle class and the downfall of unions. Workers produce the wealth, and well-paid workers will recreate and rebuild a healthy middle class…. Single Payer healthcare is a worker issue: People walk around tense and stressed from fear of an accident or illness…. Support the Rise Out of Poverty Act and make the work of homemakers and caregivers paid work!… A liveable wage for all!… Close corporate loopholes!

Careful notes were taken and submitted to the AFL-CIO. Expect some big changes coming out of this convention!



Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.