I have been a labor organizer for 11 years. Periodically someone pronounces labor unions as dead or dying organizations, and we all put our heads together to think about ways to save them. Lately, I am much less worried about preserving this version of the labor movement. To me, preserving is about freezing in time and let’s be real: we are already starting to look a little moth-eaten. For most working people unions are something akin to a fairy tale character–either monster or superhero, depending your politics. Very few working-class people are now or have ever been members of a union.
Those unions that are left are under serious attack all over the county. It seems like the answer to those attacks can’t only be self-preservation. A movement of any kind is about moving–about being an instrument for change. It is about reflecting the people and struggle of today. I am very interested in figuring out how to make a labor movement that moves people forward. I keep coming back to a quotation from the late labor organizer and folk singer Utah Philips who defined a union as “a way of getting things done together that you can’t get done alone.” Nowhere in that definition is there a claim that there is only one way to get things done together. For that matter, the word “things” is open many interpretations.
During the last two months I have had little time to think about anything outside of the campaign I am working on here in Oregon. Workers who provide support for people with developmental disabilities are organizing for the first time to preserve the very programs that allow people with disabilities to exercise their civil rights and live independently. We have been visiting thousands of people to ask them what they feel needs to be done. The events in Wisconsin have broken through the bubble of campaign work and captured the imagination of organizers and workers alike. While the battle unfolding in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and elsewhere is partly about preservation, what has captivated me and others across the country is more than that.
Having a union is not the end goal. It is a means to an end, a tool for working people to have power over their lives and work. Now someone is trying to take away the best tool working people have for getting things done together. While working people themselves know what they want to get done, Wisconsin has shown a way it may be possible. Instead of becoming mired in an attempt to work through acceptable channels and follow a “process” that would have likely ended in crushing loss, people in Wisconsin took swift and direct action to confront the decision makers who were trying to rob them of their rights. That is a compelling lesson for all of us fighting to build a worker movement.
Recently, when a member of the union I work for was asked why she was volunteering to visit with non-union workers on her day off, she said: “I want to do a difference in the world . . . if not for myself then for others.” Let’s start there, by redefining the labor movement that way. What we do as a labor movement is to ‘do a difference’ for working people. If we are serious about organizing the working class, then working people need to decide what needs doing. With so few working-class people in unions we need to go far beyond our membership to ask what needs doing and then really listen to the answers. Let’s start where every union organizing drive should start: by talking to workers–employed and unemployed–about what they want to improve about their work and this economy.
A union has meaning when it is the expression of what working people want or need to do. What has become glaringly obvious in Wisconsin is that the system we are supposed to use to get what we need is mostly used against us these days. As a result, the labor movement needs to be an adaptable tool, molded to fit the task at hand. The demonstrations in Wisconsin speak to the potential power of people getting things done together and the need to display that power more.
If a union is a tool to get things done, then we have often been going about this all wrong. We don’t need to run around convincing people about the virtues of unions, we need to start with workers’ experience. We need to find out what can’t get done without coming together and create a labor movement that gets it done.
Angela MacWhinnie has been a union organizer for 11 years and currently works with SEIU Local 503 in Portland, Oregon. She is also a member of the Working-Class Studies Association.