The Future of Labor Unions and Community Coalitions

Over the last 30 years, the American labor movement has periodically gone through wrenching discussions of its failures to organize new workers and grow its membership. See, for example,  “The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions” (February, 1985), “New Voice for American Workers” (June, 1995), and “Change to Win” (July 2005). Almost every time, unions promise to listen to their members and allied non-governmental organizations more carefully and rethink union structures, organizing strategy, alliances, and engagement. In the past, despite the best of intentions, the results — especially in terms of membership growth — turn out to be negligible due to lukewarm leadership support, insufficient resources, and/or poor planning and execution. More importantly here, past strategic plans have left many community groups and political allies feeling betrayed by the process when the labor movement did not fully embrace their issues.

In March, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka called for yet another reevaluation because membership continues to decline and unions have lost political power and relevance. From now until the September 2013 convention, Trumka has asked the labor movement and its supporters to entertain new directions, strategies, and partnerships in the common struggle for social and economic justice. Trumka hopes this reexamination will result in a more sustainable new plan. In speaking to past initiatives and union leadership failures, Trumka says that the AFL-CIO is serious and that the time is over for leadership “bluster or head-in-the-sand insistence that everything is fine.”

But labor’s coalition partners are suspicious of the new initiative, especially community groups with working-class ties. Specifically, many feel that labor/community coalitions remain largely one-sided, primarily serving the interests of labor rather than working-class communities. For example, in the fight against the Ohio anti-union bill SB5 in 2011, community groups loaned labor groups, particularly SEIU, many of their best neighborhood organizers. Despite promises of continuity and reciprocity, SEIU brought the neighborhood organizers to Columbus just three days after the election and announced that they were no longer useful – but they should turn over all their organizing materials to the union. So ended the first experience of many neighborhood organizers with the labor movement. Later, many openly wondered how much union support they would receive for their organizing objectives, such as foreclosures, vacant housing, and human trafficking.

Community groups have to bear part of the blame for such actions. Clearly, since the destruction of ACORN by conservative groups, the rebuilding of sustainable community organization has been episodic, at best. In part, this is because of the difficulty of raising funds locally, which has led to the call for “monetizing organizing efforts.” The result is that community groups and working-class organizers have been forced to chase resources provided by labor unions and foundations, which means their campaigns often coalesce around other people’s issues. Often this has been done under the guise of “capacity building.” But, one might ask, capacity building for whom? While there is always tension around which local or national issues should receive organizing energy and resources, the net effect has been a general decline in grassroots organizing around sustainable neighborhood issues over the last few years. Regardless, community groups are undergoing their own reexamination of issues, structures, and coalitions.

As unions reconsider their futures, what should they consider? While there is no one answer, several key questions should be part of any reexamination.

First, will the organization in the future ask for participation or cooperation from its membership as it develops issues, strategies, and tactics? Participatory models stimulate and involve members in problem solving, group process, and collective action rather than just asking for support.

Second, will the relationship between labor and community groups be transformative or transactional? As Marshall Ganz has suggested, “Transformational” leadership engages followers in the risky and often exhilarating work of changing the world, work that often changes the activists themselves. Its sources are shared values that become wellsprings of the courage, creativity and hope needed to open new pathways to success. Transactional leadership, on the other hand, is about horse-trading and operating within the routine, and it is practiced to maintain, rather than change, the status quo.”

Third, will new labor and community coalitions be built on a transformative culture of organizing and education that builds skills, capacity, and sustainability among all parties rather than transactional policies and actions that are situational and episodic?

Fourth, will the new labor-community coalitions develop goals and strategies that will build capacity, or will they just develop a series of tactics? Will they be able to go beyond creative tactics that are unsustainable, unlike the Occupy Movement?

Fifth, will the new coalition be based around the values of social and economic justice and reciprocity, not just material advantage and one issue politics? That is, more attention, not just lip service, must be given to injustice, inequality, and discrimination? And will coalition efforts include more direct action and broad public protests?

Finally, will the labor movement develop a real plan to move forward, remembering that hope is not a plan and that any plan needs real resources? This means no unfunded mandates.  Substantial resources must be directed at outside organizing rather than to internal struggles, as we saw recently in California.

Obviously, the stakes are high for the labor community, as the labor movement must change if it is to remain relevant. But can it really change? There are some indications that it can. For example, the AFL-CIO leadership has recently changed its policies regarding immigration. As a result, union activists have joined with pro-immigration allies and become a force at pro-immigration events and the lobbying of Congress.

But questions remain.  Will this round of reform be episodic? Can it change at the local level? The latter will take a commitment to broad-based internal organizing that might involve more change than union leaders can endure. But it could unleash the formidable powers of a rank and file that has been beat down by concessions and anti-union attacks. But now, more than ever, they are ready to fight.

John Russo

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4 Responses to The Future of Labor Unions and Community Coalitions

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  3. Larry says:

    Putting aside the way SEIU treats their members and their penchant for cutting sweetheart deals with employers, I’ve for years argued that their most damaging contribution to the labor movement is the way they treat their workers/allies. SEIU is the starting point for a lot of organizers who want to get involved in the labor movement. They either leave disillusioned and skeptical of labor, or move on to another union/community organization/whatever the case may be. The problem is the workers who learned their trade at SEIU take that style of union and spread it across other organizations and unions. It’s so damaging.


  4. Will says:

    “Later, many openly wondered how much union support they would receive for their organizing objectives, such as foreclosures, vacant housing, and human trafficking.”
    Add fighting the war on drugs to this list. It is devastating working-class communities, yet Labor is silent on the issue.


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