Now’s the Time: Organizing in the Face of the Class War

Despite inspiring and massive rallies and protest campaigns, the two most visible attacks on America’s working class – the anti-union bills in Wisconsin and Ohio – have both been signed into law.  While the attack on public sector unions is, in itself, just the latest salvo in an ongoing class war, its effects will go far beyond the workers directly involved.  These bills will lead to restructuring of a variety of public services, from education and home health care to government offices and police stations.

Over the last 30 years, many of the economic battles have been fought on a local or regional level, and in many cases, only the most-directly affected workers got involved. In Ohio, for example, struggles over deindustrialization and organized labor occurred primarily in steel and auto factories in the northern part of the state, making statewide organizing against economic restructuring difficult because many workers  were not directly impacted.

But things might be different this time.  In most states, new limits on public sector bargaining will affect people in every city and town, as well as people in very different situations – workers, students, the elderly, families with young children, and others.   That creates opportunities for organizing cross geographical boundaries.  Similarly, these bills create potential new constituencies as students, younger workers, women, and people of color recognize that they will be disproportionately impacted. While blacks comprise 15% of all adult workers, they are 18.5% of the public sector workers, and Ohio Policy Matters found that of the 700,000 Ohio public sector workers more than 400,000 are women. Women comprise an even higher percentage of teachers in K-12 education, especially in traditionally Republican suburban areas. As Natasha Vargas-Cooper noted in yesterday’s New York Times, this attack helps create the potential for coalitions that will link the traditionally weaker unions representing female service workers with the more respected safety workers unions, dominated by men.

The latest battle in the class war may even draw some unexpected allies.  In Youngstown, one the nation’s fastest growing technology firms, Turning Technologies, has withdrawn from the Regional Chamber of Commerce in protest of its support  of SB5, as have two other local companies.  All of which is to suggest that mobilizing around public sector ballot initiatives and recall campaigns could be both wide and deep.

Getting thousands to show up for rallies or write letters in the fever of the initial public sector skirmishes hasn’t been that hard.  Over the last two months, people have been angry, and they wanted to take action.  And while making the drive across the state to be part of a crowd of tens of thousands is a significant commitment of time and energy, it’s also exciting.  As the videos showing witty signs and costumes remind us, protesting can be fun and even aerobic.

But now is the time for on the ground organizing, and the work ahead will be less dramatic and in many ways much harder than showing up for a protest or writing a letter.  Going door-to-door to get signatures can be thought of as hand-to-hand combat where individuals have to be informed and ready to perform in a sometimes hostile environment. But it’s also essential to the political process, especially given the amount of money corporations and conservative business interests will be spending on political advertising to defeat repeal/recall initiatives.

To make matters worse, organizers will have to overcome the effects of the dashed hopes of the  Obama presidency.  As Chris Hedges writes in The Death of the Liberal Class, progressives understand that the party they once counted on to advance their interests has sold out to the big money that controls so much of the political process.  Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson review the political and policy decisions of the last few decades in Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer – And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, tracing how corporate influence has pervaded Democrat Party politics and caused growing inequality in America.

At the end of their book, Hacker and Pierson suggest several key elements for changing the trend toward inequality, including “facilitat[ing] broader participation among those whose voices are currently drowned out” and “encourag[ing] the development of groups that can provide a continuing, organized capacity to mobilize middle-class voters and monitor government and politics on their behalf” (303).  For decades, working people – including those who did not belong to unions – counted on the labor movement to fulfill both of these functions.

With shrinking numbers and new legislation limiting its capacity, the labor movement can’t do this on its own. Nor should it. While the laws being passed now focus on public sector unions, the war won’t end there.  In Ohio, bills are being proposed to ban overtime and institute “right to work” rules.  State budgets across the country and the House’s proposed federal budget all undermine support for working families and the poor, while refusing the challenge subsidies to business or to hold banks accountable for the financial crisis.  As we wrote last month, the working class is under attack on multiple fronts, and we need to stand together to fight back.

We need to build a movement that crosses boundaries – between public- and private-sector unions, the traditional working class of industrial, blue-collar workers and the new working class of retail and service workers, between the working class and the middle class, cities and suburbs, and among diverse types of organizations.  We need community organizers, churches, students, and others to work together.  In Youngstown, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative has organized its 44 neighborhood groups together with labor unionists, community faith-based groups, local non-profits and social service agencies to form a revenue coalition to fight state budget cuts.

And much of that collaborative effort must focus on the political process.  In Ohio, opponents of SB5 have to collect more than 230,000 signatures to get a referendum on the ballot, and then we need to do everything possible to get people out to the polls.  We need to mobilize the kind of engagement in the political process that put Barack Obama into office.  As a popular T-shirt from 2008 stated, we need to “be the change.”  Neither Obama nor the Democrats have done it for us.  It’s our turn.

We also need to take a page from the Tea Party.  Their efforts have contributed significantly to blocking the progressive possibilities of the 2008 election.  They succeeded by channeling their anger and fear into significant pressure on politicians.  We need to do the same.  That means we have to find the energy and commitment to keep on protesting, to challenge our elected officials – even those we think are most on our side – to truly represent us, and to get our share of the media spotlight.  We also need to keep in mind that despite the infusion of thousands of dollars from wealthy contributors, the Tea Party engaged in plenty of grassroots organizing.  We have to do that, too.  We need to be out there knocking on doors, talking with friends and relatives, gathering signatures for ballot and recall initiatives, and doing whatever it takes to put pressure on our elected leaders to support workers and our communities.

Here’s one place to begin: the National People’s Action “Showdown in Ohio,” May 16-17, to demand that businesses like J.P. Morgan “clean up their own mess.”  Join us in Columbus to show the world that the American working class isn’t going to back down.  And then go back to your neighborhood, your church, your gym, wherever it is you talk with anyone who might not be convinced, and tell them the story of how the rich are getting richer and the rest of us are losing our grip on the American dream.  Better yet, tell them your own story of how the war on the working class is making a difference in your community.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

Unions: Getting Things Done for Workers

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

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.