Union strategists have presented management with many surprises over the past few years within the union movement. The results of these strategies are going to change some of the fundamental ways in which they operate.
In the early 1980’s, the unions started their downward spiral in membership levels. They started taking a very careful and balanced approach in trying to recreate a new “union movement”. They decided to play it safe and let the AFL/CIO put more resources into labor law reform where they would become so embedded in the political framework of the Democratic party that they would be mutually assured destruction without each other. This strategy took years to bring to fruition but we are just now seeing the verge of getting hit with the lights out blow that the union has been seeking after years of political pressure and backroom deals.
For years, unions have been trying to ride the waves of popular social movements while trying to balance public opinion. When I was lobbying for the AFL/CIO in Washington D.C., this used to frustrate us. Later in my “union career”, when I was a senior strike coordinator, we felt that we were struggling with the dilemma of how to stay favorable in the public eye amidst the public angst we were attempting to create.
When I was a union official, I consistently argued that for the union to truly increase membership, the unions had to create energy and momentum around large public movements. I vividly remember a time while coordinating the Detroit Newspaper Strike when we decided we were going to take to the streets and cause havoc. Sometimes there would be massive work traffic slowdowns on the expressway where we coordinated hundreds of car’s that would synchronize entering the expressways at a snails pace in waves during the busiest work times bringing traffic to a near standstill. As I told news reporters covering the story at the time, I was tired of the general public being unaffected by what, at the time I felt was a great injustice to the “labor movement”.
I did an interview with the Workers World Newspaper on a strike line and was quoted describing how the union needed to return to power. I talked about how the union movement needed to forcefully control the streets. I called the streets "our playground" and emphasized the need to start taking control of regions while putting together "specialized response teams" to react to labor strikes and corporate organizing campaigns.
I was also quoted as saying that we needed to get serious in changing our strategy on how we attacked our targeted companies. I said, “we need to hit them where they are not expecting us, take the fight to their hidden interest, their weakest link, whether it was an institution or persons.” In the Detroit Newspaper Strike, and many others, we went after the interests of the board members and their families. At the time, I felt that the higher the profile of the target, the better the results would be. We hit them at every turn and even got Rosalyn Carter (President Jimmy Carter's Wife) to resign from the Board of Directors of one of the parent companies that we were on strike with. We used unconventionally advance tactics to confuse and frustrate the companies and it was easy. I remember in the beginning of the Detroit Newspaper Strike, the companies were flying newspapers out in helicopters. Every weekend we had mass night meetings where we often had over 3,000 strikers and supporters in attendance to plan our targets for the night and had these same helicopters following the cars leaving the meetings. We caught on after the first time and started sending out runner cars to attract the chasers and then hit the real targets. We released thousands of helium balloons around the helicopter staging area and soon stopped the company actions. Working in small, dedicated circles helped root out any infiltrators' sent by the company to spy on us. We even turned some of them around to work on our behalf.
The Justice for Janitors organizing campaign utilized some of these same tactics, taking over offices and going after the owners and controllers of the services directly instead of the company’s local management. I have had several hard conversations with AFL/CIO President, Richard Trumka, when he was the Secretary Treasurer for the labor federation about these much-needed changes. Trumka agreed with me that we needed to revamp tactics and get much more aggressive.
These discussions have been a hot topic for many years within the international unions and the frustration sometimes overflowed into yelling matches between the old school establishment and the more aggressive emerging labor leaders. In 1998, while I was on a AFL/CIO sponsored strike educational speaker's committee to bring national wide financial and man power support to current labor struggles, I had a Radio interview in Berkley California with radical journalist and union/human rights activist, David Bacon. The topic was long term strategies to grow labor power in an ever growing conserved and restrictive legal environment. The ideas and discussions were amazingly sophisticated, well thought out and planned, at the time I was a very aggressive advocate of forceful tactics to attack corporate interest globally and to make them capitulate to organized labor's demands and nothing was off the table for me. Many of the ideas from the host and the callers we as strong or stronger than mine, reflecting on the underground levels of anger and frustration at that time. This just highlights that the fact that the present Occupy Wall Street actions have a deeper foundation then many people think and is not likely to be just a short time trend.
The union federations now have an embarrassing dilemma. The Occupy Wall Street protest began on September 17, 2011 and turned all the past attempts by the unions to mobilize masses to their cause on their backside. The unions have attached themselves to the movement and it has grown past their limited abilities to stay in front of the expanding agenda of the Occupy movement, the union federation has plans to coordinate some jurisdiction issues with the movement as it becomes more structured. The unions have been trying to find a common denominator between the average worker and what the union’s messages are. Many of them are the same as the Occupy movement. The fact is that Occupy Wall Street is a Wobbly (IWW) sort of endeavor, with numerous characteristics ("general assemblies", “horizontal democracy”, an emphasis on direct action, libraries for the rank and file, and adopted creative tactics -- from clogging the court system, to the silent shaming tactic at UC Davis) either explicitly borrowed from the IWW, or re-discovered organically. The IWW is the only union in the U.S. that has supported the general strike as a vital weapon against capital since its inception in 1905. It should be noted that the one person most credited with launching Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, Anthropologist David Graeber, is not just an anarchist, he is also a Wobbly.
There are several parallels between the Occupy Movement and the IWW strategies and tactics:
- The singular message, " The 99% and fighting for the middle class and an unrighteous enemy " is simple and straight forward
- It will have to mature of course but it captured the public's imagination
- It is also the Unions message
- They are targeting the “1% “
- Evoking and targeting hatred against the “1%” which includes any umbrella organization,
- They are clearly defining the “enemy”.
- Leading with bold actions
- Mass Movement 101, for any cause, is that when you have people ready to fight you need to give them something to do and work towards
- Unions have this desire and have action plans in hand but have not fully engaged them
- In recent years, unions haven't taken the actions to ignite any movement for their cause.
- Looked broadly for allies,
- Reaching out to many groups and organizations to participate and unit the many.
- Attacking the perceived enemy directly with the unabashed goal of doing damage without concern of consequences.
For the first time in more than 20 years, two of the most polarizing figures in the union structure, former AFL/CIO President, John Sweeney and former Change to Win creator, Andy Stern, whose inside fighting directly lead to years of stagnation, cross union sabotage, mistrust and the untimely spit of the ALF/CIO Federation are out of the picture.
Today, the different union federations appear to be working together towards common goals. This is something that was unimaginable during the Sweeney-Stern years. This is also something that will allow unions to forge forward with their plans of replenishing membership numbers and taking the new union movement to the next level.
AFL/CIO President, Richard Trumka, stated on the day he was sworn in that "the time for us leading from behind is gone, we are going to aggressively take back the direction of our movement from the restrictions of government bureaucracy."
What does all this mean for the future of the union movement and likely strategic shifts unions currently utilize?
- Unions are now starting to work closer with the Occupy movement to make it a more sophisticated organization.
- Better direction
- Coordination of actions that support the union cause
- Boycotts that would violate the NLRA
- Care taken not to alienate the movement by making it appear the union is taking control of Occupy
- The union benefits from Occupy leadership to appear to be in control
- A level of energy and unpredictability has been established with a security cushion for the union.
- Occupy has more freedoms to act than the unions per labor law
- Unions receive the benefits of mass actions of the Occupy Protesters without violating the NLRA (such as secondary boycotts and other damaging tactics) because it is a Occupy Wall Street activity
- Essentially allows unions to side step labor law
- The union has strongly advocated they are “partners” with management over the past few years
- Lost legitimacy when negotiating a hard stance contract
- With Occupy, they are saying that the company is the “enemy” which is the opposite of being a “partner” with management.
- Example – Bob King stated the UAW is a partner in the rebirth of the Big 3 to set an atmosphere of cooperation
- “Partnership” with Big 3 served as a false level of comfort to increase ability to organize foreign implant automakers)
- Unions are pushing to take no-strike clauses out of contracts
- Unions will work closer with CLC's (Central Labor Councils) to build closer bonds with union locals and their membership
- Unions will expand their associations with nontraditional grass roots groups to widen their mass support base.
- Unions will increase local governmental support bases
- Unions will take a harder line with calculated targets in contract negotiations
- More support for strikes with financial support
- Use outside support groups like the Occupy Movement to bypass strike line injunctions and restrictions.
- Unions will utilize co-union resources to hold multi union/attacks with each union targeting specific departments.
- Set up youth lead union outreach committees to lead the communication dialog and union introduction with Occupy Wall Street and/or similar organizations.
- Support for general Strikes
The Occupy Movement has increased public acceptance to mass protests and a more flexible resilience to the personal unconvinced that are caused by it because they feel a connection to the struggle they represent.
The union movement has a small window to take action to be proactive within the Occupy Movement. They cannot allow the Occupy Movement to become bigger than the institution of unionism to make their attachment effective, while at the same time, the unions have to allow the Occupy Movement and those watching it believe that their involvement is more about an attack on the “1%” than it is about growing membership numbers.
Between the Occupy Movement and other connections they are receiving by a pro union NLRB, they could grow their rank and file membership dramatically in upcoming years.
Equally, management has a small window to take action and be proactive and not let outside groups take control of their positive corporate message. A breakdown of communication is the biggest cause of union organizing campaigns along with internal mistrust. To avoid a union storm you must see the storm clouds on the horizon and take action before it's too late to win the trust or your employees. The new NLRB rules take effect on April 30, 2012. The clouds are now on the horizon. The storm is coming. It is time to batten down the hatches and react before it’s too late.