This month, workers at Walmart formed a group called the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart). The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union is investing seed money in this new organization, envisioning it as a way that Walmart workers can both advocate for themselves and engage with the rest of the labor movement, even though these employees are not able to create traditional labor structures within Walmart stores.
At a time in history when employers like Walmart do everything they can to deny employees their right to freely form a union in their workplaces, organized labor sees that it must reach out to workers in new ways. OUR Walmart is one of a variety of efforts launched in recent years that blend workplace and community organizing. These experiments mobilize workers around the difficulties they face everyday at work, yet these new groups look more like community advocacy organizations than like traditional labor unions; that is, these new efforts usually frame their activities less around particular workplace wrongs and more around broader questions of economic justice.
In our book, A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement, we argue for just this sort of a multifaceted labor movement–one that is rooted in communities as well as in workplaces. In the past, organized labor grew when it was part of a broad impulse of working people to better their lives and transform society. If labor is seen as a narrow special interest, relevant only to the small section of the workforce that belongs to traditional unions today, it will grow more and more marginal. Instead, the labor movement needs to establish itself as a strong advocate for all employees in America.
The non-traditional labor effort represented by OUR Walmart has precedents in the “associational membership” drives spawned by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and others in the 1990s and before. These included The Alliance@IBM as well as WashTech, an effort to enlist employees at Microsoft and other tech workers in the Seattle area. And in 2003, the AFL-CIO launched Working America, a national-level effort, that has allowed millions of workers who do not have the benefit of a union to join the labor movement and work on public policy issues that are important to them, such as health care, green jobs, education, social security, and a more just economy. Likewise, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) recently announced a campaign called “Fight for a Fair Economy.” In cities throughout the country, SEIU will be working both in communities and workplaces to raise awareness and build collective power around issues affecting all working people.
These efforts to span labor and community parallel the regional-based coalitions that we explore in A New New Deal. Based on our research for that book and since then, we would argue that, rather than debating any new organizing effort in the abstract, we should have some solid criteria for measuring the success of each new experimental effort. We would offer these three questions to any new labor organization.
Question #1: Do You Learn From the Past?
As a first standard for evaluating a new community-labor campaign, organizers should ask “Is this initiative taking lessons from past endeavors?”
Businesses fail all the time. But the business community is excellent at learning from its mistakes, documenting lessons that can be helpful for the future, and compiling best practices. Labor needs to do the same. Too often, if an experimental organizing campaign does not yield hoped-for results, we treat the failure as a personal issue, faulting the individuals responsible for the campaign. Then we launch new efforts with a different cast of characters and a fresh set of un-grounded hopes. Rarely do we look back dispassionately and draw lessons from the past, making sure that each new effort takes off from an improved starting place.
One of our goals in writing A New New Deal was to combat this trend. We set out to document efforts across the country to build substantive community-labor partnerships. We looked carefully at some of the things that successful efforts had in common. Our feeling in doing this was that having a good understanding of best practices would allow them to be replicated. For example, we found that even though individual campaigns may have large lists of endorsing organizations, the most effective multi-issue labor-community coalitions have grown around a relatively small core of partners.
In this spirit, those building OUR Walmart should judge their success in part based on what wisdom they glean from their predecessors.
Question #2: Are You Planning for the Long Haul?
Having long-term vision doesn’t mean that the labor movement should continue pouring money into an experimental campaign for decades on end without getting results; it means having concrete, realistic goals that are spread out over time.
The ultimate goal of OUR Walmart might be to create a situation where employees feel empowered enough to create traditional unions, and where Walmart workers in stores throughout the country are able to enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining. But as we’ve seen from the drives of the past two decades (See Question #1!), this is going to a long, slow fight. Therefore, OUR Walmart needs to be thinking in terms of smaller victories, achievable over time, that can together amount to something larger. The group needs to have a concrete sense of what it might accomplish over a two- or five- or ten-year time frame—goals that are ambitious, but that do not reflect desperate, all-or-nothing thinking.
The most successful regional efforts covered by A New New Deal all maintained this duel focus, in which individual efforts/smaller actions took place within a long-term plan shared by the core partners. Long-term collaboration did not rise or fall based on the success or failure of any given single campaign. Because it often seems natural just to focus on the tasks immediately at hand, it’s important to remember to give deliberate attention to building for the long haul in a committed, pragmatic way.
Question #3: Are You Solving Problems in the Community?
One of the reasons we focused A New New Deal on coalitions between labor and the community is that, in today’s economy, the problems faced by working people are not contained within their workplaces. Collective bargaining remains a critical, bedrock tool. But even if unions win good contracts between employees and employers, issues like housing, transportation, health care, and education—which transcend any single workplace—will still have a huge impact on the quality of people’s lives.
In A New New Deal, we make the case that labor must establish itself as a problem-solver in communities at large, not just entity that represents employees at a limited number of workplaces. The labor movement does this by building deep coalitions with other community and social justice organizations—joining together a broad range of voices to advocate for progressive public policy. It does it by generating research about how the regional economy works and how community resources can be used to serve the public good. And, last but not least, it does this by engaging elected officials in new ways, making social movements partners in governing.
And Don’t Forget about Walmart
Even while focusing on broader goals, OUR Walmart should not let the company off the hook. OUR Walmart should publicize Walmart’s need to pay living wages and treat workers with respect, but should also take a broader view—showing how Walmart impacts transportation, housing, poverty, and public budgets in a given community, and how collective action might be used to address these matters.
When labor organizations can show that they are proposing and promoting real solutions in a community, they create a basis for widespread public support. Experimental drives that do this, and that learn from the past, and that commit to a long-term strategy for fostering change are vital to labor’s future.
With this in mind, we will be following the work of OUR Walmart with a hopeful and supportive eye, cognizant that all Americans have a stake in its success.
– Amy Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement. She worked for nearly two decades in the labor movement and now works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations in progressive, labor, and faith communities. You can follow Amy on Twitter at @amybdean. David Reynolds, Ph.D. works on the staff of the Labor Studies Center, Wayne State University in Detroit where he trains union leadership and rank and members. He co-coordinates the Building Regional Power Research Project (regionalpowerbuilding.webs.com). Reynolds’ prior works include Taking the High Road: Communities Organize for Economic Change, and Partnering for Change (both from M.E. Sharpe).