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This may sound like a less than intelligent question, but I bet there are a lot of people on this site who have little idea about what a union really is, or what they do.  I know when I got into the workplace 20 years ago, I had little understanding of what a union was, what it could do for me and my coworkers, and what it could do for the economy and our country as a whole.

Most of what I knew came from television, which, much to my surprise, was not the best source of educational content.  I can honestly say that unions were never discussed in my early education, other than brief references to a few of the major dramatic incidents in American history.  Even in college, one of the few courses that discussed unions was economics 101, and many professors of economics view (or viewed at my school) unions as a market inefficiency that had a negative impact rather than a positive influence.  Some of the better political science courses discussed labor issues but often in the context of Marx, Hegel and other political philosophers.  

I knew nothing meaningful about unions until I began working at an employer that was unionized.  It still took me a good year or two to understand what the union was and what it could do for employees. Once I understood this fully, I was hooked.  I eventually made union activism my career.  Having started literally from zero knowledge, I quickly realized one of the biggest problems in the labor movement: we do not do a sufficient job educating even our own members about what it means to be in a union, what resources and advantages unions provide, and what role individual members play in the success of the union as an organization.

People who have been in the labor movement for a long time assume several things that are not true for most people, particularly those in younger generations: that employees know what a union is, that employees understand the structure and functioning of their own union, that employees have  some meaningful understanding of the history of unions, and that employees even understand basic terms like collective bargaining agreement, bargaining unit, or grievance.  Unfortunately, this is often not the case.  Some unions do a good job of member education and outreach, but many unions do not, and there is a growing disconnect between the membership and their leaders.

If union members themselves don't have a solid understanding of the union movement, then it is going to naturally follow that the public at large will not have any greater understanding than they do.  This contributes to the state we find ourselves in, where unions have utterly failed at driving the marketing and public relations narratives that surround them.  We have allowed employer groups to convince employees, even our own members, that we are the threat, that we are going to cost them jobs and somehow take away their liberty as individuals.  We need to start from scratch, educate our own members first, and create a comprehensive plan to take back perception internally and externally in the short and long run.  Collective bargaining is a wonderful, dynamic and very effective process that benefits all involved.  But before people understand that, they have to understand how it works.

We need to get back to basics, and eliminate all assumptions that keep us from progressing.

Originally posted to Labor Reformer on Tue Mar 19, 2013 at 08:09 PM PDT.

Also republished by In Support of Labor and Unions.

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Comment Preferences

  •  If it's civil, then it's a second class version... (0+ / 0-)

    ...of marriage.

    Or are we talkin' labor here? I suppose that maybe I should actually read a diary before posting comments.

    I get so confused these days...

  •  While I'll continue (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Mentatmark, Pilotshark

    to recommend everything you write, and your are writing truthfully about important issues, I have to ask;

    How do you get folks to listen to labor history when 95% of them don't even go to union meetings and 85% don't vote in union office elections and 60% don't even vote on contract proposals?

    Please pardon any exaggerations.

    and the worst part is I am sincere.  In God's name how do you?

    Orly, it isn't evidence just because you downloaded it from the internet.

    by 6412093 on Tue Mar 19, 2013 at 08:20:05 PM PDT

    •  Great question (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Mostel26, Pilotshark

      Unfortunately one that cannot be answered quickly.  I do plan on posting some more in depth thoughts on that subject soon, but let me be clear: there is no silver bullet, it won't happen overnight, and each local union has different barriers to effective communications that need different solutions.  

      Please know that you are not alone in your experience and frustration.  I have felt it many times and often I am overwhelmed by a sense that the war is not one that can be won.  There is no shame in that feeling.  But I have seen enough successes to know that if we focus long term, fight the right battles, and stick together, we can make significant improvements and gains for our members and our communities.

      On a more practical note, I can offer a few big picture suggestions that are somewhat universal.

      1.  Never stop trying.  You are swimming up against the current and it is exhausting physically and mentally.  It is easy to give in to the temptation to quit, but it is a fight worth fighting.  Take pleasure in the small victories.
      2.  You can't do it alone.  If you are a member of a larger union with full time staff, make the ask for resources and help.  If they don't give it, let them know you may be shopping for a union that will.  Also build your local organization one potential leader at a time.  Even a few helpers makes a difference.
      3.  Communicate, communicate, communicate.  Both directions, share with members what the union is doing, what it would like to do, and what it has done.   Distribute copies of the contract, talk about grievance victories, unfair labor practice victories, negotiating successes, etc.  But also actively solicit people's opinions about what the union is doing wrong, what it is doing right, and what it isn't doing that it could be.  Avoid the compulsion to be defensive in the face of criticism.  Listen intently, probe for more information, and be receptive.  We can't fix it if we don't know what is broken, and people won't tell us what is wrong if we don't really accept and encourage that input. Use social media if your workplace has people who are inclined to use it.  If your local doesn't have Facebook, twitter, and other social media presence, it probably should.  Great way to communicate about bargaining updates.
      4.  Start small, but think big.  Develop a list of goals and barriers to achieving those goals.  Break down what types of steps you can take to respond to each barrier.  Be systematic about the approach.
      5.  Avoid at all costs the line: Because we have always done it that way as a justification.  Certain traditions are great, but inertia for its own sake is a killer.
      6.  Find some subjects that your coworkers are passionate about and begin advocating for improvements.  Are you in a profession with safety risks that are not addressed?  Look for solutions to rally people around.  Do you have a younger work force with college debt?  Try and negotiate a loan reimbursement program.  Do people fear unfair discipline?  Rally around just cause and due process articles of your contract.  

  •  I'll watch this stuff closely, because (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I'm the sole dues-paying union member and steward where I'm at. The biggest problem --well, problems-- is a belief that being in a union is utterly pointless because "we already have all that stuff like vacations, sick leave and weekends". Basically, thanks, unions, but your time is done.

    And secondly, the notion pervades the workforce that to even say the word "union" out loud is tantamount to treason and the boss can dump your ass in a heartbeat and claim self-defense.

    The internet is ruled by cat people. Dog people are busy playing outside.

    by Canis Aureus on Tue Mar 19, 2013 at 09:01:52 PM PDT

  •  I worked at two union jobs (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    rmonroe, nextstep

    One union was totally worthless only collecting dues and not giving much in return. The other one was quite good. I got paid disability payments when I went to treatment.

    Some people have short memories

    by lenzy1000 on Tue Mar 19, 2013 at 09:11:36 PM PDT

  •  I learned the value of a union (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    6412093, Mostel26, Pilotshark

    when I was a member back in the '70's. After two strikes I learned that big corporations won't do the right thing out of the goodness of their hearts. They must be forced by strikes and threats of strikes. Their bottom lines are their main concern, not the welfare of their workers.

    Play chess for the Kossacks on Join the site, then the group at

    by rmonroe on Tue Mar 19, 2013 at 09:31:16 PM PDT

  •  And that's just one kind of union (0+ / 0-)

    The bargaining unit, contract business union.  That is, of course, the most common and widespread sort of union, both in the US and worldwide.  Yet it's not, and never has been, the only sort.  We see in numerous crafts, in particular the building trades, union bodies that share ome, but far from all the characteristics of the industrial union, that have roots reaching back into medieval guild structures that still have practical implications.

    Beyond bargaining unit industrial unions and craft unions, there have long been in many places "solidarity unions" that don't have contractual provisions as part of their own goals, although they often act in support of workers organizing for contracts and bargaining units.  There are laws on the books in the US which exist for no other reason but to suppresss solidarity unionism, usually enacted in fear of or hostility to the old IWW.  These laws usually take the form of criminalizing indirect pressure techniques, solidarity strikes, secondary boycotts and the like.

    Beyond solidarity unions, there are workers collective organizations formed to advance the aims of employee ownership and/or worker self-management.  Spain's famous Mondragon organization is the world's largest example of this, and a strong argument can be made that the martial law crackdown on the Polish Solidarity union in 1981 resulted from a growing movement in this direction within Solidarity at that time.

    I think when we talk about a revitalized union movement in the 21st century, we shouldn't limit our vision strictly to the bargaining-unit, contract business nion model.  Of course it has numerous strengths and advantages for workers which any new movement would want to retain, but clearly that model alone has not been able to hold its own in the political economy of contemporary corporate capitalism.  A rejuvenated union movement will necessarily involve other aspects to rebuild the sense of community and solidarity, perhaps those I've mentioned, or maybe entirely new structures and initiatives.  The key is to be open to new streams of thought, ideas and energy in a way that the current US labor movement has deeply failed to be.

    Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

    by ActivistGuy on Tue Mar 19, 2013 at 09:53:51 PM PDT

    •  I think acknowledging the failure (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      ...of the labor movement to adequately adapt to the changing times is essential to fixing it.  History can teach us much about what does and does not work in previous times when it comes to organizing models, but we should never be wed to one form.   I agree that there are multiple models of labor organizations that are valuable and will be attractive to different portions of the workforce.  All should be encouraged, and someday I dream of comprehensive reform to the federal labor laws that actually makes collective bargaining and action a priority.  

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