Poor Workers Unions

Poor Workers’ Unions: Lessons for Labor
Feb. 23, 2005
Poor Workers’ Unions, by Vanessa Tait, South End Press, paper, $20

At a time when the U.S. labor movement is engaging in an unprecedented
public debate over the course of its future, one of the luckiest breaks we
could hope for would be for an informed and talented labor communicator to
publish a book that not only advocates a focus that has been missing from
the discussion, but also lays out the evidence of the past four decades for
why this focus is critical to our success.

In March we will catch that lucky break when South End Press publishes “Poor
Workers’ Unions: Rebuilding Labor from Below” by Vanessa Tait. What Tait
refers to as poor workers’ unions are organizations that have generally been
thought of as marginal to the labor movement, including unions of low-wage
workers and community-based organizations that have fought for workplace
rights, wages, and benefits. These organizations have developed into unions,
worked in harmony with unions, and struggled against unions. They include
civil rights, women’s rights, welfare rights, and community organizations,
as well as reform movements within unions. What distinguishes poor workers’
unions, as Tait has described them, is not just the organizing of those
earning low or no wages, but also a focus on social justice and
direct-action – characteristics of the labor movement when it was growing.

“Social justice unionism,” Tait said, “acknowledges the need to radically
restructure unionism to be consciously about race, ethnicity, and gender as
well as class. It encourages community ties as it builds coalitions against
entrenched power – whether in the workplace, in the neighborhood, or on the
national political level. By relying on community mobilization as a
strategy, this kind of unionism implicitly recognizes that workers’
identities are not defined solely by their work lives.”

According to Tait’s account, this kind of unionism was, during the 1960s and
70s, alive and well but living largely outside the AFL-CIO in independent
unions like the Distributive Workers of America and coalitions like the
Movement for Economic Justice and the National Welfare Rights Organization.

In the history Tait provides is a moment in 1968 that will sound oddly
familiar. Walter Reuther challenged George Meany to call a special
convention so that the UAW could present its plan for revitalizing the labor
movement. Meany refused, and the UAW disaffiliated. The UAW and the
Teamsters then formed the Alliance for Labor Action for the purpose of
organizing the unorganized (and organizing those already organized. but
belonging to the AFL-CIO). The ALA’s intentions sounded good: they would
organize an activist movement of millions. And they placed a lot of
importance on communications. And they failed.

They did not draw on the lessons of the civil rights movement or of past UAW
successes from which the civil rights movement had learned. They parachuted
a crew of outside organizers into Atlanta and began bombarding the Atlanta
media with advertising. The ads very successfully branded the ALA (43
percent of Atlantans knew the name), but didn’t convince a lot of people to
join it. Only 4,590 people voted for unions after 28 months. The ALA had
spent $1,200 per potential new union member.

The ALA failed to build anything up from the ground, to demonstrate small
successes before asking for big ones. The organizers did not work at or have
any connection to the organizing sites. And the workers found the
high-pressure advertising overly slick. It asked them to make an individual
decision to join a union for the sake of the consumer benefits it offered.
It did not ask anyone to join a movement with their fellow workers for the
cause of social justice, and it’s not clear that the medium of advertising
can do that. What can do it is news coverage, but not in the absence of
rank-and-file community organizing, not in the absence of a media strategy
that involves the workers and trains them in PR skills and media production,
and communicates a message that they understand and support.

Organizing drives that involve rank-and-file workers as organizers and give
them power over the campaign have proven better able to win elections,
bargain strong contracts, and resist decertification, according to
quantitative studies by Kate Bronfenbrenner and Tom Juravich cited by Tait.
This model for growth in the labor movement has nothing to do with
restructuring to create a single union per industry. In fact, the strength
that comes from organizing in neighborhoods as well as the workplace argues
against strict adherence to industrial lines. “Poor workers’ history,” Tait
wrote, “tends to support a broader formation rather than a narrow,
industrially based one.”

By the late 1980s, Tait wrote, “some in the mainstream trade union movement
had begun turning back toward direct action and community-based tactics, in
part because of the influence of community-based poor workers’ organizing.”
A community organization like ACORN consists of 150,000 poor families with
little outside funding, but is able to pass important state legislation and
even to force George W. Bush to reverse some of his policies (such as his
attempt to pay workfare workers below minimum wage or his attempt to slash
funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program). Some ACORN
victories are won by coalitions that include labor. And SEIU Locals 100 and
880, as well as some other organizations, are both ACORN and labor. But the
question remains why the labor movement, with 100 times the members of
ACORN, isn’t accomplishing 100 times as much.

The reasons may include a lack of social justice unionism. People join
unions and are never asked to be an active part of a movement, never told
why they’ll need to march in the street or hold a public forum or meet with
their congress member or talk to the media or go to jail, if they want to
keep their union. At least one of the proposals for the future among the
hundred or so floated thus far by various unions and central bodies includes
requiring one day of activism a year from each member. That would be a

One of the threads that can be followed through Tait’s book is the one that
runs from the National Welfare Rights Organization to the creation of ACORN,
to the organizing of the United Labor Unions, to their affiliation with the
SEIU (as well as similar affiliation with the SEIU by groups like the Rhode
Island Workers’ Union) and the SEIU’s launch of an aggressive and successful
direct-action, community-based campaign called Justice for Janitors. The
SEIU has been one of the major unions most open to the lessons of poor
workers unions, but not open enough, judging by the evidence in Tait’s book.
And much of the SEIU’s increase in numbers has come through the affiliation
of other organizations that had done the organizing. Recently, the SEIU has
lost some members through the disaffiliation of locals upset by outside,
top-down control. Local 87 voted last summer to leave the SEIU and create an
independent union.

What the SEIU has picked up on more than other unions, though, is the
importance of including the poorest of workers in the labor movement. After
all, 24 percent of U.S. workers earn poverty-level wages. For women it’s 29
percent, for black women 34 percent, Hispanic men 36 percent, and Hispanic
women 46 percent. That’s a lot of workers! But this is not just about
numbers. Activating and politicizing poor people, and making sure they keep
control of the organization, is the only known route to progressive
political change. That lesson has been taught by organizers at least since
Mohandas Gandhi and is recognizable in the recent history of the United
States. Poor people are more dependable in a crunch, more militant, and more
politically insightful. A labor movement without them will not be a

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