Renewing Labor, by Mike Miller and Michael Eisenscher
Source Dave Anderson
Date 02/05/14/02:03

from 'Social Policy' ( Spring 2001

Renewing Labor

Mike Miller and Michael Eisenscher
Mike Miller has 40 years of experience working with community,
religious, and labor organizations, including as a staff member of
the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and as lead
organizer for both Saul Alinskys Kansas City, Missouri, community
organizing project and the San Francisco Mission Coalition
Organization. In 1972, he became founding executive director of
ORGANIZE! Training Center. He has written widely about his
organizing experience and ideas, and has taught at UC Berkeley,
Stanford, San Francisco State, Hayward State, and Notre Dame

Michael Eisenscher ( is director of
organizational development for the University of California Council
of the American Federation of Teachers. He is a 30-year labor
movement veteran, having worked for the United Electrical Workers
and Communications Workers, and as a consultant and workshop leader
for many other unions. His articles have appeared in many
publications, and he contributed chapters Transformation of U.S.
Unions (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1999) and Which Director for
Organized Labor? (Wayne State Press, 1999). He is a member of the
National Writers' Union and United Association of Labor Educators.

This article is excerpted from "Renewing Labor: A Report from the
Field," which grew out of the authors work in the San Francisco Bay
Area in ORGANIZE! Training Centers "Project for Labor Renewal." The
full report is available for $5.00 from the authors, at 508 Johnson
Ave., Pacifica, CA 94044.
strong labor movement is important for the results associated with
its strength: public and corporate policies are both humanized and
made responsive to the democratic will. Less discussed, but
important in its own right and directly related to labor's power,
is the kind of community created among the members of a union. An
organizing approach develops the skills and self-confidence of many
workers who assume leadership responsibilities in the union; it
creates and strengthens relationships that cut across lines of
racial, ethnic, and gender division; it provides a democratic forum
for discussion and debate in which workers themselves create the
policies for which they want to struggle; it offers membership in
an organization that is an extension of the individual's most
deeply held valuesone in which the member becomes a conscious
participant in making social change. In addition, this approach
empowers union members. By engaging them in the civic culture,
democracy in society is enriched. Such organizing is distinct from
the current "organizing model," widely discussed in the labor
movement, which we call "mobilizing" because it fails to engage
workers fully in every aspect of "owning" their union.

We see the results of a mobilizing approach in the history of
social democratic parties in Europe where candidates run for office
on programs that are quickly abandoned when they begin to govern.
Two major reasons for this are: 1) capital threatens to "strike,"
that is move someplace else if it is hampered in what it thinks are
its rights; and 2) government comes to be seen by citizens as "the
problem" because it can't deliver on what was promised by
politicians when they campaigned for electoral support.

On a smaller scale, this is the same problem faced by a union
leader who gets elected on a reform program and then is asked,
"What's the union going to do about x?" When members (or
constituents) are "consumers" of programs or campaigns, they expect
those whom they elect to "deliver the goods," whatever the
constraints. Typically, to get elected, promises are made. Rarely
does a candidate run for office and say, "I'll raise your taxes (or
dues)." The result is a campaign that raises expectations without
discussing constraints and the realities of the struggle for power
necessary to overcome those constraints.

When members are co-creators of programs, they ask themselves what
is possible within the constraints their organization encounters
and how willing are they to put their bodies on the line to
overcome those constraints. Without a qualitatively different level
of participation, e.g., one in which constituents/voters are also
active participants, the problem of one set of people (leaders)
delivering for another (voters, members) invariably arises.

Introducing Transformation

To get at these issues, we conducted extensive "one-on-one"
conversations with local union leaders and, in the case of those
interested in pursuing our ideas, engaged a number of them in
one-day workshops that we led. Heres some of what we used to help
workshop participants clarify their own thinking about obstacles to
greater member involvement and to understand better the kind of
organizational transformation that would be needed if real member
participation was to take place.

On an easel pad or chalkboard, we wrote two single columns as shown
below with a lot of space between each of the words:

Family Insurance company

Team Law firm

Congregation Social work agency


(sometimes we added "an

old ethnic neighborhood")

Our questions started with the right column. The first question
that we asked of each of the categories was: "What are the
characteristics of a good (insurance company, law firm, social work
agency)? Then we asked the same thing for each of the categories on
the left side of the board. Here are some of the responses we
typically got.

Right side of the board:

A good insurance company has low-cost policies with good benefits,
pays off quickly when you have a claim, has agents who are
accessible and helpful, isn't bureaucratic with lots of paperwork.

A good law firm has lawyers who win in court, explain to their
client what's going on, advocate effectively for the client, aren't
expensive, are accessible when you call. A good social work agency
provides quality service, cares about, is sensitive to and fights
for the people it serves, doesn't have a lot of paperwork, isn't
too expensive (or is free); etc.

Left side of the board:

A good family has lots of love, members support each other, mentor
and sometimes challenge each other to shape up does things
together, is always there for you. A good team works together, has
lots of mutual support and team spirit every player knows his/her
job and does it well, there aren't any egos that think they're more
important than the team and consequently it wins more often than
not. A good congregation has people in it who care about one
another, watch out for one another, respect the privacy of one
another but are available to help, provides meaning for its members
who share a common faith, respects and cherishes the diversity of
its members, gets as many people as possible involved in the life
of the congregation, reaches outside itself to care for its

We then asked if the groups on the right side of the board have the
same characteristics as the ones on the left, and the answer was
invariably "no." Asked if the reverse were true of those
institutions on the left side, the answer was "yes." Good families,
teams, and congregations also incorporate the best attributes of
good law firms, insurance companies, and social work agenciesthey
provide benefits for their members, have leaders who are
accessible, advocate effectively in each other's behalf, watch out
for their members' interests, care about people, and don't have
much paperwork.

"Who makes most of the decisions in each?" was one of our next
questions. On the right, it is the professionals; on the left, it
is the membersor at least the members are significantly involved
(as in a professional athletic team). We pushed this point further,
developing the contrast between "consumers" and "co-creators" of an

Then the $64,000 question: "If we draw a line across the easel pad
connecting the two sets of categories, where is your union on that
spectrum?" Invariably, the union was far to the right. Then we
asked, "Where would you like your union to be?" Equally invariably,
participants wanted it far on the leftespecially when it was clear
that the groupings on the left can do the things that are done by
those on the right or, if it is something beyond their capacity,
can hire professionals to do specific things.

Results of the Project

In two unions, we had the opportunity to implement some of our
ideas, and the comments of the presidents of these locals attest to
the projects impact.

In July, 1999, United Transportation Union Local 1741 chairman Jim
Harford said, "Had you asked me three or four months ago if we
would have more than 80% of our summer driver membership attending
our first two negotiating sessions with our employer, Laidlaw Inc.,
I would have thought you were wrong if not a little crazy. Had you
asked me then if our local would be on the road to substantially
increasing member participation and overcoming internal divisions
based on race/ethnicity, years of driving (and, therefore, income),
age, and other internal sources of conflict, I would have said,
'You are wrong.' But that is happening as well."

Speaking of the impact of the Project for Labor Renewal on himself,
he said, "Concepts presented by PLR have made it possible for me to
understand better why we haven't been able to get participation on
the part of our membership in our union. My juices are stirring
because I see hope for rebuilding our local." Of PLR's impact on
other officers and leaders, Harford said, "We've got higher morale
in our core leadership. There is more unity among our leaders.
Active leaders are excited. And of the impact on his local's
members, "They are participating in new ways, excited and gaining
a new sense of pride in their union, and stepping forward to take
greater responsibility for the local. New leadership is beginning
to emerge from the membership."

Of her experience with PLR, Office and Professional Employees Union
Local 3's secretary/treasurer and business manager (and a national
leader in the AFL-CIOs caucus, Pride At Work) Nancy Wohlforth said,
"I have had the opportunity to attend many trainings and seminars
aimed at changing our unions. To date, the PLR approach is the only
one that provides a concrete way to achieve this goal. Already in
Local 3, we have seen new members become involved, new people
getting excited about the union, andwith PLR's assistancewe are
beginning to chart a new course for our union. It would be tragic
to see this work stopped because of lack of funding. I really
believe in the project not only for the labor movement as a whole,
but, more selfishly, because of how it has revitalized me
personally. Instead of lamenting in the dark, I can finally see a
real way that our union can change."

"More and Better" versus Transformation

There are many activities in the labor movement today that are
making a difference in levels of member participation and in the
effectiveness of the union as a voice for democratic values and the
broad interests of members, in particular, and working people, in
general. We are encouraged by these changes, beginning with some of
those going on at the AFL-CIO itself under the leadership of
president John Sweeney. But we believe that when totals are added
up, "more and better" is not going to be sufficient. For example,
labor movement "density," the portion of the workforce organized,
continues to decline even though in 1999 there was a gain in total
membership in unions. (The workforce is growing faster than the
increase in union membership.) The best efforts of the "new voice"
leadership over the last five years have failed to reverse the
trend, though it has clearly slowed the rate of decline.

Many leaders told us that "the union" was a topic of regular dinner
conversation when they were growing up. The centrality of union
membership to their mothers and fathers was an important part of
what shaped these leaders. With only 14% of workers in unions (9%
in the private sector), as opposed to the 35% who were in unions
when the cohorts we talked with (mostly in their 40s and 50s) were
growing up, a rupture is occurring in the intergenerational
transmission of union values, which, if not reversed, has profound
implications for the future of the labor movement.

The changes that we are talking about will come with members for
whom their union becomes a communitya source of deep meaning and a
cause for which they are willing to make sacrifices. While we
support the results of "more and better," we do not think they will
build the power labor needs to realize its deepest values, create
a better society, and defend the interests of working people. These
require a fully revitalized and independent labor movement, one
that is capable of involving millions of people in organizing,
expanding benefits and prerogatives where there are collective
bargaining contracts, lobbying, voting, demonstrating, boycotting,
and otherwise expressing itself on all matters affecting working
people, and influencing the culture of families in ways that
produce future generations of union-oriented workers.

Social Policy 2001

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