PLR ___________Project for Labor Renewal

A project of ORGANIZE Training Center

1737 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA 94703

(510) 649-8626 (short message) (510) 649-7866 (long message/fax)

Overview: Charting the Path to a Strong Labor Movement

One of the bedrocks of a democratic society is a free, dynamic and democratic labor movement. For four decades, the U.S. labor movement has experienced a slow decline in both membership and influence. But signs of renewal are now evident -- from the AFL-CIO to labor councils to local unions, which are the primary organizational unit of the labor movement. Since the election of John Sweeney and his New Voice team to lead the AFL-CIO, previously scattered efforts to move from the "service" model to an activist "organizing" model of unionism have been given national prominence and leadership. In a January, 1996 letter to labor councils across the country, President Sweeney set forth the challenge:

"The Federation has committed itself to speak for working people every day at every level of our world economy, as well as to transform the role of the union from an organization that focuses on a member's contract to one that gives workers a meaningful say in all the decisions that affect our working lives -- from capital investments, to the quality of our products and services, to how we organize our work."

It is to this task that the Project for Labor Renewal addresses itself. The general mission of the Project is the revitalization of the labor movement. The specific task undertaken by the Project is assisting union locals in the San Francisco Bay Area to renew their internal life, build their power in the economic and political environment in which they operate, organize unorganized workers, and reconnect with their natural and potential allies in the communities in which their members work and live. The Project seeks to bring unions back into the lives of their members and members back into the lives of their unions.

Renewal of the life of locals is especially important for the organization of unorganized workers. The labor movement simply cannot reach the scale required to reach significant numbers of unorganized workers without the substantial involvement of present members of unions. Members for whom their union has become a source of power to affect the quality of their lives and in which they willingly invest their time and energy will become the most enthusiastic and convincing "missionaries" for unionism within their own families, among their friends, and with unorganized workers generally. Involved workers will see their self-interest in organizing the unorganized. They will share the vision of a more just society unionized workers can have. They will contribute to society as a whole when there is a strong labor movement. The organizing challenge can be taken up by a large number of union members when unionism has become a deeply meaningful element of their lives as workers.

The Problem and the Challenge

The challenges unions confront, the demands placed upon them, and the expectations they must meet are growing daily. The path to change is often blocked by attitudes and practices that are deeply embedded in their organization's culture and traditional ways of working. The majority of union members continue to look upon their unions as a "service-provider" (some combination of lawyer, social worker and insurance agent) to which they pay dues with the expectation that "the union" (something they identify as separate from themselves) will take care of their problems for them. More recently, some union leaders have also donned the mantle of organizer and mobilizer, but almost always with the intent of activating members around already determined programs, priorities, and activities. In one-on-one conversations with Project staff, most of these leaders admit that, with the exception of occasional short-term activities (such as rallies, phone banks, voter registration and education drives, or contract ratifications) the majority of their members continue to be consumers of union services rather than co-creators of union power The union continues to be identified as a workplace-based contract negotiator and administrator rather than a central institution in the lives of its members -- an expression of who they are in the world, a vehicle through which they actively participate in their communities, an instrument through which they exercise power in their own interests and those of their coworkers, families, and communities.

The Solution - A Process of Transformation

The Project for Labor Renewal seeks to recruit a diverse group of local unions in the Bay Area to engage in a process of internal renewal that draws an ever-wider circle of members into the life of the union. It is not just another program to implement; it is a process of internal change designed to transform the relationship between the members and their union, and between the union and its environment. It will affect how the union approaches everything that it does.

The Project begins with a conversation with the principal officer of a local, who, if interested, arranges for similar discussions with other important leaders in the local. If they show interest, the principal officer then convenes a meeting of all those who met with Project staff. If there is a consensus to take the next step, these "core leaders" attend a day-long workshop with those from other locals to prepare them to take the conversation to their members in one-on-one discussions. These conversations explore the challenges members confront, the pressures they are under, the frustrations they experience, and their aspirations and expectations for themselves, their family, their community, for their local union and the labor movement. It becomes a conversation about what they want their union to be -- and what they are willing to do to make it be that. It is also a conversation about power - about the union as the most accessible, reliable, and effective source of power for them, their coworkers, and their families in addressing the myriad of problems they confront -- in the workplace, in the community, in society.

This process leads to the convening of a membership meeting or open Executive Board meeting (early in 1999) of all those who have been drawn into the conversation at which members make the formal decision whether the local should participate in the Project during the 1999 "Action Phase." As this process unfolds in each local, the leaders of all the locals will meet together throughout a year of periodic workshops, reflection, strategic analysis and planning, training and education, and evaluation which constitute the Action Phase which begins in March with an intensive 3-day workshop/retreat. Within each local, the Action Phase will feature campaigns around issues identified by the members during the one-on-one visits that are designed to draw members into action by giving them "ownership" of the campaign itself. Further, the one-on-one conversations engage members in a broader discussion of the relationship between their deeply held democratic values and their union as a vehicle through which these values can be realized. Over the course of time, as the locals proceed step by step, as the process reaches deeper into the union and begins to permeate everything that the union does, these unions should experience a qualitative change in how their members relate to and identify with their unions. Rather than "What are you (meaning union officials) going to do about____ ?", members will increasingly say, "What are we going do to about_____?" The union will become more than "Contracts-R-Us" or a distant dues collector. It will become an integral part of the lives of its members -- on the job, in the community, in society generally.

The Present Status

The Project for Labor Renewal is presently in the final stage of the "Exploratory Phase," during which it seeks to identify those locals that will make the official decision to participate. The Project has garnered the support of a number of Bay Area central labor council and building trades council leaders, as well as that of Bill Fletcher, Education Director of the AFL-CIO and a number of regional and national officials of Federation affiliates. As of January, 1999, Project staff have met with principal officers of almost sixty Bay Area locals. More than 20 principal officers indicated a initial interest. Thirteen moved beyond the initial step to set up visits for Project staff with their core leaders. Eleven sent core leaders to a day-long workshop. Nine have begun or are ready to begin visiting the natural leaders among their members, whose support for local involvement in the Project is key. The aggregate membership of these locals represents a cross-section of Bay Area industry sectors, occupations, ethnic and gender groups, and income levels. It reflects the diversity of the labor movement itself. Among these members are public employees, transit workers, school bus drivers, construction trades, janitors, clerical workers, college professors, professional and technical employees, and home care workers. Their incomes range from the "working poor" to over $100,000 a year.

Project Sponsor & Funders

Organize Training Center has over 25 years of experience with civic associations, religious, senior, tenant, labor, small business, merchant, and other grassroots organizations in developing ways to remove barriers to participation by their members, deepening member commitment to their organization and making the organization a powerful voice for democratic values and for the particular interests of its members. The current Project staff bring more than 100 years of combined organizing experience to their work. During this exploratory phase, the Project is funded by grants from the following foundations: Ford, Rockefeller, Veatch, Vanguard, Nu Lambda Trust, and by other individual donors. There was no cost to locals exploring possible participation in the Project. During the 1999 "Action Phase," participating local unions will be expected to contribute substantially to the costs of the Project. Project staff are engaged in raising additional funding from foundations to meet its budget for the Action Phase.

Project Personnel

Mike Miller, Executive Director, The Organize Training Center

Michael Eisenscher, Project Coordinator

Jahahara Armstrong, Project Organizer

(Rev. 2/17/99)


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