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Grass Roots Voices & the New Labor Movement

Lenore Palladino
Date Published: 
August 01, 2005
    In the following forum, Lenore Palladino seeks out the voices of the ‘ordinary people’ of the labor movement: workers, organizers, researchers, and allies. These voices are largely absent from the recent debates among the leadership of the member unions of the AFL-CIO. Still, these are the stories that are most important for us, as radicals working for a grassroots democratic labor movement, to hear.

When activists inside and outside the labor movement criticize unions for being too out of touch with social movement organizing, we are right: we know that labor is stalled as a national movement for social change, and many of us have written off labor as a force for revolution and revelation. Yet it is also right for some of us to stay with the labor movement; to support the work of unorganized workers to win decent contracts; to build new leadership within stagnant unions; to organize with farm workers and day laborers; and to build protests and rallies for everyone to come and support.

Unions can be empowering collective spaces for working people to organize for change, or simply machines that propel capitalism forward and repress authentic workers’ voices – the truth today lies somewhere in the middle. The frustration of many radicals within the labor movement often lies with the paucity of the solutions that we have to this situation. If we are critiquing the representation at the top, why do we think that the change should come from the top? Those of us who are organizers and staff for unions need to be supporting worker leadership at the local level, and not only paying attention to what our union presidents are doing. Activists can play a similar role. Rather than dismiss unions as monolithic bureaucratic organizations run by old white boys, we need to find ways to support local union activity and create spaces for union growth within the local community.

This article is based on the notion that no changes to the AFL-CIO proposed on websites will lead to the kind of changes that will transform the labor movement into a vibrant force in the US for social change. Discussion and work by all of us who are organizers for justice is necessary in a multitude of small ways. The article is also based on a feeling shared by many of us that a number of the ‘debates’ currently happening among union leaders are simply power plays for dominance by the union leaders, and won’t result in real changes for union members or unorganized workers. This forum posed three questions to different members of the labor movement, and presents some of their responses.

What do you think needs to change to strengthen workers’ rights to organize in the US?

People fear talking to us, as organizers, because they fear losing their jobs. That is the biggest obstacle. Workers wave you away when you go to talk to them, not because they don’t want a union, but because they can be fired for any reason. The people who are willing to be out there are people who have second jobs that are union, or have families are union. Therefore they know about it – those who don’t know anything are almost always afraid. That fear has got to be lessened before anything can change.
—Jamagne King, Direct Care Worker, Shop Steward, Member Organizer, CSEA/ AFSCME

We have neutrality agreements with most of our owners, but there has never been a case where they haven’t broken them. Penalties need to be harsher for employers that break labor law, but perhaps more importantly unions have to learn how to enforce their contracts, by whatever means necessary. If the law won’t work, and filing labor board charges gets you nowhere, we have to learn how to organize and defend our contracts through action, public pressure, etc.
—Ella Hereth, Organizer, SEIU

The situation is a catch-22: labor laws in the US are among the worst in the industrialized world, leading to thousands of workers being fired every year for trying to organize. But changing these laws isn’t going to happen until the labor movement has enough power and clout to threaten or cause a stoppage in the economic system. We’re kind of stuck, waiting for either the laws to change to make organizing easier or organizing in the same way we’re doing right now. We need to look at history, particularly the period in and around the Great Depression, and see how workers not only gained the right under law to organize but also to take all sorts of collective action on the job. All this happened, arguably, under a much worse and unfriendly legal terrain for organized labor than what unions face today. And it happened, of course, through countless ordinary working people taking matters into their own hands, sitting down in their workplaces, supporting general strikes, building organizations, and, in general, raising the specter of widespread upheaval at which point a concession like the NLRA was granted.
—Marc Rodrigues, Umass/Amherst Labor Center

My experience as a student working with unions has been less than empowering. I felt like they were only working with us as long as they needed us, and when they were done with that, it was like screw you, we are off to work on a different campaign now, and left us without any real support. The labor movement is not going to get stronger as long as unions prioritize what is strategic for them over what is strategic for the workers they are helping. In a strong labor movement these two things would be the same. Right now, it seems like we have a ways to go before that happens.
—Liz Smith, United Students Against Sweatshops

Given the current state of affairs, it’s hard to know where to begin. Clearly the existing laws need to be enforced. And the legislative initiatives of those who want to limit the right to organize need to be roundly defeated. But, and this leads into the next question, the political will to make those things happen may depend upon our ability to be organized and to be strong – against all the odds. And that means that we need think differently about how we organize, who we organize, and where we organize – and make the most efficacious decisions possible on all those counts.
—Cristina Gallo, Researcher, UNITE HERE

One of the biggest obstacles to organizing unions anywhere in the US today is the anti-union culture that surrounds us. Unions are blamed for the closing of plants, for state budget deficits, for the lack of job creation, sometimes even for the weather. Workers know that they can be fired for leading a union campaign, or that they will be threatened with the shut-down of their place of employment with the arrival of the union. Unions are not as militant of organizations as they used to be, and union members are often not empowered within their local unions to lead activity. We are left waiting for a campaign to be declared in Washington before we will move forward ourselves. Unions are often not present in the community as forces for change, and until that changes, people will not be as likely to stick their necks out to become union members.
—Lenore Palladino

What do you think of the debates among unions about organizing priorities vs. legislative and political priorities?

There is clearly a tension between those priorities and I waffle over the chicken and the egg nature of whether or not more organized workers will lead to greater clout to effect legislative and political priorities – or whether or not we will be able to organize more workers without legislative and political change. I think that we have to err on the side of organizing given that even among Democrats, politicians and lawmakers are not beholden to the interests of workers or of organized labor. And with more workers, we will gain more in the long run.
—Cristina Gallo, Researcher, UNITE HERE

I’m struck by how much media attention this question, Andy Stern, the new unity partnership, the possible split in the AFL, etc. get and how little it all matters to those of us doing this work on the ground. We just keep doing our jobs and fighting our fights...and very rarely do the real struggles of workers get covered in the media.
—Ella Hereth, Organizer, SEIU

I’m growing more and more skeptical about the ‘debates’ taking place right now at the upper echelons of the labor movement, a lot of which is devolving into personal grudges without anyone really presenting any inspiring alternatives to what we have now.

On one side you have the current leadership of the AFL-CIO, which promised 10 years ago to spark a new wave of organizing, yet union membership has continued to decline. On the other side you have a few unions, mostly led by Andy Stern of the Service Employees, who proposes merging current unions and taking other steps to increase labor’s size. This debate is often framed as one side the current AFL-CIO leadership – which says that voting friendly politicians into office is the answer – and another side, Stern et al – who think that organizing is the answer. Between these two choices, if this was really the debate, then obviously I would have to say that organizing from below is immeasurably more important than lobbying or financing more Democratic politicians’ campaigns. The former actually begins to build the sort of long-lasting organization and consciousness we need; the latter is totally disempowering and makes unions no more than liberal interest groups. But both sides of the debate are flawed. There’s way too much focus on the technical, nuts-and-bolts structure of the movement in these debates and not enough on what the movement’s culture, vision, ideology, and vision are. Even the side that talks about organizing, I think, has a particular vision of organizing in mind where, at best, workers are somewhat involved in the process sometimes, in campaigns drawn up in union offices by paid staff; and, at worst, where the union and management are cutting back-room deals in order for workers to be ‘organized.’
—Marc Rodrigues, Umass/Amherst Labor Center

Ignoring the legislative climate, or marrying yourself to a party that’s been moving to the right for decades, has proven suicidal.
—Nate Treadwell, United Students Against Sweatshops

My experiences working as a student organizer for labor solidarity and now as a union organizer has taught me many lessons, but barely prepared me to absorb, much less respond to, much of the rhetoric being put forward in the current ‘union debates’. Many of us can recite the stock reasons for labor’s decline in our sleep – globalization, deregulation, and smarter business leaders with more of the government in their pocket. For all of the reasons that we give, and the ten-point solutions offered, the biggest challenge is how this kind of ‘change’ will matter to those of us building and maintaining our unions. It isn’t necessarily the amount of money spent in organizing: it is how we organize.

Many union leaders would often rather train young college students as union staff than find more effective ways to organize with the members and leaders of the unions that already exist. This dichotomy between politics and organizing is misguided – why is it necessarily a choice of allocating scarce resources? Why not share organizing tactics with other movement organizers in order to get ourselves out of too many of our old patterns that are not producing success? Where is the discussion of merging organizing strategies; of cross-union shop steward trainings; spaces for organizers, contract negotiators, and even union members to come together? Changing the law would not make the crucial difference for the 88% of non-union members in the US, but political and legislative work do have a place in how unions use their power. The question again to me is about scarcity: why do we have to choose, one or the other?
—Lenore Palladino

What do you define as success in organizing?

Well, I have to say that it’s been really exciting to be a part of a big master contract campaign that just won unprecedented gains in the nursing home industry, while Medicare and Medicaid funding for the homes faces a national crisis. I definitely define that as a success. The hidden success of the campaign is that going from a corrupt local with almost no worker involvement we developed real leadership and strong union participation in the homes. In a union that has hasn’t had a bargaining committee since the 60s, we elected one of 60 people. There has never been a vote – ratification or otherwise – on the job sites before this campaign. In our on-the-job strike votes...almost 5,000 members voted to strike to only 300 votes not to strike. We organized workplace actions in 120 nursing homes and informational pickets in 60 of those homes. We went from only 80 or so union stewards and only one steward per home to 200 union stewards and up to 5 stewards per home. The most exiting part of the campaign has been to see our members realize their power. That’s movement building to me, and that’s how I measure my success. Next time, we’ll be even more ready.
—Ella Hereth, Organizer, SEIU

Successful organizing happens when those most affected are involved in a real way in all levels of planning the direction and goals of the organization; when leadership development and popular education are used to give “rank and file” participants control over their struggles and an understanding of these struggles in a larger context; and when the movement(s) or organization(s) begin to have support and recognition in society well beyond their own membership.
—Marc Rodrigues, Umass/Amherst Labor Center

Success: dignity and respect at work. A contract with fair wages, annual raises, promotions. The ability to participate.
—Jamagne King, Direct Care Worker, Shop Steward, Member Organizer, CSEA/ AFSCME

Success in union organizing cannot be determined by what percentage of our collective budgets we allocate on our line-item budgets. Nor can it even be determined by the statistics of our density, the numbers of contracts negotiated, or the raises we have garnered. Success comes slowly, in the process of building unions from the inside, and making them spaces for collective action by union members. How does this happen? Not by any proposal written on a website or even through a massive infusion of cash: it happens one day at a time, building power at the local level, with all of us working together in the ways that we can. Radicals have a role to play in all of this work, though there is no cookie-cutter solution for an activist to be involved with labor – rather it requires each of us putting out the effort to become engaged with the struggles where we are.
—Lenore Palladino


Lenore Palladino worked as the national organizer with United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) for two years and is currently a union organizer in New York City. She can be contacted at: Lenore(at)