Union for the non-union: Working America arrives

How can the union movement recruit 50,000 new members in Oregon in the next year? Go door-to-door.

That’s what the AFL-CIO intends to do, with a program called Working America.

In the last two years, Working America set up operations in cities in Ohio, Florida, Missouri and Washington. This year it will expand to three other cities, including Portland, where a door-to-door canvass began March 10.

Organized by the national AFL-CIO, Working America offers a kind of “associate” union membership to working people who don’t have a union in their workplace.

It’s intended as a way to reach people who may agree with the goals of the union movement but don’t have any way to take part — in other words, most people.

Karen Nussbaum, Working America executive director, said in other cities as many as two-thirds of the people reached by canvassers agreed to join. In the first year-and-a-half of the program’s existence, the AFL-CIO spent $8 million, and signed up 800,000 members. On the first day of the Portland canvas 100 people signed up.

Of course, Working America membership doesn’t mean the same thing as belonging to a conventional union. Dues are voluntary — Working America asks for at least $5 a year, and about half of those who sign up contribute something, Nussbaum said. And as of yet, there aren’t really organizational meetings or elections to participate in.

Instead, Working America is more a way for the AFL-CIO to communicate with non-union American working people about things that affect their interests, like offshoring of jobs, rising health care costs, and corporate power and corruption. Members who have Internet access get about one e-mail a week from Working America, and those who don’t get the organization’s print newsletter about three times a year.

“Besides the union movement, no one focuses on communicating with working people on core issues like Social Security, jobs and health care,” said Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt, who lobbied for Working America to set up an Oregon canvass. “Other groups pick them up as the cause du jour. This is our bread and butter.”

Those members who canvassers identify as seeming particularly interested may later be recruited as activists or volunteers. Nussbaum said that in last year’s union electoral effort in Cleveland, Ohio, as many as half of the union volunteers were members of Working America.

Nussbaum describes Working America as a “cross between the AARP and MoveOn.org.”

Most of the action in Working America takes place online, via e-mail and the group’s Web site, www.workingamerica.org. Through the Web site, people can join the group, pay dues, and vote on the group’s priorities.

So far, Working America’s Seattle operation has brought in 40,000 members. The goal in the greater Portland area is 50,000 in the next year, and to achieve it Working America hired about a dozen canvassers and put them under the direction of Andy Lane, who ran last year’s canvass in Kansas City.

Canvassers won’t be knocking on the doors of those who are already union members, but Nussbaum encourages union members to sign up family and friends online.

“Workers who aren’t union members care about the same issues as union members care about,” Nussbaum said. “This is designed to capture worker power outside of collective bargaining.”