Falling union numbers, expanding right-to-work … it’s time to change a losing game

By Tom Chamberlain, Oregon AFL-CIO president

We had a sweet victory in November’s election, with candidates winning the presidency, the U.S. Senate, and state and local elections. But our victories haven’t slowed the advance of right-to-work for less.

Last year, Indiana and Michigan adopted the act. Now, proposed legislation in Maine and Pennsylvania could pass, leaving half of the United States with right-to-work for less laws. And, if just weakening unions wasn’t enough, Kansas has introduced legislation to limit unions’ political programs.

Those who acquire wealth and power by relying on the efforts of working people are silencing and weakening those same people whose work they rely on. To do that requires weakening our movement; it requires the elimination of the union movement as we know it.  Why? Because we fight for the workers’ share of profits. We believe that every American has a right to health care, and that the sick, disabled, poor and aged have a right to respect. We believe that as a nation we are responsible to care for all those who inhabit our nation, and that everyone should be treated with dignity and have a pathway to a better life.

Your share of the profits, your benefits, and your dignity, leave less for the people who get filthy rich off of your work.

The attacks have taken a toll and it was of little surprise a couple weeks ago when the Department of Labor reported that the U.S. had lost 400,000 union members in 2012. Wisconsin alone amounted to 65,000, or 16 percent of the losses.

My favorite coach often stated: “never change a winning game, but always change a losing one.”

For the last two decades the union movement has played a losing game. To change our game we must realize that the union structure isolates us into sector silos: Manufacturing, Building Trades, Public Sector, and so on.  It is a structure that limits our ability to jointly strategize, to maximize our resources, and to implement a united union strategy. It is not conducive to increasing our strength by building relationships with other progressive groups.

Unionists are task driven, whether it is a grievance or bargaining or winning elections. We complete our task and move on to the next one. It is a structure that is ill-equipped to change rapidly enough to meet today’s challenges. But with shrinking membership comes shrinking budgets. And though fewer funds makes it more difficult, we can, we must, and we are changing the union’s game.

The establishment of the Oregon Strong Voice tables brings communities, social activists, and unions together to develop relationships that advance an agenda for the poor, communities of color, and the middle class. Today, Oregon Strong Voice is in Bend and Medford — and is coming this spring to Salem and Astoria.  Service Employees International Union’s “Workers Centers” in North and Northeast Portland are a creative approach to reach and advocate for nonunion workers. The AFL-CIO Organizing Pilot is a new collaborative way to organize that increases coordination and resource management between the national AFL-CIO and our affiliates. The innovation that is occurring in Oregon is an example for the national movement. The more unions coordinate and cooperate, the more our movement will grow in members, strength, and in allies.

We have the power to change this nation if we have the courage to understand that just as one worker cannot stand alone against the boss, it takes workers collectively standing together speaking in one voice to change the plight of the middle class as a movement.

We will only prevail — the future will only be on our side — when we begin to work together on a new vision to change this country.

1 Comment on Falling union numbers, expanding right-to-work … it’s time to change a losing game

  1. If, in fact, “unionists are task driven”, perhaps they ought to set as their task one of becoming the most efficient, most cost-effective labor option available to employers.

    As it stands now, the very word “union worker” has predominately negative connotations with those who really matter; i.e. – those who provide jobs.

    Political gimmickry, along with trying to coerce dues and/or “represent” those who don’t want such “representation” just isn’t going to cut it over the long run. In fact, such tactics only increase the likelihood that employers will take the jobs they have to offer elsewhere.

    Give employers a POSITIVE reason to employ “unionists”, and watch things change for the better. Continue along the same path, and I only see them getting worse. Employers DON’T hire employees in order to “share the profits”; rather, they hire them to make money…and they want to pay employees the market value of what their labor is worth. Given that, if unionists want to be driven to accomplish a task, perhaps it ought to be that of making their labor WORTH more.

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