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All about “the Numbers” Labor’s Definition of Winning

04 Feb

By: Ricardo Torres

Confessions of a union organizer

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In the 1990’s, the United Steelworkers (USW) decided to change history in the way they approached organizing in culturally diverse workforces. One example of how difficult it was to organize these areas was the UAW’s push to organize Mexican Industries, a large auto supplier in the Detroit metropolitan area. In the 90’s, the UAW fought two unsuccessful campaigns in which the employees ultimately chose to maintain their union-free privileges and sent the UAW packing after wasting large amounts of money in their failed organizing attempts. As an International Director of Organizing, Ricardo Torres developed a detailed plan for the USW to accomplish the goal of infiltrating culturally diverse areas. To do this, the USW gambled on a strategy that the UAW failed to use, and organized a large number of culturally diverse workers who felt discontent with the unions. It was a successful new strategy that unions continue to use to this day.

Ricardo Torres – President & CEO

When I was an International Director of Organizing with the union, Iwas constantly inundated with numbers. In the world of union organizing, everything was about “the numbers”.

“The numbers” drove the large national budgets as I was fighting to move forward with detailed organizing plans, allocating resources to eliminate a company’s ability to fight back, and setting regional budgets for “casual” organizers who would support regional and local unions leads and/or staff organizers. My success as an Organizing Director came down to the cost per new member organized and total money spent to gain regional union density (or industry-based union density) versus the cost benefit gained from a successful campaign. My OrganizingCampaign Basics 101 were to fully prepare before commitments are made to any on-the-ground organizing activity. Once a commitment was made, it was based on cold, hard calculations that lead to many wins formy organizing team. We had to know the terrain where we would be fighting the company and what our soldiers were capable of.

In any organizing campaign, the front line soldiers are the company’sown employees. Without a high level of dedication and consistent drive from the employees, the campaign is doomed to failure from the union’s perspective. Many organizing campaigns are lost due to a lack of discipline, foresight and clear strategy from the lead organizer. While the workers (potential union members) must ride an emotional high and be completely dedicated to beating their employer, the organizers cannot let their emotions get in the way. The workers must take ownership of the campaign and charge forward to take on management and win. Many times, union organizers catch themselves desperately trying toresuscitate the campaign because they lose the necessary ability to examine cold, hard facts and let their emotions drive them into filing election petitions prematurely. They fail to accurately asses the employee readiness to fight on the ground. A good lead organizer knows that, many times, it takes months to position the workers into reaching that point.

My job as an Organizing Director was to ensure that we had picked winners from our own lead organizers, down to the employees in the Internal Organizing Committee (IOC) running the campaign on the ground. One such case started when my organizing department in the United Steelworkers (USW) was establishing what I called “long-term cultural-based organizing ‘hit teams'” in key cities across the country.It was a big budget plan that I fought hard to move forward for over a year. The key to the success of my plan was not to reinvent the wheel when it came to organizing, but to add to our organizing effectiveness by partnering with community organizations that already established themselves with the people. I had started to establish mutually beneficial alliances with the most successful of these organizations to further our organizing efforts.

The winning test case took place in Southwest Detroit, Michigan in the 1990’s. We were organizing a large tier one automotive supplier whose owner was Hank Aguirre, an ex-pitcher for the Detroit Tigers and alocal hero in the Hispanic community. The company was Mexican Industries, which would be the first of many companies that we planned to attack in that part of Detroit. The ultimate goal was to extend the strategy across the country after we had proven that it was viable and effective.

The UAW and their organizing teams had already failed to organize Mexican Industries twice under the leadership of former UAW President, Bob King, who at that time was the Director of Region 1A. We saw their failures as the “perfect storm” to prove that our plan would be valid. To kick off this plan, I hired a former UAW organizer who had helped to coordinate the previous two campaigns while working under UAW OrganizingCoordinator Frank White and his wife, Cindy Estrada, who currently serves as one of the UAW International’s Vice Presidents.

The former UAW organizer that I hired was very angry with the UAW andat what she described as incompetent leadership and a lack of even basic organizing knowledge on the part of Frank and Cindy. She blamed them for abandoning the workers after two Immigrations and Naturalization Service (INS – now ICE) raids that split workers from their families and saw them deported during the organizing attempts. According to her, Frank and Cindy never performed any outreach to the families of the deported workers. She felt that they failed to make an issue of the suspicion that the company called the INS on their own employees due to union support, and that Frank and Cindy simply walked away from these employees without looking back. This was also the consensus of the employees who were working there at the time of the raids.

The previous two UAW campaigns left us with several hurdles to overcome, in the form of angered workers and a community soured towards unions in general. However, we had a plan ready to set in motion to overcome these issues. 80% of the employees at Mexican Industries were Hispanic, and about 70% of those were from Mexico or were of Mexican heritage. One long-term goal was to attack companies across the entire Southwest area of Detroit in separate organizing phases, so we needed a plan to win the confidence of the region’s population. We partnered with non-denominational church groups, civil rights groups, and Hispanic groups. Our most important partnership was formed when I hired ten United Farm Workers of America (UFWA) community organizers whowere running a community help center (Chicano Development Center) in the heart of Mexicantown in Southwest Detroit, where Mexican Industries was located. Again, it was all about “the numbers”; this area of Detroithad a high population of Latino workers, so we had to flood the community with “good will” investments in order to get the return on ourinvestment that we desired.

For the first five months, we ran everything as normal at the ChicanoDevelopment Center, but during this time, we sharply increased the funding for the Center. This allowed the Center to really have an impactin the community and also slowly and strategically reintroduced the USWto the community. We also worked with local schools to provide school supplies, sponsored after-school events, and provided translation services for families of students. We partnered with temp agencies to direct out-of-work temps to the Center, held cultural events at the Center, and volunteered at church functions. The USW sponsored baseball and soccer teams. We worked with local politicians and lead campaigns onsafe streets for children and other neighborhood involvement programs. We direct local residents to legal immigration help, and sponsored seminars by immigration law experts. With every one of these efforts, webuilt our “numbers” by reinforcing the “benefits” that the union could provide. The public and, more importantly, the employees had no idea that these efforts with simply a cynical marketing campaign to dramatically increase our union membership.

The Chicano Development Center was booming with activity and receivedseveral commendations of service and many “thank you” letters for making Detroit a better and safer place to live. We now know many of thearea workers, but we still needed a bigger edge. We decided to start a movement to rename one of the major roads in Southwest Detroit to Cesar Chavez Boulevard in honor of the late UFWA President and civil rights leader. Using the Center as a front, we convinced the local politicians who now owed us some payback to assist with the outreach to local business leaders to support the cause and allow the Center’s staff to into their cafeterias to sign petitions for the road’s name change. We then cataloged all of the addresses, phone numbers and pertinent information from the petitions for our mass organizing efforts.

Now was the time to fully reveal the connection between the USW and the Chicano Development Center and announce the employment of the Center’s staff by the Steelworkers. We needed the full involvement of the community, labor leaders, Hispanic groups, and media to make this all unfold according to our plans. The ideal situation was to have a five-mile march right through the Southwest part of Detroit making a strong shout to Detroit that the “USW was BACK!”, and we were going to take on the manufacturing companies, and horrendous working conditions they were dishing out, head-on and fight on the workers’ behalf.

To tell the truth, I was very nervous. We had invested a lot of time and money into this project and, if it was a dud, all of the blame wouldland directly on my shoulders. My reputation would be ruined. I knew that I needed to really accelerate events to pull people in. If it was going to go up in flames, it would be a bonfire.

We reached out to the media and radio stations to gauge their interest in provided air time. We kept the petition to change the streetname, as it was a nice hook for the media. They bought in completely. Cesar Chavez’ brother, Richard Chavez, who worked alongside Cesar in forming the National Farm Workers Associated (later the UFWA), agreed tolead the parade through the main street that was proposed to honor Cesar’s legacy. We secured the sponsorship of area restaurants, stores, clubs and small businesses for a special newsletter dedicated to promoting the event.

As we prepared for the march, we started to form committees for the 1,500 Mexican Industries employees who were our first target. We also paid for well-known UFWA officials to actively and publicly support the organizing efforts and drew the first line to differentiate the USW fromthe UAW organizers who had previously failed them.

The march started with a bang; we had over 4,000 people marching, with Richard Chavez marching alongside the Michigan USW District Director at the front of the parade. We had cars with loudspeakers talking to the crown, music playing, and USW banners and flags flying. Many other unions participated, and the Michigan AFL/CIO President was there. The media was present, as well as groups from as far away as Kentucky. The march ended with a classical Mexican dance group and a dance scheduled for later that night was turned into a semi-organizing event.

As you can imagine, I was satisfied with how everything was going so far; we were moving forward in a positive manner. We were holding different group meetings where workers were inviting their coworkers into their homes to ask questions and sign union authorization cards. Workers were busy signing cards as the four Mexican Industries facilities and, at this point in the game, they were slowing the work down to a manageable speed.

By now, the owner, Hank Aguirre, had passed away, and we built our campaign platform around the poor working conditions and lack of respect from front-line supervisors. The turnover rate was nearly 100% and many people were leaving due to work place injuries, including repetitive motion cases. The fact that most of the workers came from a small area in Southwest Detroit helped immensely, as many of the workersknew each other, or were related in some fashion. It allowed us to use the working conditions to build a solid bond between relatives and closefriends from the neighborhood, which was easier than it would be in a typical Detroit company where workers come from all over Southeast Michigan to work.

We kept the pressure on the company by filing OSHA complaints, filingUnfair Labor Practices (ULP’s) with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and destroying the company’s reputation within the community. We started holding rallies outside key management personnel’s residences. We had UAW workers in the auto plants “finding” damaged products, and product would end up “missing” before it arrived at the line. In other words, the UAW rank and file was helping by way of sabotage.

At this point, all of the stars were lining up, with almost 70% of the workers signing authorization cards. We were preparing to file the petition for an election. Mexican Industries was aware that they had been overwhelmed by the street “name change” petition, and there were now over 70 ULP’s and OSHA charges to occupy management’s time. We had also been very successful in convincing front line supervisors to committo the campaign. Mexican Industries’ own leaders were providing us withdetailed information on the company’s activities and background information on key management for our exploitation.

After we finally filed the petition, with 74% of the workers signing cards, we had a mass rally in front of the central office of Mexican Industries with priests and nuns announcing to the workers and plant that the campaign was on. Due to all of the hard work and preparation for this war, we were sailing towards an easy victory. By now, we had spent about eight months of intensive outreach and strategizing to control this section of the city, but the story is not over yet.

At this critical point, the USW Regional Director began contacting meto let me know that the UAW President, Steve Yokich, was reaching out to him to see if some accommodation could be reached that would allow the UAW to take over as lead in the campaign. I refused and told him that this was the USW International’s campaign. I told him that the UAW had already had two chances at Mexican Industries and had failed both times. The USW Regional Directory had no say in this election. Both Bob King and Frank White from the UAW called me to try to make a deal for them to take over the Mexican Industries campaign in exchange for future support and leads from across the country. I would not hear of it; this campaign was to serve as a model for the USW to open up the automotive suppliers and boost inner city grassroots organizing strategies.

The hammer came down when I received a call from the USW President, Leo Gerard, who ordered me to withdraw our petition and release the information to Bob King and his crew. We waited until the last minute topull our petition and to have my field office present the UAW organizers to the Mexican Industries employees. It was a hard sell because of the harm the UAW inflicted on the workers during their previous two campaigns. But, we did as Gerard ordered. In essence, we handed the UAW a surefire win.

When I met with Bob King, Frank White and Cindy Estrada, it felt likenone of them seemed to know or understand the fundamentals of organizing. They went on to win the campaign with the rented help of ourChicano Development Center organizers and negotiated a giveaway contract with Mexican Industries. The workers’ support of the union failed so fast that the company felt secure enough to stop paying the dues money collected from the employees to the UAW. Mexican Industries finally failed, leaving 1,500 workers out of a job. Cindy Estrada was promoted within the UAW ranks due to the win the USW handed her on a silver platter. In fact, the UAW website lists the UAW/Mexican Industries “victory” as one of her chief accomplishments.

In this case, it was ultimately all about “the numbers”. The UAW received an enormous victory in their hometown. Cindy Estrada was hailedas a hero thanks to our gift. The fact that they lost all new membership and a generation of trust among affected workers and their families was irrelevant to the UAW. The Steelworkers received enough UAWsupport in return to cause havoc in many other campaigns throughout thecountry. These events clearly demonstrate that Big Labor is not there to serve the workers; they exist to find the best leverage to increase their membership. The funny part is that these two are oxymoronic. The unions are ultimately losing support and membership due to this type of “business practice”. Workers are starting to realize that they are merely numbers: the more union members there are, the more dues are poured into the union coffers. The more money there is in union coffers,the more union leadership benefits.

The numbers always win.

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