The Knockout Blow You Never Saw Coming
National union leadership is disconnected from their rank-and-file members. This serves as one of themost significant reasons that unions have been unsuccessful in re-growing their membership. While I was working at the George Meany Labor College, we unsuccessfully attempted to energize the membership into organizing successes by making the unions accountable to the membership through transparency in the organizing process. Think about it: We had millions of union members, each with their own connections, energy and resources.
National union leadership is disconnected from their rank-and-file members. This serves as one of the most significant reasons that unions have been unsuccessful in re-growing their membership. While I was working at the George Meany Labor College, we unsuccessfully attempted to energize the membership into organizing successesby making the unions accountable to the membership through transparency in the organizing process. Think about it: We had millions of union members, each with their own connections, energy and resources. All we needed to do was light a fire underneath them.
We also wanted to streamline the process of how we hired casual organizers. The most common practice was to recruit low-level organizersby pulling members from plants and paying a rather meager 40-hour per week of “lost time” compensation after they received some training. Theywere basically interns. It was, and still is, inherently a flawed system filled with incompetent personnel and inconsistent administration. Across the nation, political favors and the desire to stay below budget almost always ruled the selection process. The unions’ solution to keep organizing low cost was to utilize casual organizers from facilities with the lowest pay scale. This system dictated the low quality of the resources union used, ratherthan the more effective method of choosing the truly hard-core “Kool-Aid” drinking union activist.
We performed a study and wrote a plan of action to take directly to, then AFL/CIO president, John Sweeney, which he approved. However, it wasleft up to us to sell it as part of a cohesive, aggressive centralized organizing strategy to our affiliate unions. Our call for change fell ondeaf ears. The refusal to change started at the top and the federation member unions soundly rejected any changes to how they chose organizing personnel. National labor officials have been historically resistant to jump-starting their organizing programs with anything other than their worn-out selection policies that feed the top-down, back-scratching tactics that enabled payoffs for political support.
As I write this, I am in Medellin, Colombia in South America and reading in El Colombiano(a Medellin newspaper) about how the AFL/CIO is once again injecting themselves into the internal political processes of the Colombian government, making demands in regards to changes in labor law and accusing officials and businesses of outright murder of union organizers. The unions are still attempting to sabotage the trade agreement between the US and Colombia that was passed by Congress in 2011. The funny part is that they have the full support of the Colombianlabor federation.
Given the globalized nature of our current economy and the rise of multinational corporations, there are obvious advantages to the alliances between European and US labor unions. Does anyone think the alliance between the UAW and German labor officials just happened, or that UAW president Bob King is so persuasive that he captured the hearts and trust of Volkswagen corporate officials? Or is it a fluke when companies like French-based Lafarge Corporation receives pressure from their nationally-based employee labor representatives to capitulate on issues in US labor bargaining sessions? These are the result of initiatives launched years ago and will, in time, be the norm for multinational corporations’ organizing and negotiation strategies.
The urgency for multinational union federation alliances was sparked by the passing of the NAFTA trade agreement in 1994, when I was part of a Washington, DC-based labor think tank. While this was not the first outreach attempt, it was a call to action for global labor federations to unite against what we called a “frontal attack” against all nationally-based industries. I was also a member of delegations formed to set the standards, goals and timelines for these alliances. USnational labor unions also have a long history of meddling in third-world labor laws to get a stranglehold on their political movements and to influence any negative effect the laws might have on their member power base in the US.
I spent a lot of time in Mexico and Central and South America building alliances with their labor federations and using our resources to make them slowly, but surely, dependent on unions from the US. I was in Colombia investigating the alleged murders of organizers and union leaders by multinational companies and the host country’s elected leaders so that we could report to Congress and attempt to isolate Latinbloc countries politically and make them too controversial to establishfree trade zones. The tradeoffs for these Latin national labor unions to fight against their own interests and those of their countries are the same that occur in organizing drives and strikes in the US. Unions create an environment built upon base emotions, anger and a feeling of desperation; these are the universal human emotions that unions depend on to spur their membership growth efforts.
The average union member has no clue that their elected labor leadersspend tens of millions of dollars on their agenda in other countries, yet do wonder why they can’t get a local business agent to return their calls about representation for grievances here in the US, or to get a simple answer to a question they have for the union. The unions are moreconcerned with non-members than they are with dues-paying members. Thisis what is driving so many union members to lose faith in their labor leaders. There is a communication failure between union leadership and rank-and-file members.
This raises another question: Why do unions continue to win a strong majority of first time organizing campaigns? The answer is simple: Untilmany management teams are hit in the face with union organizing activities, they are just as out of touch in understanding what motivates their employees, what drives their decisions, and, most importantly, who they are as people. Many management teams make a fatal mistake when fighting union campaigns: they believe that, by telling their employees only the hard facts about unions, they will win the campaign, in essence, using the same style of communication that originally prompted the union activity. Many don’t realize that facts are not universal, but rather each individual’s life experiences drive their perception of the facts on an emotional level. Failing to reach employees on a personal, emotional level is a recipe for disaster, especially when combined with the anger, frustration and feelings of being marginalized by the employer that are stoked by the union during acampaign. During my years as a labor official, it was my job and duty to exploit these base emotions for the benefit of the labor movement.
My department’s national win rate average for first time organizing campaigns was between 92-94%. I was able to achieve this by knowing who my enemy was at the time. At first, we moved slowly, observing and learning all of our target’s weaknesses. Then, we hit them hard and fast. My philosophy was that you needed to be slow in deliberation and swift in execution; never letting them see you coming. A perfect exampleof this philosophy can be seen when examining why boxing legend Muhammad Ali was so successful. Ali was never considered to have superior punching power over most past and present heavyweight boxing champions, but his career was still full of knockouts. In fact, he won 26 of his first 32 undefeated fights by knockout/technical knockout. Hisspeed and timing were the reason for his success; his opponents couldn’t register or prepare for his attacks before it was toolate. Sometimes, the punch you can’t see is the one that knocks you out.
With the recent and pending labor law changes, it is more vital than ever to take control of your management and communication style. A combination of the changes like micro units and reduced election times are the tools unions needed to hit unsuspecting management teams hard and fast, and unions are gearing up to cash in on these changes. They have established policy changes to expand their influence in communities, including using third-party groups to directly interact with people who work for their organizing targets. Now is the time to evaluation how well your supervisors communicate with and know your workforce. If you don’t, the union surely will get to know them.