Building Union Cities Seminar Report03 September 2003
On Wednesday 9th July Amy Dean the President of the South Bay Regional Labor Council, Silicon Valley California, presented a short seminar on the “Building Union Cities” program that has been running there since 1995. The talk was informative, inspiring, and challenging as it charted a positive course for the union movement here to follow in order to rebuild union strength at a grass roots local community level and deliver concrete outcomes for working people.
The US Labor movement has experienced a large decline in union membership in recent years suffering under the same neo liberal economic rationalist agenda that has been pursued here and in most western countries around the world during the last decade or more. The restructuring of existing industries, shipping jobs offshore or across borders, the rapid rise of new industry sectors, and a hostile, ideologically driven government found the Labor movement unprepared and ill equipped to carry out its role effectively. Four traits of the US Labor movement were highlighted that contributed to its decline; rigid, autocratic, insular, and exclusive. In order to turn this decline around these negative traits needed to transform to be flexible, democratic, involved and inclusive.
The decline of the US Labor movement had serious and negative political consequences for working class people. As the level of union membership dropped so did the significance of union voters at election time and so union issues were not on anyone's electoral platform. The Republicans became more and more hostile to unions and attempted to emasculate them through industrial legislative reforms. Finally the rise of Third Way Labor politics that embraced neo liberal ideals of free trade and privatization while providing limited support of workers rights and increasing marginalisation of the Left meant that there were very few politicians reflective of the working class.
To combat this negative trend in 1995 the newly elected President of the
The Union Cities process was to be based in best practice in terms of inter union solidarity, promotion of political contenders, and the development of new community networks. A key component was strategic planning around a strong vision for the future of the labor movement with the identification of performance measures to assess progress.
The Union Cities program has six major aspects:
Mobilisation : is the ability to put people on the streets when needed if workers rights or interests are threatened. To be able to initiate immediate retaliation against employers who do not treat their employees acceptably. This requires both inter union cooperation and solidarity as well as strong community partnerships.
Organising: "Not in our Town". The central organizing issue is workers rights. It is the civil rights issue that union activists can organise around. When an employer abuses workers rights they are publicly exposed as someone that is not welcome in our town because we don't treat people like that here.
Grassroots political action: the labor movement needs people in power who will stand up for workers and advance the labor vision. Voters have become apathetic and it is necessary for the electorate to change/raise their expectations of the people they elected to office. Elected officials should be encouraged to make a stand for workers. If they do, they are endorsed by the local labor council, if not they have a workers candidate running against them at the next election. Further if a picket line is in force the politician should be put on the spot. Either they go and join the picket or they write a letter to the rogue employer and send a delegation to the employer to support the workers. If not then they are no longer endorsed by the labor council.
Labor movement/community partnerships: strong links with community groups, community leaders, and religious leaders should be fostered through a common interest in social justice issues.
Economic development: ongoing analysis of the local economy with regard to jobs, healthcare, transport, neighbourhood services, etc. Research to investigate exactly where public money goes to ensure that public money develops good community results. Public money for positive economic development.
Leadership and diversity: education and training programs for activists, organizers and officials.
In combination with the above actions the South Bay Labor Council has developed innovative processes to advance the labor movement in their local area. They have created a Workers Rights Board that has community and religious leaders sitting on it to hear cases of unfair dismissal locally. They have created a Labor Community Leadership Institute that cultivates labor oriented analysis of the regional economy and issues. They have formal links with local tertiary institutes. They have organized a foundation called Working Partnerships USA that provides funding for research and development. They prepare a Community Economic Blueprint with detailed analysis of the local economy. They created their own temp staffing business and a portable healthcare scheme for affiliates. This is all in addition to their core business of assisting the unions that are the labor council's affiliates.
The Building Union Cities program outlined above has delivered positive results in the USA and maps a possible way forward for union and community activists here in Australia. There is much work to be done.
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