The strength of any group is not measured in laws granted by politicians. The strength of any group is measured in the dedication and participation of it’s members. For too long Organized Labor in the United States has relied upon privileges granted by politicians, instead of creating well trained selfless leaders who can organize and motivate their members. Collective bargaining rights or not, Unionism is not defined by laws, it is defined by members willing to make sacrifices to improve their workplace and communities. Sitting on our hands and hiding behind laws leads to apathy and self-centered members who ask, “what’s in it for me?”. When the real question is; “how do we improve working conditions for everyone?”.
Standing-together is the most important theme of a remaining organized. It is often preached, but seldom practiced, even by Labor leaders. Standing-together means, as a group, we define what code of ethics we work to preserve in our workplace. When we approach local politics, we do it as a whole, not by the opinions of just one or two members. Standing together isn’t just something that’s said, it’s the fabric that binds us together, it’s the foundation from which we strengthen our Locals. When we learn what it means to believe in our Local’s, we learn how to defend it from non-believers.
Right-to-Work-for-less is spreading like wildfire across the United States. The first Locals to fall are always the ones with weak leadership. The current generation of leaders and members do not fully understand what Standing-together means. In Wisconsin when ACT 10 became law, many Local executive boards simply turned in their memberships and treasuries, never looking back. They had no idea how an organization could be called a “union” without certain laws, these leaders did not have the basic understanding of “standing-together”.
So how do we save Organized Labor? First and foremost, stop looking at collective bargaining as Unionism! By definition a Union is the coming together of employees to improve their working environment. Once you realize that collective bargaining doesn’t define your Union, you must create and maintain a code of ethics, that every member can agree to preserve in their workplace and communities. Local members must agree to stand up for one another, defending each other in the face of poor management decisions can be more powerful than a well written grievance. Members cannot be afraid to voice their opinions when action is needed, a single voice can be cast aside, but a well organized group is hard to ignore.
The lesson that was learned in 2011 throughout the United States is that any pubic employee Local who wishes to survive, needs to be involved with local politics. Our founding members operated in a hostile environment, they changed laws by changing the minds and faces of those who governed at the local level. Working conditions were not improved by simply bargaining a deal. Today members in every walk of life need to go back to what was effective for our founding members. Locals need to make contact with politicians, not just during bargaining or when there is trouble. Make phone calls, plan meetings just to get to know your local politicians, get involved with their campaigns.
As members of a your Local understand what it truly means to be Union, they are less likely to step away. Members are better prepared to defend themselves from non-members. Employers develop a certain level of respect, even if they angrily deny it.
Unionism is not defined by politicians, it’s defined by individual human beings willing to stand shoulder to shoulder and defend what they believe is fair and right.
Dan Bemowski, President, Local 311
Portage County Highway Employees,
AFSCME Council 32