Tuesday Sep 26

EXCERPT FROM Secrets of a Successful Organizer By Alexandra Bradbury, Mark Brenner, and Jane Slaughter

Editor’s Notes: These are case studies from “Secrets of a Successful Organizer,” a Labor Notes Book compiled and written by Alexandra Bradbury, Mark Brenner, and Jane Slaughter. These studies and other tips can be easily shared and are available at www.labornotes.org.

Harry Bridges Prowls Powell’s

“Harry Bridges works at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon,” reports Michael Ames Conner. “He keeps an eye out for fellow workers. At least, that’s what they say.

“The story, repeated by members of the West Coast Longshore Union (ILWU), goes something like this: Every once in a while, over the store intercom, comes a page for Harry Bridges, ‘Harry Bridges to the front register.’ ‘Harry Bridges to the loading dock.’

“These union folks who work at Powell’s know that Harry has been dead for years. But they know his reputation – a fierce ILWU fighter who led the 1934 longshore strike that established the union. Part of joining ILWU means learning about their union, and learning what Harry Bridges stands for. They know that if he’s going to check out the loading dock, they should, too.

“When they get there (and it’s usually 30 or 40 people who show up), they find one of their co-workers in a little difficulty with the boss. A disagreement, an argument, a confrontation. Before they show up, maybe the boss is taking a hard line, getting ready to make an example of someone, thinking about tossing a troublemaker out the door. That’s why Harry Bridges gets the call.

“So 30 or 40 people show up, and the manager backs down. Happens every time. With one or two people there, the boss can do what he likes. But with 30 or 40 people, as Arlo Guthrie once pointed out, you got yourself a movement.

“Nobody’s ever seen Harry Bridges at Powell’s. They just know he’s there, watching to make sure nobody gets picked on, or picked off.”

Teachers Raise The Bar

The Chicago teachers, in their 2012 contract campaign, became masters at counting – they had to.

A state law had passed in 2011 requiring CTU [Chicago Teachers’ Union] to get yes votes from 75 percent of all members (not just those voting) before calling a strike. This was supposed to be impossible. “In effect they wouldn’t have the ability to strike,” gloated Jonah Edelman, an anti-union lobbyist who pushed for the rule.

CTU leaders were convinced that 75 percent was possible, – but no one could deny it was a tall order. They couldn’t go into the vote cold.

So activists tallied co-workers participation in a series of activities – wearing red on Fridays, signing an open letter, participating in a mock strike vote, and attending a citywide rally – all “tests we created for ourselves,” as Staff Coordinator Jackson Potter put it.

They hung charts on the union office wall to keep track of every school and every delegate (steward). “We did a lot of counting,” said Organizing Director Norine Gutekanst.

At the union’s spring training conference, contract committee members went through the members at their schools name by name – assessing whether each person was wearing red, would come to an action, and would vote yes for strike authorization.

These assessments weren’t considered permanent truths. The point of finding out where each person stood now was to aid an ongoing process of moving them closer to the center of the bullseye.

“Assessments were moving targets,” said organizer Matthew Luskin. “The job of the delegate was to have a plan on how to move people. We offered them skills about how to overcome obstacles. It was empowering to people to realize that they could build support with these skills, rather than just lament the places it was missing.”

By spring, CTU was passing its own tests with flying colors. The union was ready for the contract campaign’s biggest hurdle, the strike vote. The teachers sailed over it, winning a 90 percent yes vote, and struck with nearly unanimous participation.

Union Time, Tiempo Del Sincicato

When workers were organizing a union in the Smithfield hog processing plant in Tarheel, North Carolina, there was not much contact between Latino workers, who were the majority, and African American workers, who made up most of the rest of the workforce. Few Latino immigrants spoke much English, and the African American workers spoke no Spanish.

In the course of the campaign, a movement grew on the shop floor for workers to write “Union Time” on their work helmets. Management reacted. A Latino worker was called into the office and threatened with discipline.

As he came out of the office, looking bummed, an African American union supporter saw him. Somehow they managed a conversation. The Latino worker got across that he was about to get in trouble.

So the black worker took his own helmet and wrote on
it “Tiempo del Sindicato” – “Union Time” in Spanish.
He handed it to the Latino worker wear, and put the
“Union Time” helmet on his own head. They high-fived.

News moves quickly through a plant. When the incident came up at the next union meeting, everyone cheered.

At one point up to a thousand workers were wearing “Union Time” or “Tiemp del Sindicato” on their helmets. The union filed an unfair labor practice charge, and eventually the company issued a written apology in England and Spanish for suppressing union talk.

Enforcing this important right, and acting together across the language barrier, helped propel the workers to winning their union.


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