A “Labor Intensive” Strategy for Building Workers’ Power

At noon on a beautiful June day in suburban Minneapolis, eighty-five women and men streamed out of the U.S. West corporate “campus” building, each one carrying a pink, lime green, or lemon yellow square. Each square bore a single letter in black paint. Laughing, they lined up in a particular order, spelling out “D-O-W-N-S-I-Z-I-N-G A-T  U-S-W-E-S-T = R-O-A-D-K-I-L-L  F-O-R  Y-O-U.” They marched to a highway overpass half a block away, took their positions, and held their signs up to the traffic speeding below. Local TV news cameras rolled. Horns honked, especially from big trucks.  “Listen,” one woman said to another, “They support us!”

This action, the first ever undertaken by these white collar workers, was several weeks in the making. Contract negotiations between their union, the Communications Workers of America, and the fourteen-state “baby bell,” US West, had bogged down over management demands for staffing cuts, the right to outsource work, and higher worker co-pays for health insurance. CWA activists sought to put pressure on management by involving and organizing their rank-and-file members to communicate the union’s stance directly to the public. They hoped to demonstrate, on the one hand, that the members knew what was at stake and were united, and, on the other, that the public was sympathetic to the workers and might turn against the company. Given the growing number of complaints aired in the media about customer dissatisfaction with phone, internet, and related services, these were not far-fetched ideas. 

Some months earlier, CWA stewards had begun brown-bag lunch meetings with workers. They discussed the stakes of action and inaction, and explored tactics that might attract widespread involvement, be fun to do, and grab public attention. Once the plan was hatched, workers met one night over pizza to make the signs. More than a quarter of all the workers in that one building participated. 

This sort of action helped bring US West management back to the bargaining table in June with an improved offer, and it averted a strike later that summer. The action also left this particular local with an energized membership.  Attendance at union meetings went up, participation in union elections rose, and more people were even willing to run for offices. 

This experience demonstrates how much can be accomplished with a strategy that links the “internal” — the mobilization of the membership — with the “external” — communication with the public, customers, community members, etc., in order to put pressure on management. Even in a hostile political climate with a largely unsympathetic mass media, and even in a legal climate that limits unions’ options, this sort of strategy, a “labor intensive” strategy, not only brings immediate results but also alters the long-term balance of power.  Unions can again merit the nomenclature, “organized labor,” as they fight not only for their own members’ material interests but also for the students, the consumers, the patients, the clients, and the larger community, who, in this political/economic climate, are experiencing reductions in the quantity and quality of services they receive.

That same summer, bus drivers represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union went on strike in the Twin Cities.  Poor and working-class inner city residents were far more impacted by the strike than were suburban commuters.  When local radio, television, and newspapers put on the spin that the strike was not having a major impact since highways were not gridlocked, the union devised a strategy to enhance the voices of communities of color. Rank-and-file bus drivers were surveyed for their church affiliations, and then they were asked to become spokespersons for the union’s issues within their respective congregations.  Given crash mini-courses in public speaking, they were dispatched to approach their ministers and fellow congregants, seeking common ground (the preservation, if not expansion, of bus routes, decent wages and benefits for working people who hailed from diverse communities, etc.) around the strike and the future of mass transit.  These actions generated letters, phone calls, and emails to the media and the management of the transit service, as well as a collective statement by a number of Twin Cities clergy.

Here, then, was another application of a “labor intensive” strategy. Union leaders and activists recognized union members and their off-work relationships and networks as “resources.” With some direction and education, they could play an important role in shifting the balance of power in a labor-management conflict. This particular experience even had the positive outcome of helping to inspire the organization of a Twin Cities Clergy and Labor Network, which has become a resource in other labor conflicts since.

The Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, an 11,000-member public employee union, is applying this sort of strategy in its new “Public Employee Pride” (PEP) campaign.  The political discourse in the once-liberal state of Minnesota — driven now by right-wing radio talk show hosts and newspaper columnists, conservative think tanks, suburban evangelicals, and political demagogues — fuels hostility to taxation and public services, and scorn for the workers who provide them (who supposedly receive “Cadillac” benefits while leaning on their shovels). In this climate, stories abound of public employees hiding their careers from their neighbors, keeping low profiles at community meetings, and doubting their own worth as workers and citizens.

The PEP program has taken shape to turn this situation around.  It began with labor history and strategy lectures at lunchtime meetings in local workplaces, and it has grown to include email and telephone trees for communicating labor issues worker-to-worker and mobilizing phone calls, letters to the editor, emails, and petition signatures in response to anti-worker, anti-government blather from pundits and politicians.  It is also working with locals in specific departments, from the Pollution Control Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Labor and the Department of Natural Resources, to produce position papers for public distribution which will advocate for the expansion of services in order to better the quality of life for all Minnesotans.  At some point, MAPE expects to use various forms of public demonstrations, informational picketing, guerrilla theater, mass lobbying, and the like — but all of this will lie on the foundation of member participation built through PEP. It is hoped that these tactics will feed into a contract campaign in the summer of 2005 with goals of preserving health benefits and improving wages for state employees. Strengthening members’ commitment to the union and the union’s relationships to the wider community will follow from such success, for ensuing budget cycles and labor contracts. 

This “labor intensive” strategy seeks no short cuts, no political white knights, no charismatic union leaders, no loquacious lobbyists, no brilliant consultants, to pull the union’s chestnuts out of the fire. Union leaders and activists turn first to their members, offering them education, information, strategies, tactics, organizational vehicles, resources, and targets for action. In turn, membership involvement, empowerment, and ownership will grow. There will be more activists with responsibility to recruit yet more members to the on-going campaign, to make inroads into student, patient, client, and consumer communities and bring them on board.

Through such “labor intensive” strategies, unions can fight their immediate battles in ways that will build workers’ power in the future.

A labor historian, Peter Rachleff worked as an educational consultant to the CWA and MAPE in the two campaigns he describes in this article, and he was part of the support committee for the Amalgamated Transit Union bus drivers.