AFSCME President Saunders: Unions Have to Ask Tough Questions About How We Do Business

The nation’s unions “have to ask tough questions about how we do business” if they want to sustain themselves and grow in the 21st century, a top union president says.

In a recent article written for The American Prospect, AFSCME President Lee Saunders adds the warning that if they don’t do so, unions will suffer the same loss of confidence – and members – as other institutions.

Saunders’ views are important: His union, along with the Teachers, is one of the two largest in the AFL-CIO and he chairs its Political Committee. And AFSCME is also one of the most politically active and effective unions – and thus, along with other public worker unions, a top target of the radical right.

Saunders explained that at the time the union movement grew, especially in the mid-20th century, institutions in general were more respected and work itself was more cohesive and centered on worksites.

Now institutions are in decline and workers are increasingly atomized, toiling or seen as individuals, not as part of a group, he said.

Unions must adjust to that, he added, by becoming even more bottom-up, and opening up to their rank-and-file.

“People are still joiners, but they’re much more discriminating about what they join and with whom. Rather than sublimating individuality to blend into the institution, they expect institutions to be tailored to their specifications. They are increasingly sorting and self-segregating into enclaves of the like-minded,” he explained.

Saunders says AFSCME has started that adjustment, and he urges others to do so, too.

The California Friedrichs case that challenged union agency fees for “free riders” before the U.S. Supreme Court, “concentrated the mind” on labor’s vulnerability, he adds. Unions won the case on a 4-4 tie, upholding the fees.

Saunders admits that before AFSCME began “a major campaign to reconnect” with its 1.6 million members, it took many of them for granted. Members value union services but don’t closely identify with their union, he said — a point Saunders applies to other unions as well.

He said his union turned to internal organizing, training members in how to hold one-on-one conversations with their colleagues about what they want from their union, rather than telling them what the union does. AFSCME has a goal of 1 million such head-to-head talks, Saunders says, and about 500,000 have already occurred.

“More and more, we’re teaching people to fish instead of giving them a fish. The result has been a substantial culture shift. Workers even in the smallest locals are now more empowered to make change, rather than waiting for someone from ‘the union’ to do it for them,” he states.

“We’re doing more listening and less talking. We’re digging deeper to understand our members as people. And we’re finding that, even as they value and crave a deeper connection with their union, they also want to be treated as individuals. They want solidarity, but not conformity. Many see their union not as ideological instruments  — ‘How can it advance an agenda?’ — but in the most pragmatic terms: ‘How can it help me get ahead?’”

Saunders also admitted that it’s time for disparate unions that sometimes have been at loggerheads to work together. That’s one reason AFSCME forged an operating agreement with the Service Employees, and why those two unions, plus the Teachers and the National Education Association, work jointly in several arenas.

Though Saunders did not say so, SEIU is the largest union in the Change To Win federation, which broke away from the AFL-CIO in 2005, and the NEA, which is not affiliated with either federation, is the nation’s largest union overall – although in red states it still must act like an association.

Saunders said working together extends to creating alliances outside the labor movement, a policy the AFL-CIO adopted at its last convention more than three years ago. As an example, he cites the labor-progressive coalition that stopped business and President Barack Obama (D) from getting the Republican-run Congress to approve the jobs-losing Trans-Pacific Partnership before the Nov. 8 election.

But in the end, a “modernized labor movement will be a more muscular labor movement, with energy and activism unleashed from the bottom up, acting as a more powerful force on behalf of its members and all working people,” Saunders predicts.

Source: PAI