Member Associations: New Direction In Organizing?

WASHINGTON–Building on paths blazed by the Communications Workers and, more recently, the Auto Workers, labor is taking – or to be precise, reviving — a new direction: “Member organizations.”

Under the concept, CWA President Larry Cohen explained, unions would charter locals or even groups within locals that represent and speak only for those workers who voluntarily sign up, even without collective bargaining agreements in hand.

Cohen, the AFL-CIO Organizing Committee chair, outlined the concept in a July 30 interview during the federation’s executive council meeting in Washington.  The latest manifestation of the concept is UAW’s announcement that it is chartering Local 42 for Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tenn. – but only for those workers who sign up.

It also intends to establish “member organizations” in other “transplant” auto plants: Factories established by foreign automakers in the anti-union, anti-worker South.  UAW has several southern organizing drives going there, notably at a Nissan plant in Mississippi.

Local 42 will represent the voluntary VW workers, but not others, in a council the union will set up with VW management, similar to German “works councils,” mandated by law there: Joint labor-management bodies that cooperate on running firms and individual factories, too.

UAW and VW wanted to establish a similar “works council” in Chattanooga, but felt U.S. labor law mandated the union had to win a recognition election at the plant, first.  After a multi- million-dollar vicious Right Wing campaign, UAW narrowly lost in February.

While the “member organization” concept may seem new, Cohen says it isn’t.  His union has been trying the same idea in various states, including union-hostile Texas.

“We have 11,000 members in the public sector” member organization, CWA Local 6186, in Texas “where collective bargaining is outlawed by the state constitution,” Cohen explains.

Since it can’t bargain, the local concentrates on political activism for its members and families.

Ditto, he says, for CWA’s 3,000-member Mississippi Alliance of State Employees.

And there’s an association of court translators – who are technically “independent contractors” unprotected by labor law – in The Newspaper Guild-CWA.  And Alliance@IBM has 400 members at the non-union computer firm known as “Big Blue” and 4,000 more on its mailing list.

Among all AFL-CIO unions, Cohen adds, “We’ll continue to promote it” – member associations – “with or without collective bargaining rights.”

“More and more” with these workers, “you see the idea of joining a union and building it” even without a contract “and making a difference,” he explains.