Volume 16 Issue 3
Interview by Mike Myslinski
Dr. Elaine Bernard
Dr. Elaine Bernard, the labor expert who heads the Harvard Trade Union Program and is passionate about the future of unions, pulls no punches when talking about why unions matter in California and across the nation.
Many CTA members have heard her speak over the years. She was a keynote speaker at the Region II Leadership Conference in Reno, and at the Region I Leadership Conference in Pacific Grove, where we caught up with her for a chat about CTA, organizing and other California labor issues.
Her many writings include this essay on why unions matter. One excerpt: “It's therefore urgent for organized labor and working people in general to organize on two fronts — politically, in the community through political parties and social movements, and industrially, in the workplace through unions. Unionists cannot leave politics alone, because politics will not leave unions alone.”
Her observations below have been edited for space.
What are unions doing right in America now?
There is a lot that they’re doing right. Getting members active and moving from service organizations that do things for members to organizing movements that involve members is the most important transformation. A big problem that unions have, however, is that the vast majority of members have not gone through an “organizing” experience. That is, they are not the founders of the movement. They did not go through a campaign to organize the workplace, define who they are and what they want, but rather simply got a job in an organized workplace and found that they were union members. This means that unions have a major challenge of moving members from passive dues payers who have an attitude that they are purchasing a service (insurance in the workplace) to owners and active participants in a movement to represent workers in the workplace.
Does the union culture suffer within CTA and NEA because we’re not affiliated with the AFL-CIO?
Yes and no. We need a united labor movement, especially at this time when unions are under attack, but the reality of the U.S. labor movement is that it is divided institutionally, but over the last few years has started to work together on political campaigns, and in defense of union rights in practice. But real unity needs to be more than simple affiliation — whether to the AFL-CIO or with any other organization. What’s happening now is very exciting. The unions are working together because they have to. It’s now clear that there’s not a special class of worker or special industry or profession that can stand on its own or that will not see its wages and working conditions under attack. You can’t be an island of good wages and working conditions in a sea of declining standards. We’ve seen legislation take away union rights of police and other first responders, educators, public employees, and many other people. The whole labor movement is under attack right now. I think the wider problem is: How do we start to work together better? Not just in crisis and not just to stop what we don’t want, but a positive movement to organize and promote positive change that we do want. And it starts with practicing solidarity and acting on the immediate, but thinking about the long term.
Public sector workers are much more unionized than in the private sector. Is that something to inspire CTA members, or does it give a false sense of strength?
The public sector currently has union density rates close to what the private sector enjoyed some 50 years ago. That should give people pause. First, what goes up can come down, and secondly, the majority of the workforce is in the private sector, so that even if we reached 100 percent union density in the public sector, the majority of workers in the U.S. would not have access to collective bargaining. The downward pressure on wages, working conditions, pensions and benefits that public sector union members feel today is primarily caused by the fact that private sector workers have been bludgeoned for many decades, and with the decline in unions in the private sector, they have been losing ground. Now, at only 7 percent of the workforce, few unions in the private sector are able to hold on to benefits and standards achieved in earlier periods.
Have you crunched those numbers?
We have a U.S. workforce of about 125 million workers and probably about 20 million public employees, including federal, state, local government and public education. Today, the strength of the labor movement is in the public sector. In fact, a few years ago for the first time public sector union members outnumbered private sector union members. A conclusion I draw from this is that while it’s important for public employees to defend their wages and standards and fight back against attempts to weaken or destroy unions in the public sector, we also have an obligation to help our brothers and sisters in the private sector in the same way that they helped organize public employees in the ’60s and ’70s. Public employee unions now need to lend support to private sector unions. We have to help them now.
What are some examples of innovation and progressive work by unions in the private sector?
Innovation tends to come out of weakness, not out of strength. That sounds strange, but if you’re strong you can get what you want. So some of the more interesting innovations have come in sectors where unions have not had much strength traditionally. Also, it means reaching out to groups who have not been involved in unions. Again, an interesting story is the fact that women will soon become the majority of the labor movement. Union members tend to be older, employees of larger workplaces, and more senior in tenure. But some unions, such as the United Food and Commercial Workers, have developed programs and consciously sought to organize and involve younger members. UFCW is the main private sector union in retail, and is especially strong among grocery workers. They’ve gone through some tough times with their employers squeezing their wages and working conditions, in a very tough, competitive sector. But they have a young membership. They have one of the youngest demographics in the labor movement, and they are in the process of turning that to their advantage.
Here are a couple of other examples. Working America is a community union formed and affiliated to the AFL-CIO. They now have over 3 million members who have signed up to join Working America. Unions in manufacturing industries, such as auto and steel, have extensive training and retraining programs, understanding that they need to play a major role in upgrading the skills of their members. That’s something unions in education understand, that a union is not just a collective bargaining organization, but needs to also be a vehicle for professional development and personal growth. There are now minority unions — that is, unions that have not established majority recognition as the bargaining agent for a group of workers under the National Labor Relations Act. Before there was a NLRA, unions didn’t worry about whether they had a majority of members in a specific workplace signed up. They recognized that even without a majority of workers, they could still exercise considerable power in the workplace, through education, agitation and organizing. Workers at Microsoft in Washington state have formed an organization that seeks to work similar to a union but does not have official status. It’s called WashTech, and while the organization is not a certified union, it is affiliated with the Communications Workers, and it seeks to bring together high-tech workers and construct a community of interest among those workers. Finally, there are the Living Wage campaigns in cities and communities around the country. We see campaigns where unions have linked with the community and tried to create standards for the whole community. I see some real strength in these innovations. This is a time of important experimentation.
CTA has a powerful role in California politics and in being a catalyst in coalition work. Do you see CTA’s position as a very positive position in the labor movement here?
CTA has been a strong and powerful organization for a long time. It has lots of resources, a large membership, and can often mobilize its resources in times of crisis. CTA has a proven ability to beat back ballot initiatives and even has had some success in promoting initiatives. And it can do this, if need be, on its own. However, that makes CTA also a big target for anti-union and reactionary forces to go after. Also, sometimes when organizations can do things on their own, they do feel the need to reach out to others and build powerful coalitions. As I said earlier, innovation comes out of weakness, not strength. If you can get what you want, why change? Starting a few years ago, I think, people in CTA recognized that no matter how large and powerful the organization was, the types of challenges we are facing today were not challenges that CTA alone could deal with. That it requires wider solidarity and collaboration with the rest of the labor movement in the state, and not even just the rest of the labor movement, but in education with parents, students and the community. Today it’s clear that building support beyond your own organization is not just for unions in education, but a requirement for all unions. It also means thinking a bit about how the union delivers its message. Here, education is a good example. In poll after poll, people like teachers but don’t like education unions. There is of course a contradiction here — if you like teachers, why not respect the fact that teachers understand that they need a collective voice and organization. But that aside, it means that CTA members, teachers, ESPs and other members of the education team are often the best spokespersons and the key people who are needed to carry the union message in the community. That means a different type of CTA, one with much stronger relationships in the community. Fortunately, this type of organization fits well with an organizing and activist model of unionism.
The CTA strategic vision is changing toward seeing the power of coalitions for several years now.
There are two types of coalitions. There are coalitions that are top-down, leadership to leadership, with little cross-membership involvement. These can be powerful, but are episodic and break up or are dissolved after the immediate crisis passes. The other type of coalition is built to last. It’s multi-issue, it involves not only the leadership, but the membership. It’s about building long-term relationships and transformation. Think about the problems that you are facing in education in California. It’s been a long-time process, and repairing the system and rebuilding the quality public education system back to the world-class system that existed a few decades ago, will take time. The type of coalition that’s needed now is one that is built to last, that’s committed for the long term.
Organizing is so key to all your presentations. It’s one of your main focuses. Why is organizing the essence of union survival?
Organizing is not just pivotal for union survival. It’s what unions do. It’s about creating power — by combining. Sometimes people hear the word organizing and assume it simply means unionizing or gaining recognition for a union in a workplace. But that’s not the sense in which I use the term organize. That’s more recruiting. Too often unions confuse recruitment — signing up members — with organizing, which is developing relationships with people and moving them to act upon their shared vision and values. It’s about participation, it’s about feeling the power of the organization, it’s much more than simply being recruited, simply being a member or simply having a union card. That’s the spirit of the type of unions that we need today. Hopefully, that’s the vision that CTA has and is in the process of trying to move towards.