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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How Unions Can Grow, Help Dems

Mike Elk, a third-generation union organizer who writes for the Campaign for America’s Future has a post up at Alternet, which should be of considerable interest to both the labor movement and the Democratic Party. Elk’s post, “Major Union Victory for Rite Aid Workers Offers Roadmap for Labor Movement,” is important to the Democratic Party because labor unions function as a pivotal source of funding and volunteers for Democratic candidates. When unions grow, the Party’s resources will expand.
Elk’s insights about the highly successful campaign of the International Longshoremen Workers Union to organize Rite Aid workers at the company’s southwest distribution center should prove instructive for future campaigns. First, a little history:

The victory is a testament to the resolve of the workers and organizers — it’s a success five years in the making. It reveals how tough the environment for rehabilitating the labor movement is, but also how it is still possible to win through creative, direct action.
“We’re excited about winning this victory, even if it took longer than it should have” said Carlos “Chico” Rubio, a 10-year warehouse worker who was on the union bargaining committee. Unlike many unions that do win a good contract, the union was quick not to praise the boss for agreeing to a contract, but to point out instead that the process was a long and costly one. Workers decided to first start organizing a union in March of 2006 and hoped to have a new contract within several months, not five years.
Rite Aid management responded with the typical toolbox of anti-union tactics. They hired a team of expensive union busters to hold anti-union intimidation sessions and captive audience meetings. They threatened to fire workers if they supported the union and even fired two workers for wanting to a join a union. They asked a delay of over 18 months from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on scheduling a vote so that they could have more time to run intimidation sessions to make workers wary of joining a union. Finally after two years of organizing and despite massive anti-union attacks, workers voted to join a union 283 to 261 in an NLRB supervised election in June of 2008.

Elk reports that Rite Aid stalled with bad faith or “surface bargaining” for a full year after the vote. Then the union and workers got creative:

…Workers started by attending yearly stockholder meetings and opening lines of communications with stockholders and board members. They released detailed reports about how much money the union busting efforts of Rite Aid was costing the company. Workers were able to persuade some stockholders to put pressure on Rite Aid to negotiate a fair and equitable contract.
Likewise, they used their leverage against Rite Aid by expanding the fight across various unions and the country. They formed a coalition of nationwide Rite Aid workers from various unions including UFCW, SEIU, and Teamsters who coordinated their strategy. Workers reached out to powerful community allies with groups like United Students against Sweatshops and Jobs with Justice. They held protests in nearly 50 cities across the country against Rite Aid and promised to apply more heat if Rite Aid didn’t settle the contract dispute in California.

After creative coalition-building comes economic withdrawal, a.k.a. ‘hardball’:

Most importantly, the workers union had a strong presence within the distribution center in Lancaster, California. Workers even engaged in “work to rule,” where they purposely slowed down movement in the distribution center in order to put pressure on the company to settle a contract. Even last year, 75 workers walked off the job for a day in Lancaster, California to protest Rite Aid’s lack of good faith bargaining.
Finally, when negotiations seemed to be breaking down at the last second, they launched a “pinpoint” boycott campaign at two Rite Aid workers at two Rite Aid Stores in San Pedro, California on April 1, 2011. They persuaded hundreds of seniors to switch their prescriptions to other pharmacies. The threat of a larger boycott spreading forced Rite Aid to finally settle the contract a month later.

To put the Rite Aid campaign’s success in perspective, Elk points out that “fewer than 1 in 6 organizing drives ever results in a union contract for workers in the workplace.”
It looks like the ILWU and Rite Aid workers have developed a promising organizing template for the 21st century union movement. It’s an especially welcome development, coming soon after the Wisconsin protests and the awakening of many workers to the unexpected consequences of voting Republican.
An invigorated labor movement is also critically-important for insuring the integrity of the Democratic party. As Joan Walsh notes in her Salon.com post today, data provided to her by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka indicates,

…Democrats have become almost as reliant as Republicans on corporate money (Republicans get 79 percent of campaign contributions from business; Democrats get 72 percent, and the share from unions has dropped in half in just the last decade.)

Restoring a larger share of contributions from unions to Democratic candidates will help make the Party less beholden to their corporate contributors — and more responsive to the priorities of working families. But the challenge is made more difficult, as Walsh reports, by the AFL-CIO’s recent decision to invest more of current resources in shoring up the Federation’s structure and programs, and less on federal candidates for office. In her interview with Trumka, he explains how the allocation of the Federation’s resources will be different going forward:

…We’re going to do a full-time, around the calendar political program that’s going to be mobilizing and educating people 12 months a year, 24 months a cycle, as opposed to doing it till Election Day and dismantling it. We’re going to keep people in place, and actually make people pay a price [if they don’t keep promises]. We’ll start running some of our own, in state races.

Democrats face a tough challenge in the short run in raising funds for candidates to make up for the expected shortfall resulting from the AFL-CIO’s new priorities. If they can raise the needed funds through other means, a stronger union movement could result in a more mutually beneficial relationship down the road. In the longer run, what it comes down to is that Democrats must do a better job of supporting unions and their priorities, so unions can grow and return the favor.

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