“The Feeble Strength of One”: Restoring Belief in Collective Power

“The Feeble Strength of One”: Restoring Belief in Collective Power

How Working America Works

There is power in a factory, power in the land
Power in the hands of a worker
But it all amounts to nothing if together we don’t stand
There is power in a Union

“There Is Power in a Union,” by Billy Bragg

“I rely on myself.”

Fifty years ago, “power in the hands of a worker” still meant working people joining forces to improve their lives, to build a bigger middle class and to curb the excesses of Wall Street and the corporate bosses. But here in 2012, Billy Bragg’s lyrics (to a song released in 1986) sound, well, quaint. The belief in developing the collective power of working people for a common good has been eclipsed by the vain hope that individual endeavor combined with “getting government off my back” would result in personal gain. Stagnant wages and declining benefits were buttressed by personal debt, as union cards were replaced by credit cards. The steep decline in unions since the 1970s is both a cause and a consequence.

Our challenge is to reanimate that vision of working-class solidarity so that it resonates in a contemporary context. But how?

My own trajectory, from organizing clerical workers into 9to5 (the National Association of Working Women) and SEIU 925 in the 1970s to organizing working-class moderates into Working America today, has given me a vantage point from which to consider the changing context in which we strive to build worker power.

Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO, was created in 2003 to reach working-class people who do not have a union on the job. Our goal was to staunch the hemorrhage of union density by creating a new avenue to collective action and power, based not in workplaces but in communities. We begin with a personal conversation about the economy from a different perspective than the one they hear on Fox News every night. We talk about strength in numbers, offer opportunities to take action, and follow up with ongoing communications. We’ve been way more successful than anyone thought we’d be—more than three million members nationally—and yet, we often feel like an anomaly. Even the young, committed activists with whom I work at Working America cannot conjure a time when banding together was a natural response to injustice—it’s just outside of their experience.

In that respect, I was luckier. When I started organizing working women as a clerical worker in the early 1970s, women were concentrated in a handful of low-wage jobs that were overwhelmingly female. One out of three working women in those days joined me in clerical work. The pay gap was enormous—women earned fifty-seven cents to a man’s dollar. And despite an average of thirty-two years in the workforce, many women still thought of themselves as temporary, occasional, or secondary workers. The notion that men should be paid more because they were the breadwinners was just beginning to die a hard death.

But it was also a moment when committees, collectives, communes, and co-ops of all kinds enlivened the cultural landscape, bolstered by a political frame that was based in class analysis and collective action. Against that backdrop, the idea of women’s equality was taking root in the workplace, and women were joining groups or starting their own to challenge their employers—Stewardesses for Women’s Rights; Women in Banking; Domestic Workers United; the sex workers’ organization COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics); and 9to5, the organization for women office workers.

We often asked women whom they could turn to if they had a problem on the job. After a pause, a woman might answer, “NOW” (the National Organization for Women) or “9to5”; “I could call a government agency” or “my congressman.” Some suggested calling a union. Most workers could identify an institution on their side, someone or something to back them up.

But over the decades, the answer to the question “Whom do you turn to if you have a problem on the job?” has changed. The scope has narrowed. “I might call my mother,” I heard more frequently over time. Then, “I pray to God.” Today, the typical working woman doesn’t even have God in her corner if she’s getting shafted at work. “I rely on myself” is the most likely answer. We went from a group for every cause and “Solidarity Forever” to “the feeble strength of one.”

THIS METAMORPHOSIS, of course, happened not by accident but by design. My entry into union organizing in the mid-1970s coincided both with the acceleration of global corporate power and with the birth of modern union-busting. Banks, insurance companies, data-processing companies, call centers, publishing houses—any big employer with lots of women in the administrative staff—were united in stopping unionization of clerical workers before it took hold. Even small companies and institutions with a public mission such as universities hired big-name anti-union law firms and waged well-funded fights against their employees. At the same time, companies began the relentless export of jobs to ever-lower-wage locales, starting the rampage through union strongholds: manufacturing, food processing, building trades, transportation. And the Reagan legacy, with its deification of individualism and demonization of governmental remedies for unfairness, provided the sticky narrative to justify the power shift.

Over the past three decades, the way we talk about ourselves, politics, and the economy has taken a sharp turn toward individualism over cooperation and solidarity. As union membership declines (it’s currently at 12 percent of eligible workers, and about 7 percent in the private sector), not only do fewer people have a union on the job, fewer people even know someone in a union—and this means they’ve lost an important model for how collective power is supposed to work. As Nelson Lichtenstein writes in his book State of the Union, “In the last forty years…the rights of workers, as workers, and especially as workers acting in an autonomous, collective fashion have moved well into the shadows….Little in American culture, politics, or business encourages the institutionalization of a collective employee voice.”

Less power yields fewer positive results, leading to a declining belief in the power of working people. Writing this summer in the Fiscal Times, economist Mark Thoma argued that inequality in the economy is reflected in—and advanced by—inequality in the political voice of working people and the very wealthy.

That breathtaking concentration of corporate power over the economy, the media, and our democracy is not lost on average people. In polling done by the AFL-CIO in 2011, unorganized working people thought unions were important at one time, when fighting for health and safety, the forty-hour work week, and child labor laws; but they weren’t sure they were relevant today, largely because they heard so little about unions in today’s workplaces. However, when pressed, they felt strongly that a world without unions would be dangerous. Though they had a hard time seeing a union in their own workplaces, they imagined unchecked employer power to be bad for workers and for the economy.

A recent story, about a contract worker in Denver who was told about Working America, was telling. He liked the idea of holding corporations and politicians accountable, but was dubious. We told him there are three million members—a membership we think of as very big. “Three million members?” he said. “That’s not enough. With 300 million Americans, you’ll need 150 million plus 1 to succeed.” That Denver worker wanted to believe there could be a countervailing force to corporate power but couldn’t imagine how that could work since he hadn’t experienced collective power on any scale. Faced with that sense of futility, many working people can see no future other than to rely solely on themselves. This is a foundational problem for the labor movement in particular and the progressive movement as a whole.

Opening the Door

When the AFL-CIO started to envision Working America a decade ago, we were spurred by the juxtaposition of two insights. On the one hand, we acknowledged that progressives had stopped talking to non-union working-class people several decades ago, never really putting up a fight for the hearts and minds of Reagan Democrats who had become habitual Republicans. On the other hand, we knew that, under the radar of the pundits, union members in working-class suburban and exurban communities behaved differently than their neighbors in at least one crucial respect: two out of three typically voted for their union’s endorsed candidates, while their neighbors voted two-thirds or three-quarters for the opposition.

We theorized that there were two crucial advantages that motivated union members to act differently: their union, a trusted source, provided them with good information on the issues and candidates; and they had a sense of social agency around economic issues because they could see collective power in action when they bargained to protect or promote their own wages and benefits.

Could we replicate those conditions among working people who didn’t have a union on the job? In 2003, then-president of the AFL-CIO John Sweeney asked me to bring a proposal for Working America to the executive council of the AFL-CIO. We believed we could reach non-union workers on a large scale, persuade them to join, and enlist them in backing labor’s priorities, including support for our endorsed candidates. Our goal for our first year was one million members. Fred Redmond, a national officer in the United Steelworkers, recently told me that after my presentation he turned to the person next to him and said, “Good luck with that shit.”

But it worked. And Fred Redmond is now on our board.

Working America organizers talk one by one with people who are more likely to support the NRA than NPR, and more likely to have heard of Ron Paul than Rich Trumka. Our members aren’t the usual progressive base: most describe themselves as moderate or conservative. A third own guns, and a third are weekly churchgoers. Yet, in thousands of conversations every evening, two out of three people join Working America, attracted to our critique of Wall Street and corporate lobbyists, our solution of using the power of ordinary citizens joining together to fight back, and an opportunity to take action immediately by writing a letter to a senator, calling a state legislator, or demanding accountability from big corporations.

And when these working-class moderates get information and a sense of social agency, they also vote like union members. In every election cycle since 2004, Working America members with whom we communicated voted two-thirds to three-quarters for our endorsed candidates, outpolling those like them demographically by as many as fifty percentage points. In 2008, they voted for President Obama by a two-to-one margin.

The impact extends to issues as well. A study conducted by the Analyst Institute in 2008 found that members reached by Working America were more likely to prioritize the economy at the ballot box. And a rigorous control group study in 2011 found that people reached by Working America in the Ohio special election on the fate of collective bargaining showed a 14.7 percent persuasion effect from our contact, yielding a gain of fifteen votes for every 100 people we reached with a personal conversation. Our effect was greatest with registered Republicans.

A recent overlay of the Working America membership with an ideology model created by the progressive data warehouse Catalist showed the membership definitively clustered in that volatile middle, the 20 percent on either side of center who travel back and forth across party lines depending on their anxieties and who reaches them. Our work indicates that, when the Fox News view of the world has competition, when we really get out there and get heard, there is a receptive audience where progressives assumed there was none.

In Search of a New Model for Worker Power

These gains are significant. But to build a movement of working people who challenge politics and business as usual, in communities and workplaces, we need everyday leaders who have a vision of how things can be better, organizing skills, confidence, and a following that starts with their own networks of influence. Moving from the one-to-one impact of personal interaction to a shared pursuit of collective power—and doing so on a large scale—is a major challenge. Part of the difficulty is the lack of a coherent model of engagement and transformation that speaks to our moment.

The traditional labor model used the glue of a shared workplace (often reinforced by shared communities) to define and build a web of relationships—including with the employer—and establish a balance of power. That is a fading reality for much of the workforce even as a large number still find themselves in dangerous settings and retail sweatshops.

The community-based organization pioneered by Saul Alinsky, and built on a church congregation model, facilitates the development of leadership and deep relationships, but has rarely been able to achieve the scale required to consistently move major policy, especially at the national level.

The mass model of AARP offers an avenue to have a shared impact on policy and a shared identification—not to mention access to insurance—but is low on developing relationships and leadership.

And the new world of online activism and flash mobs has opened up a whole new vista for civic engagement, from MoveOn, to the Arab Spring, to Occupy. Yet, thus far this medium for activism has proven more adept at mobilization than at creating lasting structures for collective power (in the case of the Arab Spring, structures predating the online activism and flash gatherings helped provide such power). And, in the United States at least, its locus has remained in the hands of the more economically advantaged.

Building power for working people will clearly require that we weave all these strands into a new pattern.

With the exception of the labor movement, issues-based constituent engagement in recent decades has started with a community-based organizing model and then tried to enlarge to a greater scale. Working America took the opposite approach, beginning with the notion of scale aimed at quickly achieving enough density in targeted geographic areas to influence the outcomes of both elections and policy fights. We summarized this approach internally as “mass, class, kick ass”—get big, lead with a progressive economic message from a working-class perspective, and then make an impact.

At the same time, we also made the decision to anchor our mass effort in one-on-one, door-to-door, working-class-neighborhood-by-neighborhood contact—believing that mail, phone, and online communications would not suffice with a population that did not see itself as progressive. We put a great deal of money, staff training, and sophisticated data systems into the process. We then layered those other forms of communication onto the program—including an in-house phone center and a strong online component—to reinforce the relationships.

What we achieved was a rigorous field program and millions of members who could be reached to make an impact on elections and issues, especially at the state level. But it was less clear how we were moving toward transformational change or building strong member leadership for the long haul. So we are now experimenting with ways to deepen member connection to the organization and to each other.

Our organizers at the door identify people who seem open to getting more involved—“hot contacts.” Our local member coordinators call them within a week to learn more about their interests and get them engaged, first individually and then as part of a group of activist members in a Community Action Team. The Action Teams decide on issues, targets, and tactics that are right for their community, within Working America’s mission to fight for good jobs and a just economy. We aim to build the leaders who influence their own networks of friends, family, and coworkers.

Our work in western Pennsylvania is a good example. As Kim McMurray, our Pennsylvania State Director, relates,

Our Pittsburgh-area Community Action Team grew out of the state budget battle this year. In early February, Governor Corbett introduced a budget with massive cuts to education and social services. These cuts reached every sector and demographic: from early childhood education, to health services for seniors, from subsidies for our state university system, to cash assistance for struggling families. Our members understood the intrinsic moral imbalance of asking working-class families to sacrifice while major corporations in Pennsylvania refused to pay their fair share.

On top of all of the atrocious cuts to education and social services, Republicans introduced a bill designed to strip teachers of their collective bargaining rights. We knew that if they succeeded, they would come after the rest of Pennsylvania’s unions next. Taken together, these issues really mattered to our members. So we started organizing. We built a core team of about eighteen members who took the lead in lobbying their elected officials, organizing media events, writing letters, and reaching out to their friends and families to talk about the issues. We gave them the tools they needed to be effective. One of our leaders, George, originally turned down our Member Coordinator when she asked him to write a letter to the editor to the local paper. George is dyslexic and he did not think he had the ability to write something that could be published. Our Member Coordinator worked closely with him on his letter to the editor, and George was so proud when it was printed. Since then he has written two more letters to the editor on his own, both of which were also printed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Through these actions, our members started to realize that they have a voice and can effect change. After the budget campaign wrapped up, our members started an education campaign to make sure that all Pennsylvanians have a voter ID in time for the November elections. They see themselves as civic agents, as superheroes making sure that no one is denied their constitutional right to vote. At a recent Community Action Team meeting, they set an unbelievably ambitious goal of educating one million people about the new voter ID law. They plan to accomplish this through letters to editor in print media, earned media events, speaking at churches and senior centers, passing out fliers at local coffee shops, going door to door in low-income communities, and having one-on-one conversations with voters. They have mapped out their networks of influence and set personal goals for themselves.

“By working on the voter ID issue—which is political but nonpartisan—our members are learning how to talk to their social networks and the general public about politics,” McMurray explains.

Come election time, this will be a crucial skill to have….Our work on voter ID sends an important message to our allies in the community—our largely white Community Action Team is devoting itself to an issue that is seen as primarily affecting people of color. By organizing around legislative issues year round, our members have the skills and the confidence to get involved and make a difference in electoral battles. We are taking this model and learning to apply it to different organizing pilots throughout the country.

Chelsey Evans is working with hundreds of Working America activists in Albuquerque, New Mexico to build similar networks of influence and to turn their attention to workplace issues. Starting in 2009 during the fight to win health-care reform, Chelsey worked to nurture more engaged interactions with and among members. Working America was looking for members who had compelling health-care stories to share at a series of roundtables with Congressman Heinrich. “Given that our prior contact had been more about signing letters or petitions, we thought it might be difficult to get people to share personal stories in a public way,” Chelsey recalls, “but when we began calling and meeting with members, we discovered that almost everyone had a story and felt honored to be asked to share it.” Many continued to be active.

Chelsey was also able to build a substantial base among Spanish-speaking members by creating a culturally sensitive and bilingual space. Soon members were reaching out to their neighbors to bring them into the circle.

Juan and Rosa started coming to meetings after they were recruited by a neighbor, but never said much beyond hello—until the day unemployed members went to New Mexico’s capitol building to share their stories with the state legislature. Halfway through the meeting, Juan stood up and boldly told the group that creating jobs should be their primary focus. He talked about the ways his particular neighborhood is struggling, with many working dead-end jobs that failed to make ends meet for their families. He told them that New Mexicans deserved to have the opportunity to provide for their families with good quality jobs and that the legislature is responsible for encouraging the creation and growth of those jobs and preventing outsourcing. After that lobby meeting, Juan was a different member. He began reaching out to his own family to get involved, bringing his daughter and son-in-law to various events. Now Juan is canvassing his own neighborhood to talk with neighbors about what they do for a living. He is becoming one of our most-trusted messengers within his community.

THE PITTSBURGH and Albuquerque experiences provide a template for other offices, bolstered by a robust online program that highlights workplace issues. The big question that remains is whether we can now take these sparks of collectivity and shape them into a powerful force to change the lives of working people as workers. We know we can reliably identify tens of thousands of people who agree with us and turn these recruits into unlikely activists. But can we use the systems that support a mass organization for the task of building both intimate relationships and broad networks of power? Can the data we collect on where people work, and the issues they care about, be combined with their neighborhood ties and their indignation about venal corporate practices and outsourcing to create an alternate form of representation?

We don’t yet know which avenues will take us the next distance, but our experience suggests that it will be some hybrid of existing engagement models that alternates expansion phases to build to scale with engagement phases to build community. Implementation will combine direct face-to-face interaction with a rich layering of communications that increasingly rely on an online platform. All of this will be undergirded by an ever-more-sophisticated use of data and information technology, sharpening our knowledge of who our constituents are and permitting us to track and evaluate our efforts with increased vigor.

However, success also requires the less predictable animating spark that occurs when and where preparedness and history collide. Our conversations day after day confirm that workplace democracy has become an oxymoron. Dignity on the job, health and pension benefits, even basic safety standards, have become a privilege rather than a right—all meted out at the discretion of the employer. The working people we talk to every day know that it’s wrong, but they live in fear of losing what little they have, and they know that the odds are stacked against them.

However, we believe that when people get a little experience with using collective power to change things in their communities, they’re better equipped to use that confidence, that courage, to improve things where they work. Working America members will at least come to the table with the conviction that the boss doesn’t hold all the cards, that something can be done—and that it can best be done not via the feeble strength of one but through the concerted effort of many.

Or, in the words of Dolly Parton in “9 to 5,” a song that became a rallying cry for a generation of angry women workers:

In the same boat with a lot of your friends
Waitin’ for the day your ship’ll come in
And the tide’s gonna turn an’ it’s all gonna roll your way

Karen Nussbaum is the executive director of Working America.

Photo of Ohio rally opposing SB5, 2011, courtesy of Working America

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