Fair Share and Consent Based Organizing
Whit Alleys Dziurka
The transition to 21st Century Labor politics has certainly been uncomfortable. With the proliferation of various Right to Work legislation nationally, the responsibility for the compensation of work has been placed solely in the hands of the boss and shareholders. As one can imagine, and history has shown us before, this is devastating to lives of American workers.
Although Right to Work legislation differs, depending on what state you may live and work in, it all aims to do the same thing: take away workers’ power to bargain for their own contracts. In states like Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia teachers are not allowed to collectively bargain for their work contracts. Because of this limitation, workers have no agency in their salary, benefits, or workplace safety.
In Michigan, under the new Right to Work legislation (Public Act 54), workers now have the option of signing a union contract and benefiting from the collective bargaining of a representative group of employees, but do not have to pay union dues. As result, many workers will take advantage of the law and choose to not support their union financially.
This problem is further exacerbated by so-called Not for Profit Organizations, such as Mackinac Center and Opt Out, which provide a constant stream of misinformation to confuse the public on the legislation itself. While the Mackinac Center is supported by funds from Sarah Scaife Foundation, Roe Foundation, Ruth and Lovett Peters Foundation, Rodney Fund, Orville D. and Ruth A. Merillat Foundation, JM Foundation, Earhart Foundation, Charles G. Koch Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, Dick and Betsy Devos Foundation, and Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Inc., they claim to “find solutions to policy questions and through this improve the quality of life for Michigan citizens.”
Some of these names may look familiar, including the Koch brothers’ Foundation, the DeVos Foundation, and the Walton (Walmart) Foundation. The policy this organization chooses to lobby around encompasses business, labor, and religious freedom. Many of the studies published by this think-tank have been called into question by fact-checkers, as well as organizations like Right Wing Watch. Opt-Out is another organization created to target the Michigan Education Association, and is promoted by The Mackinac Institute. It provides seemingly legal, pre-written forms to make it easy for educators to discontinue paying union dues. These forms are entirely unnecessary, as leaving membership differs depending on a union’s constitution, and contain a veiled threat to labor by inciting the famous Abood v. Detroit Board of Education Supreme Court case.
So, one may ask, “Is Public Act 54 the bouquet of poppies being handed to the Michigan labor movement?” Not necessarily. WE can rebuild it and make is stronger, historically labor has fought meaner foes than the Mackinac Center. I propose a new kind of organizing, based on consent language, caring for membership, and transparency.
In the early 20th Century, Appalachian coal miners fought back against dismal pay and dangerous work conditions by creating the United Mine Workers. Initially, the mine-owners countered with threats of violence, death, and job loss. They then continued to hire strike-breakers to identify with the workers, and talk them out of unionizing. The United Mine Workers saw this tactic and decided to manipulate it to be used against the mine owners.
The UMW created a strategy to be more inclusive and create a truly representative group of workers to support one another. Together, a diverse group of hundreds of miners marched across the state of West Virginia, united by the common symbol of a red bandana, to organize other miners across the state. The mine owners countered this act of solidarity with violence, hiring a private army to murder the marchers. This tale is told in Red Necks and Red Bandanas: Appalachian Coal Miners and the Coloring of Union Identity, 1912-1936 by Patrick Huber.
This is a great example of surveying membership and listening to their needs, and the mine owners’ use of violence colors how important organizing is in the workplace. Talking about working conditions plainly and openly allows workers to know what conditions look like in reality, and organize around how they could become more ideal. Sometimes this may feel like exhausting work, and workers have to fight many mine owners, but if organizers can work on the language used in organizing to talk about what can be agreed to, and create structures based on those agreements, employees can achieve a more ideal workplace more efficiently.
In this, organizers need to focus on listening to membership, and asking lots of questions. If those working in the union gladly share the work in a way that is visible, membership knows the union is there, and can better see how having an organized workplace is valid. Organizers can do this many ways; personal check ins, regular newsletters, appearing at activist events, inviting other groups to meetings for discussions. We can also work on developing our conversation structures with members, in response to comment and criticisms.
In conversations, it is better to listen more than to speak. Staff and organizers can actively listen and point out different points of the conversation that may relate to working conditions and ideas many people have about working conditions. Speaking honestly, openly, and lovingly, and being sensitive in conversation goes very far in bringing in new members who may be on the fence. It’s important to validate people in these conversations to the best of staff’s ability, and remind them that there is a choice to be made here. This choice is very important.
Although agencies tout the idea of “liberty” in opting-out, the reality is to the contrary- by opting out workers are giving up their opportunity to bargain their contract. When people decline membership the union shrinks. If the union shrinks below a certain amount its validity can be legally challenged by the employer, which would essentially kill the union. By opting out, the worker is actually giving up their right to vote on their contract, which means giving up the ability to consent to their working conditions. Beyond all other problems created by opt-out culture, this is the greatest.
The choice to be made is to support the Union, which aids to the continuation and growth of the contract, allowing it to breathe over time. By choosing to not support the union that bargains the contract, employees are stifling the growth and suffocating opportunities for fair and equitable working conditions. This is a choice, no one is forcing anyone to join a union, and there is plenty of Federal and State legislation to support that. However, this is one of the most important choices anyone can make about their working conditions, and it should be considered carefully and without prejudice of assumed politics and lack of agency in the matter.
Furthermore, these laws and cultural barriers impede and stifle the work of young and upcoming organizers and activists. With constant changes to legislation to curtail the Union’s ability to grow its own membership, the powers at be are throwing young organizers, like myself, into the flames. This law forces young people starting out in their careers to work well over hours, under tremendous amounts of pressure and anxiety.
Organizers typically begin these jobs directly out of college as 20-somethings, the idea being, to bring in bright, new talent, which still has the bite of youth. We can then develop these staffers to grow union membership and keep the union running efficiently and legally. Our wages are typically on the low end of a living wage, and sometimes the legislation and power imbalances working against this position can turn these young people into sacrificial lambs for the labor movement. This is something very close to my heart, as I remember my first days, and the struggles I continue to have, as a young labor organizer.
By bringing consent talk into the workplace as a means to talk about how we do work and how we should work, we are giving ourselves a little bit of power back. Normally, young organizers have to communicate with administration, composed of seasoned labor lawyers who make six figure salaries. The condescension one receives in this position is unimaginable, and there is not much recourse to combat it. The deck is entirely stacked against the union in this, and by opting out; members are telling the organizer (or other union staff) that they do not deserve to be compensated for their work. This is not meant to be adversarial, but staff is paid from dues, and so their work is directly tied to the willingness of membership to compensate them.
These laws, known as Right to Work, were entirely created to cause in-fighting and to tear unions apart, slowly and agonizingly. If we allow ourselves, and the people around us, to fall victim to the swooping osprey of legislation and corporate power, and believe in the myths of anti-organizing, we are allowing our own work conditions to dwindle.
We are allowing ourselves to have our voices stifled at work. We are allowing ourselves, maybe worse yet, to turn back the clock, so we can re-enter the nineteenth-century's Gilded Age, and its exploitative working conditions.
Whit Alleys Dziurka Lead Organizer for the Union of Teaching Faculty and The Graduate Student Union of Central Michigan University, where she studied printmaking.