By Harry Kelber
For decades, Democratic candidates for public office have sought the thousands of volunteers that unions would supply during the election season. These unpaid workers would make home visits and also talk to workers at the job sites in praise of their candidates. They were also assigned to phone banks and leaflet distribution centers.
The sharpest volunteers found time to promote union principles and values and some actually had their hosts sign union application cards. Eventually, some unions insisted that volunteers carry union literature to leave at homes and workplaces. Unions concluded that through home and workplace visits, they could collect a data base of future activists.
But the high-priority problem for AFL-CIO leaders is they have no plan to organize the millions of workers, who say they'd like to join a union if it was not too great a risk to do so. In reply, there are about 12 million workers and millions before them who have taken the risk and now enjoy the benefits of a union card.
While many unions have given up on organizing new members, the one shining exception is the National Nurses Union (NNU), which continues to add new members, month after month. The NNU's "secret" is that it has a lively membership that actively participates in all of the union's organizing campaigns.
It is a troublesome fact that the AFL-CIO has given up the idea of a campaign to recruit new members, although it has lost thousands of dues-payers, and many of its union affiliates have lost bargaining strength. Too many union leaders are afraid that if they lost an organizing campaign, they would be thrown out of office. Why take the risk, they ask, especially during an economic crisis?
Already, the AFL-CIO has lost considerable credibility in Washington. Its leaders have little influence at the White House, even though they are formally invited to sit in at conferences. Their reputation with Congress has suffered because they have nothing to show for their time as labor leaders.
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The AFL-CIO cannot survive if it continues to have no practical plan for growth, Workers can be recruited even in hard time, if they feel that they will be treated fairly and have the same basic rights as other union members.
To recruit new members, the AFL-CIO has to overhaul its appeal.Why would workers want to join a union that denies them the right to participate in elections or refuses to give them financial and progress reports?
The first thing we must do is to make a union card valuable, aside from the benefits it offers. Union members should feel proud to belong to the organization and be seen as models of democratic behavior.
I have had years of experience in teaching union leaders how to organize. And I have written extensively on how to proceed.
If I am elected AFL-CIO President, I will use my expertise to rebuild the AFL-CIO into a bigger and stronger labor federation.