Why the Revival of US Labor Might Start with Nonunion Workers

By Amy B. Dean

For workers in America, it can be hard to know where to turn when a boss pays you late or not at all, doesn’t provide benefits, or just yells at you for no good reason.

That’s why Working America, a “community affiliate” of the AFL-CIO that focuses specifically on nonunion workers, launched a website last month that makes it easy to get that kind of information. FixMyJob.com is a bit like WebMD, but instead of typing in your aches and pains, you tell it about problems at your workplace. Launched on June 5, the site quickly garnered 5,000 visitors, according to Working America organizer Chris Stergalas.

After choosing from a comprehensive list of workplaces and problems, visitors to FixMyJob.com get a set of resources and options for taking action. While unionization is a part of the solution for many problems, the site also informs workers about labor laws and instructs them on how to advance proposals to defend their rights. The site is a part of Working America’s expanded new campaign to organize people in their communities in all 50 states, says Executive Director Karen Nussbaum.

In both online and offline campaigns, Nussbaum said, the aim of Working America is to reach beyond the workplace and rally support at the local level for a pro-labor agenda. Working America’s list of priorities includes living wage laws, expanded health care, adequately funded public schools, and the protection of voting rights.

Before the launch of Working America, Nussbaum had served as founder and director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women; as director of the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor; and as an advisor to former AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. I recently spoke with her about her vision for Working America, about FixMyJob.com, and about what the 50-state expansion means for the prospects of union revival.

Working America was founded in 2003 partly as an answer to the question of how to mobilize people who are not union members but would benefit from activism by and for working people. Nussbaum said that, from the beginning, her staff “concentrated on talking to workers in their communities.” Scoring success in mobilizing blue-collar voters for electoral campaigns, the organization created a foundation of members, and it is increasingly attempting to mobilize them around broader issues like working conditions, paid sick leave, and the right to join unions.

She added that the ultimate goal of Working America is “finding the connections with collective bargaining.” But she’s experimenting with different ways of organizing that might lead there. “It’s about taking whatever path opens on the way.”

In past years, Working America focused on battleground states during elections. But regional and statewide labor federations have pushed the organization to expand to all 50 states over the next five years. At first, Nussbaum said, that goal seemed “preposterous,” but she has come to embrace it. Ultimately, she said, she appreciated the strategic value of supporting local labor structures as they connect with community allies and work on issues that go beyond a single workplace.

One reason why the 50-state strategy is necessary is the national proliferation of so-called “right-to-work” laws and attacks on voting rights, two issues that Working America has taken up in Pittsburgh.

Nussbaum describes the approach taken by activists leading the Pittsburgh campaign:

These are a group of mostly white people in their 40s and 50s. They decided that voter protection actually was the key issue for them. Their group set a goal of reaching a million people in the Pittsburgh area on the issue. Part of that million was going to be reached by doing letters to the editor and circulation of the newspaper and so on. It also included things like a guy who said, “I go to my hardware store every weekend and everybody there knows me, so I will set up a table at the hardware store every weekend,” which is what he did. Another woman said that she dropped her father off at adult daycare every day, and so she would talk to the workers and other people at the adult daycare center.

This type of organizing taps into the existing frustrations that people have — in the Pittsburgh case, obstacles to voting — and showing them how they can make a difference. “It’s everybody recognizing their own networks,” Nussbaum said. “I think that’s the key to organizing, isn’t it?”

She explained that Working America encourages people to see themselves as leaders within their own social circles, and, as it did in the case of the man in the hardware store, this recognition makes it easier to take action.

Nussbaum sees FixMyJob.com as a complement to these offline campaigns and as a means for introducing people to the labor movement. “Some people who use these tools will get turned on and they will become activists for life,” she said. “Some will fail, but it will help create a new environment that I think supports what we’re already beginning to see bubble up.”

Amy-Dean.jpgAmy Dean is a fellow of The Century Foundation and principal of ABD Ventures, an organizational development consulting firm that works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations. Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement. Dean has worked for nearly two decades at the cross section of labor and community-based organizations linking policy and research with action and advocacy. You can follow Amy on twitter @amybdean, or she can be reached via amybdean.com.

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