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Public Employee Press
The new labor: solidarity without conformity
Digitally-powered fragmentation and customization are the order of the day. Larger institutions, designed to capture broad swaths of people, are less trusted.
This isn't your father's labor movement.
Back when my dad was a Cleveland bus driver and member of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Americans had a more common lived experience. Everyone in your hometown read the same newspaper and watched the same television shows. The people on your block belonged to the same civic associations and bowling leagues.
It was a society of joiners, with people attaching themselves to centralized social networks for financial security and cultural identity. These associations became the organizing principles of their lives. It was a society where unionism and solidarity came naturally.
Half a century later, though, digitally-powered fragmentation and customization are the order of the day. Larger institutions, designed to capture broad swaths of people, are less trusted.
People are still joiners, but they are also much more discriminating about what they join and with whom. Rather than sublimating individuality to blend into the institution, they expect institutions to be tailored to their specifications. They are increasingly sorting and self-segregating into enclaves of the like-minded.
Trade unions, meanwhile, had long ago settled into a top-down model, which didn't easily adapt to an atomized society with a proliferation of niche markets. Over time, we found that we were talking to fewer people. We had become too change-averse, too reluctant to openly and honestly self-evaluate.
In 2014, AFSCME launched a major campaign to re-connect with our rank-and-file. We recognized that many of our 1.6 million members, even if they value the services we provide, did not identify closely with our union.
We made internal organizing our very highest priority, training tens of thousands of our members to have one-on-one conversations with their co-workers about their union - what they want from it, the role it plays in their lives.
The result has been a substantial culture shift. Workers, even in the smallest locals, are now more empowered to make change, rather than waiting for someone from "the union" to do it for them. And our front-line local leaders and staff representatives have gone from being service providers to organizing coaches.
We're doing more listening and less talking. We're digging deeper to understand our members as people. And we're finding that, even as they value and crave a deeper connection with their union, they also want to be treated as individuals. They want solidarity, but not conformity. Many see their union not as ideological instruments ("How can it advance an agenda?") but in the most pragmatic terms ("How can it help me get ahead?").
Mainstream pundits have been writing labor's obituary for years. But as long as people want good wages and benefits, safe working conditions and a voice on the job, there will be a place for unions in America. But they will look and act differently than the labor unions many of us grew up with.
They will encourage fresh thinking and innovation. They will meet Americans where they live. They will be prepared for and undaunted by change. They will be flexible rather than rigid, dynamic, not static. They will be responsive to and a reflection of social progress.
Lee Saunders is the president of DC 37's parent union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. A longer version of the article appears on the website of The American Prospect (bit.ly/2eygKLB).