[Marxism] Learning how to be a union activist

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jul 6 06:55:34 MDT 2011


Learning how to be a union activist

Amid efforts to limit the power of unions nationwide, labor 
activists try to galvanize members and recruit new blood by 
holding one-day Troublemakers School sessions that are part pep 
rally, part instruction.

By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

8:18 PM PDT, July 5, 2011

There was no room left so the students piled onto stools and 
folding chairs and sat on the floor, clogging the aisles of this 
stifling classroom on a recent Saturday morning.

They shifted in their seats as the teacher, who wore his politics 
on his sleeve in the form of a red "We Stand With Wisconsin" 
T-shirt, started to lecture. At first they checked their 
cellphones, doodled on the pages of their notebooks, and munched 
on the free chocolate chip cookies and potato chips they were 
provided, uninterested.

"Who are the people here facing budget cut issues?" asked the 
teacher, Paul Krehbiel, a grizzled activist who has organized 
nurses and factory workers over a long career, which includes 
serving as the chief negotiator for registered nurses at Los 
Angeles County government hospitals and clinics.

"We all are," one man cracked with gallows humor, as uneasy laughs 
reverberated off the walls.

They were in a classroom at Pasadena City College to learn how to 
be union activists, an endangered avocation in a country in which 
only 11.9% of employed wage and salary workers belonged to a union 
last year, down from 20% in 1983. Some of the students had never 
attended a labor meeting before. Some weren't even employed, let 
alone union members.

The techniques Krehbiel and other instructors taught at this 
one-day event, called Troublemakers School, might have once been 
learned on the assembly line, in the mine elevator or at the 
bowling alley. Now, the teachers impart their knowledge through 
fliers and by drawing on white boards, much like a football coach 
might sketch out a play when the team is down by a touchdown with 
just seconds left on the clock.

"It's hard to keep going if you don't have any victories," 
Krehbiel said to the class. "But look at slavery — it was tough 
and they resisted."

In the face of actions to limit the power of unions nationwide, 
labor activists are trying to galvanize their members and recruit 
new blood. They hope to tap in to workers unsettled by the success 
of big corporations and the growing activism of conservative 
groups such as the "tea party."

Events such as Troublemakers School are an attempt to keep up 
momentum after tens of thousands of demonstrators swarmed the 
Wisconsin statehouse earlier this year to protest legislation that 
would strip the collective bargaining rights of public employees. 
The school is part instruction, part pep rally.

"Who took to the streets? The tea party did," said Sandy Pope, who 
is challenging Teamsters President James Hoffa in the union's 
election this fall. "Those are our streets, that's where we need 
to be."

It could be a long road uphill. The National Conference of State 
Legislatures is tracking hundreds of bills across the country that 
target public-sector unions. Those unions, now the biggest cohort 
of organized labor, are under fire as cash-strapped governments 
balk at paying workers traditional pensions, a benefit that is all 
but extinct in the private sector.

"We elect officials to cut government or hold the line on 
spending, but in many cases they're unable to do so because of a 
monopoly bargaining system that takes a lot of that spending and 
takes it outside of the political realm," said Patrick Semmens, a 
spokesman for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.

The Troublemakers School in Pasadena and five others like it held 
this year across the country were organized by Labor Notes, a 
Detroit nonprofit funded by membership dues and course fees, as 
well as donations from pro-labor individuals. There's no question 
this group leans heavily left: One student carried pamphlets about 
a meeting for anarchists.

During the schools, volunteers drill students on Labor 101 — how a 
union is organized, what labor laws do and don't protect and how 
to recruit members. They commiserate about tough conditions at 
work, and cheer on speakers who tell about their struggles 
fighting big business. Afterward, they go out for a beer, or maybe 

"People are looking at ways to organize and turn up the heat," 
said Mark Brenner, director of Labor Notes. "We want to help train 
the next generation of union activists and union leaders."

Erin Conley, a doctoral candidate in English at UCLA, wasn't 
involved much in labor issues until March, when she started to 
read more about budget cuts proposed throughout the University of 
California. In April, Conley, 26, ran for a head steward position 
at UCLA for UAW Local 2865, which represents roughly 12,000 
graduate students working as teachers, tutors and researchers. She 
lost the election but was hooked on labor.

"It was really helpful to see the struggles that other workers are 
going through," said Conley, who attended Troublemakers School 
with a handful of other fresh-faced graduate students.

The school, which costs $10, doesn't insist that participants be 
union members. Postcards advertising the schools were tacked onto 
walls in coffee shops in San Francisco, asking passersby: "Are you 
angry that bankers get bailed out and workers get sold out? Have 
you been inspired by the protesters in the Midwest who are just 
saying no? Learn tactics, skills, and strategies you can use right 

Ron Lew, 56, had not been active with his union, SEIU Local 721, 
for the decade or so he's been a mechanic for the city of Los 
Angeles. But recently, he said, his union agreed to what he 
believed were excessive concessions with the city. (The SEIU 
disputes Lew's account.)

"You don't get involved until it starts affecting you," he said, 
sitting in Krehbiel's classroom, nodding and taking notes. "Now, 
all of us are in the same boat. If we don't make a stand, we're 
going to end up losing what we have."

Lew said the tactics he learned at the school were useful. But 
most useful was hobnobbing with the dozens of workers crowded into 
the classroom who were facing similar issues and were ready to do 
something about it.

"What are some of the issues you're facing at your workplace?" 
Krehbiel asked his class.

"Apathy among co-workers," said one woman, a redhead huddled in 
the corner.

"Hell, yeah," echoed a man in the back.

"Forced overtime. Downgrading to lower pay status," said another.

Mitchell Stewart, 22, listened quietly from a desk. He had no 
complaints to add. He graduated from college last year and is 
living in Riverside, unemployed. He attended the workshop to learn 
more about unions, knowledge that he hopes will serve him well 
when he starts graduate school in Wisconsin this fall.

"We're going through a very critical moment with a lot of 
struggles breaking out in the country," said Stewart, conscious 
that he is one of the younger workers labor is trying to attract. 
"Unions can play a strong role in helping to fight back among 
budget cuts and create a strong safety net."

alana.semuels at latimes.com

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

More information about the Marxism mailing list