Community Union Organizers Arising!

by Ellen David Friedman

If you’re reading this, the chances are that you agree all workers need dignity, decency, and a collective voice in their workplace. If you’re not sure you agree, take some time to talk to different kinds of workers to see how they feel. In nearly every sector – service, retail, hospitality,

Ellen David Friedman, Community Union Organizer @ the Workers’ Center

production, education, health care, agriculture – workers are experiencing stress, over-work, under-pay, bullying, unfairness, exploitation… and feeling really powerless.

In fact, we’re at a moment in history when the imbalance of power between bosses and workers is as bad as it’s been in a century. The concentration of money – and the power that comes with that money – is ridiculously out of control, as we all know. Sadly, this gross inequality is a “normal” function of capitalism, which always tends to siphon money and power upward from workers into the hands of capitalists, the corporate giants, and those who benefit from them. So, the typical working person is constantly squeezed and takes it all personally… not thinking that anything can change.

The vast majority of workers aren’t in unions… mostly because workers are scared silly to speak up, to organize, to even exercise their legal rights to form a union. They are scared of losing their job, of retaliation, of being targeted, of being black-listed, and just simply of “making trouble.” So most workers kind of suffer in silence, or complain without ever taking action to change things, or give up when they’ve tried to fix things and failed. Even worse… many workers convince themselves that everything is really okay, and they give up the idea that they can have decency, dignity and voice on the job.

Even some workers who are in a union feel that the union is far away from them and their daily troubles. Sometimes our unions are great… but unless the union members are active, engaged, and ready to fight, the power of the union is weakened.

But, here is the good news: A small – but rapidly growing – collection of working people from all over Tompkins County are starting to meet and learn how to organize in the workplace. We’re calling ourselves Community Union Organizers (CUO), and we’re meeting every week at the Workers Center. Some of us are workers in fast food places, or front line social service workers, or drivers, or students. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do… as long as you want to learn the skills and attitudes to make you an effective organizer. We rely a lot on the ideas contained in the book Secrets of a Successful Organizer  but mostly just learn from our own experiences. We listen carefully to each other’s stories, and analyze the “balance of power” in each workplace. Then we start to generate ideas about how to bring people together around a problem in a workplace, and take collective action to fix it. It’s simple, exhilarating, powerful… and seems to be spreading like magic.

We’re discovering that this CUO process is helpful for workers who don’t have a union but want one, who do have a union but want to make it better, and even for those who know they are unlikely to ever have a union. It’s a totally flexible set of tools, ideas, and mostly attitude – plus tremendous support and solidarity from a “community of organizers” – that makes this possible. If you want to learn more, contact Ellen David Friedman <> or 802-522-6227 or the Tompkins County Workers’ Center at 607-269-0409 to get connected.