Although Labor Day has passed, it’s still a great time of year to think about the role of organized labor in improving conditions for American workers. Although few will dispute that the role of unions today isn’t what it used to be, several unions are making noteworthy efforts to stem the decline by forming associate membership programs. Associate membership programs allow non-union workers to be part of the union movement, and all the workplace fairness issues that unions stands for. While unions of course hope their associate members will be more amenable to workplace organizing efforts than other workers might be, the associate member ranks have the potential to represent a powerful political force in their own right.
Workplace Fairness is proud to be allied with one associate membership program, the Associate Member program of the United Steelworkers of America. The Steelworkers have a long and proud history of activism, with their membership decline in recent years the result of industry changes and plant closures. Outsourcing and fair trade issues heavily affect their membership, and they remain at the forefront of efforts to prevent the further loss of American manufacturing jobs. In assessing ways that they could stem their membership decline and at the same time provide a way for former Steelworkers to remain active in all the issues they care about, their Associate Member program was created to fill those needs.
Membership in the program requires an annual fee of $40 or $12 per quarter ($20 for students and unemployed individuals). For that annual fee, associate members have access to a wide array of membership benefits, including the Union Plus program, which offers discounts on health care programs, legal services, computer purchases, and other retail and entertainment purchases. They can also access the Steelworkers skills and leadership development programs. The centerpiece of the Steelworkers program is the access to legal information and confidential workplace counseling through the Workplace Rights Resource Center, made possible as a result of legal information supplied by Workplace Fairness. Associate members are able to access a wide array of legal information and also receive a customized “My Workplace Rights” page. The report will include a summary of the legal rights in the problem area workers are experiencing as well as contact information for appropriate government offices, lawyers, and trained Steelworker staff in the worker’s state. We hope that if you are not currently a member of a union, that you will consider joining the Steelworkers Associate Member program, which will allow both USWA and Workplace Fairness to keep developing legal information and mobilizing workers nationwide.
The Steelworkers are not alone in developing their Associate Member program, as the federation of which they are a part, the AFL-CIO has also launched an associate member program, called Working America. While it differs from the Steelworkers program in several key respects, most importantly the level of benefits, by its sheer size alone it has the potential to play a key role in mobilizing non-unionized workers. Working America has been designated a “community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.” Membership is currently free, although those who join are urged to make a donation in support of Working America’s efforts. Some of the primary campaigns in which Working America has been involved include the fight to overturn the Administration’s overtime changes, and a new “job tracker,” which maintains a roster of jobs moved overseas. In a recent communication from Working America, the organization indicated that it now had over 600,000 members. To the extent that Working America can continue its growth and its efforts to mobilize workers to take action, they will be a new force to be reckoned with on the political landscape.
Yet another new entry in the Associate Member ranks is the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which announced at its annual convention in July the formation of Purple Ocean. Purple is the color associated with the AFL-CIO’s fastest growing union and adopted by its associate member program, also free to new members. While one may consider the ocean a calming and soothing influence, this ocean is “P.O.’ed,” according to their web site:
–We’re PO’d at corporations who rack up record profits by taking the low road—squeezing workers and refusing to offer quality, affordable health care.
–We’re PO’d at politicians who say one thing at election time and promptly forget their promises the moment they take office.
–We’re PO’d because the American dream is failing millions of hard-working Americans. We know we can do better.
In a Labor Day message from SEIU President Andy Stern, Purple Ocean members learned about the group’s plans to take on Wal-Mart and use internet technology such as web sites, blogs, and wikis to allow workers to participate and share information. Given its parent union’s success in mobilizing previously unorganized workers, this group also has the potential to be a key player.
All of these groups share an interest with Workplace Fairness in educating the non-unionized workforce about their rights and in mobilizing workers to support (or oppose) policy efforts which most affect workers. All of these efforts are welcome and very sorely needed in today’s political climate. We hope that all of them will be successful in bringing new vitality to the workers’ movement in America by enlisting new warriors in the fight to preserve workplace rights.