Learning how to be a union activist
By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times
8:18 PM PDT, July 5, 2011
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.
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
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,
"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
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 away."
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
"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
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
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."
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