We say it often enough: This is YOUR union. Underneath these simple words is the heart and soul of what the labor movement is about. A union isn’t the leaders solving problems for members. Nothing happens unless the membership is part of the union.
It sounds simple enough, yet too many slip into the opposite of the meaning. For example, how many of us have described their union as an insurance plan or a lawyer on retainer to help if we get in trouble? A union is none of those things. Lawyers and insurance agents are hired guns — a job’s a job to them. Unions are movements. The power we have as workers stems from the power of the members and the resources we all bring to the fight.
So what does it take to make this YOUR union? It takes stepping up to the plate and getting involved. “Off-the-clock activism is just as important as on-the-clock activism to build power in supporting our families, jobs and communities,” says Lonnie Everett from Local 686 in Lockport, New York. “I feel it’s my responsibility to have a stake in the change I want to see.”
Simple steps to building YOUR union
Find out what’s going on
Unions are constantly active. It might seem like its only around bargaining time, but keeping the contract strong yearlong involves updating membership on management’s activities, listening to issues on the plant floor, keeping public support for workers alive and strong in the communities and fighting for candidates and legislations that protect us all.
To find out what is going on, always start with your local leadership.
They are the best resource for the latest information and if they don’t have an answer, they will find it for you. Most UAW leaders (officers and workplace representatives such as stewards) are volunteers or paid “loss time” only under narrow circumstances. The next best place is the union meetings. This is where the true democracy of our union takes place. The UAW Constitution requires meetings at least once every three months, but most hold monthly meetings. This is where membership approves many decisions and expenditures of the local union. Another great place to learn the latest is social media, especially Facebook. Here you can connect with your co-workers as well as other union members from across the country. The UAW International has a page, as do many regions and local unions. And don’t forget the tried-and-true way of talking one-on-one with your co-workers. Whether it’s someone you’ve known for years or a new person you just met at lunch, building a union happens every time we have conversations about work issues and work together to solve them.
There are so many ways to participate in your union that go beyond attending meetings and voting. Besides bargaining and servicing the contract, much of the work that takes place in a union is through the structure of standing committees. The Constitution outlines the committees, and each one addresses an issue important to membership: political action (CAP), civil rights, women’s issues
community services, veterans, education, to name just a few. These committees make strategic plans for the year and are always looking for volunteers. “The Human and Civil Rights Committee at
our local is built around the idea of inclusion. We celebrate many cultures during the year from Black History Month to Oktoberfest.
It’s a way to build connections with everyone and learn from one another. For me, I find that our
union bonds get strengthened as we celebrate one another,” said Garrett Waters of Local 249, in Kansas City, Missouri.
Show your pride
Though our numbers are under attack, union members still account for 1 out of 10 workers. Imagine if 1 out of 10 people you ran into at the grocery store wore their union colors? One of the reasons people call unions “dinosaurs” is that they don’t see us. Wearing your union colors (whether a shirt, jacket or pin) reminds our community that we are a part of them, just as they are a part of us.
In recent years, many locals have also started “Red Shirt Wednesdays.” The day has several origins — the Communications Workers of America (CWA) started wearing red shirts on Thursdays in 1989 to remember Gerry Horgan, CWA’s chief steward for Westchester County, who died as he worked a picket line when he was hit by a car driven by a line- crosser who was the daughter of a second-line manager. In more recent years, the practice was broadened to support workers in Wisconsin who were under attack by their governor. Now it’s a day when we can all unify to send a message that
we stand together, in solidarity, to defend worker rights. “We wear our red shirts on Wednesday to honor those who have sacrificed so much so we can have our rights today.
But the day also shows everyone that we are united and in this fight together. When you see a sea of red shirts, you know that you are part of something larger than yourself,” said Local 163 President, Ralph Morris, which represents workers at Detroit Diesel in Michigan.
Grievance handling, bargaining, organizing, even talking about politics — all of it can be done well with good training. Fortunately, there are many resources available to UAW members to learn how these important dynamics work. Many locals offer training through their education committees, and regional offices also offer classes during the week and on weekends. Programs
at Black Lake, the UAW’s education center in Onaway, Michigan, will give you deep dives into many subjects. The UAW website (uaw.org) has many union resources that are good primers on basic subjects, as well.
And if you are really ambitious, local colleges and universities offer labor education courses. Start by asking your local leadership about opportunities in your area.
Besides bargaining, the other time where we should all stand at attention is during elections. It’s just a simple modern day fact: Politicians make decisions that can change our working lives. From safety to unemployment insurance, electing candidates who don’t support workers can mean that gains we make at the bargaining table are wiped out in one law.
There is so much we can do as UAW members to fight back, but it takes all of us. For starters, look at voter registration. Your co-workers, your family, your neighbors — we all should register to vote. Many locals run voter registration drives early in an election year and they often need volunteers to help canvass the worksite. Next, you can contribute to the UAW’s V-CAP program which is a voluntary program from which we make contributions to candidates we support. As money plays a bigger role in each election, members are stepping up their V-CAP contributions. Learn about your candidates and the important issues at stake in an election. The UAW endorses many candidates after reviewing their record on our issues. And finally, vote! If your state allows early or absentee voting and you qualify, get your vote in early so you can volunteer to get others to the polls on Election Day.
Building our union is sometimes as simple as two members talking about an injustice. The simple act of listening to co-workers and learning each other’s ideas is a big first step to finding common ground. But we can’t stop there — we are also about finding solutions. And by standing together, we are stronger and can change history.
So what are you waiting for? We have a lot of work to do, so let’s go!
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