Inspired and informed – tales and strategies of a US union organiser

IMPACT organisers Una Faulkner, Eimer Ryan and Sinead Wynne with acclaimed US activist and organiser Jane McAlevey
(L to R) IMPACT organisers Una Faulkner, Eimer Ryan and Sinead Wynne with acclaimed US activist and organiser Jane McAlevey (second from right)

Una Faulkner writes this week’s blog which reports on last week’s seminar by US trade union organiser Jane McAlevey 

Jane McAlevey is an US trade union organiser, environmental activist, social justice campaigner and an acclaimed author. Last Saturday (15th November) I attended team attended a seminar given by Jane at the CWU offices in Dublin. I was accompanied by Eimear Ryan and Sinead Wynne from IMPACT’s organising team.

The day’s seminar concentrated on Jane’s background as a trade union organiser and the successful campaigns she has run. It turned out to be a fascinating day and Jane was an inspiration.

One of her campaigns in Fresco, California was to organise, and achieve collective bargaining rights, for 12,000 home helps in the region. The system in the US is very different to the system here, and I formed the impression that industrial relations and collective bargaining are considerably more strained than it is in Ireland.

She walked us through the entire campaign, the process of gridding and mapping the steps they took to achieve their goal. They identified and ranked the influential people, public representatives and organisations they could persuade and that could further their campaign. Step by step she talked through the research and exploration process, how they achieved recognition as a collective group of unions representing thousands of workers, and how the collective bargaining rights were achieved.

Key to her philosophy is unity. There were lots of unions and interest groups in the field but they weren’t working together. They also weren’t involving local community activists. Her experience has been that in order to achieve the win, and have the rights of these workers recognised, and to have an organised and mobilised workforce, all unions and local community groups had to come together.

While this is not a new idea – people working together to achieve a collective aim – this had been lost in the US through the 1980s. With improved labour laws and trade union recognition she said that maintaining relationships and continuing to fight for workers’ rights was thought of as being a victory in the ‘past tense’ and not something that needed continuing development.

She said the recent recession, and the increasing influence and number of union-hostile businesses exposed weaknesses right across the entire labour movement. She said it had lost its focus. With similar developments here, it’s a concern we all share as trade unionsts.

Jane’s message was that ‘we thought we had won so we didn’t continue to fight…the fact is that we have to always to continue to fight because the other side will never give up’.

There are undeniable parallels to developments here. Powerful employers that refuse to recognise trade unions has been a growing problem globally, and Irish trade unions have had to face that challenge for more than a hundred years. It gets lost in the general noise but the recent collective bargaining legislation is a very significant step, one we cannot take too much for granted.

What each of the IMPACT organisers could see was the mapping and strategic planning that Jane talked us through for the campaign in Fresco. It’s very similar to the strategic planning and training that IMPACT carries out with its branches.

It was an incredibly interesting and educational seminar. From an organising perspective it is fascinating to see a campaign on a much larger scale, but to also see the similarities in the process and work, albeit on a smaller scale.

Una Faulkner
Organiser, Dublin Care Services branch