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America leads the way November 27, 2006

Posted by franklittle in Ireland, Irish Politics, Uncategorized, United States, US Politics.

It probably won’t get a lot of notice in the United States, let alone reach the ears of what passes for the media in this country, but last week 5,300 poor, working class, mostly Spanish speaking janitors and cleaners won a major battle in Houston, Texas, one of the least organised parts of the US.

After a strike lasting over a month at some of the biggest cleaning companies in Houston and during which protestors were trampled by police, the fastest growing union in the US, the Service Employee International Union achieved a victory that will see wage increases of a staggering 126% for workers over a two year period, health insurance at only $20 a month and, for the first time in the working lives of many of these people, paid holidays. It is the first city-wide trade union contract in Houston’s history.

For many of these workers, the deal has the potential to make a life or death difference in their lives. For the 1.8 million strong SEIU, it’s another vindication of their decision to become an organising union, which has seen them become key players in the Change to Win federation which broke away from the AFL-CIO, the US equivalent of ICTU.  The chief reason for the disaffilation of half a dozen large and small trade unions was the continuing decline in the numbers of unionised American workers, and the seeming reluctance of the AFL-CIO to put a real focus on organising non-unionised workers. With less than 12% of US employees in a union, less than 8% of private sector employees, a crisis point had been reached.

The Change to Win Federation requires at least 75% of the federation’s resources be allocated to organising programmes, getting full-time union activists on the streets, recruiting members, training activists, fighting campaigns and, most importantly, winning campaigns.

All very interesting in a broad lefty fashion, but why should Irish workers care? Because, our own union leaders are paying attention. The ATGWU has set up organising units in Britain that have been very successful, one in the North that is just getting off the ground, with a unit in the South planned for the New Year. SIPTU has had an Organising Department up and running for well over a year and talking recently to one of their Organisers she was pleasantly surprised at the open-minded attitude to joining a union on display.

She pointed to a recent academic survey (Can’t find the link but think it was UCD) that found 76% of non-union employees in a unionised workplace had never been asked to join, and 40% of them were willing to do so if only asked. Her experience tallies with that. She recounted the tale of another workplace where Irish workers who’d brought her in believed a union couldn’t be formed because the Polish workers there had no interest in it. Discussing it with a Polish colleague (Yes, SIPTU has trained Polish speaking organisers) she hoped would come out to talk to the Poles and encourage them to join, she was astonished to discover the Poles in that company had also been talking about bringing in the union. They didn’t think the Irish would be interested.

Even more interesting than these anecdotal straws in the wind, members of the SEIU and the Change to Win federation were present at a number of recent SIPTU regional conferences talking about the importance of organising and recruiting, particularly in the low-paid private sector. Classes and training courses on recruitment and organising are being pushed aggressively by the TUC in the British union colleges.

As the US labour leader John L Lewis was wont to cry, ‘Organise the unorganised’. Inhabitants of the Cedar Lounge take note. Where’s your union card?


1. WorldbyStorm - November 27, 2006

Er… I’m a SIPTU member.


2. smiffy - November 27, 2006

I’ve been a union member for over 11 years. I’ve never had a card though. Can you actually get them?


3. WorldbyStorm - November 27, 2006

SIPTU has an unpleasantly designed credit card sized one.


4. JC Skinner - November 28, 2006

My card’s in my pocket.


5. joemomma - November 28, 2006

I’m not a union member, mostly because I’m self-employed. My firm specialises in providing services which have become temporarily unavailable due to industrial relations issues.

I did try to get myself organised a while ago, but I quickly stepped in and put a stop to it.


6. Lorenzo - November 28, 2006

So this is how we can spend so much time on blogs – we’re all union members or work for ourselves.

I’m pretty much self-employed. And even if I worked directly for my current paymaster I don’t think there is too much desire or need for a union in an investment management firm. On the other hand if we were French…


7. 5 Years ago this month on the Cedar Lounge Revolution: America leads the way – Unions and activism and an interesting question for us all. « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - November 8, 2011

[…] Here’s something from five years ago that has an odd resonance, a piece by franklittle, occasionally of this parish, writing about union activism in Houston, Texas which was fairly influential more widely abroad. […]


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