02/05/2013 08:41 EST | Updated 04/07/2013 05:12 EDT

A Grassroots Model For Unions

I've been researching and writing about powerful new forms of organizing in the social change sector. My own experience has been in the Canadian environmental community, but many of the exciting lessons today are coming out a variety of sectors in the U.S., and particularly from those that have learned the same lessons as the Obama presidential campaigns.

As Canadian unions come under increasing attack by the Harper government (welcome to the club!), there are lessons to be learned from south of the border. A great model I'll dig into a little here is Working America.

Working America was spun off by the AFL-CIO in 2003 as a "community affiliate." It has the express purpose of organizing non-union members around issues that are consistent with the values of U.S. unions, while at the same time being careful to be authentic about real bottom-up organizing, taking on issues that people themselves are identifying.

And, with three million members and growing, Working America is clearly doing something right, building a powerful base for politics and for social change.

Working America deploys canvas teams to go door-to-door in target neighbourhoods, asking what people care about and giving them a chance to sign up for an optional $5 membership fee.

Membership does come with some benefits (eg. legal aid, car insurance), but Organizing Director David Wehde says that most people sign up because they feel "it gives them a voice."

Campaign issues are chosen from a list of progressive issues, based on what people are saying, and could be local, regional, or national in nature. The whole three million membership is surveyed twice a year. Members are encouraged to get actively involved in rallies, in lobbying, and in reaching out to their friends, family, and neighbours. They are also mobilized around elections.

Working America is a community affiliate with a seat on the AFL-CIO council, but it's also its own entity with its own governance board, being careful not to be seen as a "front group" or it would lose its legitimacy at the local level. At various times, though, it does rally around core union campaigns, having laid the groundwork of trust to be able to do this.

As unions across North America struggle with declining membership, initiatives like Working America are a way to nevertheless grow influence. The model could be adapted for Canada, and would need to apply these lessons:

  • Seek to organize non-union members by going deep in key geographies over the medium to long-term
  • Practice authentic ground-up organizing, listening to what people care about and taking on those issues -- meet people where they are at
  • Have a low bar for entry, and then cultivate more activity over time
  • Design an authentic vehicle that is affiliated with labour but also has its independence

Organizers from around the world are taking note of Working America's success. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, and the Australian Council of Trade Unions are all looking at the model.

But the model isn't a quick fix and instead builds over time. Working America began with just four organizers and a contract canvass, and nine years later is a three million strong powerhouse. So, if we want to do something like it in Canada, there's no time like now to get started.