Training Union Organizers in the Middle of a Fight: The AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute

November 2002

Last summer, 430 mostly women African-American, Latino, Haitian, and African immigrant workers at Chrill, a non-profit homecare agency in Newark, decided that $6.50 was not enough and that they wanted health benefits and respect. They began organizing a union with AFSCME.

Management fought back, intimating that with a union, Chrill would close. The workers’ refusal to be treated with disrespect and their knowledge of the work, combined with AFSCME’s organizing experience, led to a union victory.

The AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute helped to train some of the organizers on this campaign, as it has been doing for the last 13 years.

TRAINEES GAIN EXPERIENCE

During the drive at Chrill, the OI supplied eight trainees. The trainees, paid by the OI, worked along with AFSCME rank and file member organizers, thus gaining important knowledge and campaign experience. The trainees were mentored by experienced AFSCME organizers, several of them OI graduates themselves. The OI trainees were an important addition to the campaign, at a time when workers were really under attack.

Patrick Moran, an Organizing Director for the Eastern Region of AFSCME and the lead organizer on the Chrill campaign, credited the OI with consistently bringing to organizing campaigns “people who are eager to learn and eager to work. People who are dedicated to help working people in their fight to change working conditions across the country.”

The new organizers included Esery Mondesir, a Haitian-born OI trainee. Esery explains: “There were about 50 workers on the organizing committee. We did lots of housecalls and the most important thing was to have an organizing committee member with us to talk with their co-workers.”

He continues, “It was critical to have workers talk to each other. There were Haitians in the workforce and we tried to create a network of Haitian workers to exchange numbers and addresses. For me, that is what organizing is, to bring people together to create this power.”

NEEDED: TRAINED ORGANIZERS

More than ever, the labor movement needs trained union organizers to help workers win a voice at work.

Union organizing is not a skill that people are born with. Intense anti-union campaigns marked by vicious threats, firings, confusing propaganda, and complicated legal maneuvers require that organizers have a high level of skill and experience so that they can prepare workers to face a company’s assault.

The Organizing Institute was founded in 1989 in order to recruit and train union organizers and assist unions as they develop their organizing departments.

Since its inception more than 10,000 people, approximately 7,000 of whom were union members, have participated in the now well-known “3-Day Trainings”-weekend-long intensive courses on union organizing.

About 1,000 new union organizers have graduated from the OI. These new organizers are on the cutting edge of some of the most important labor battles of the last decade. In the early nineties, the OI recruited and trained heavily for the Justice for Janitors campaigns in Los Angeles and D.C. UNITE’s national campaign to organize industrial laundries has many OI trainees. The OI regularly supplies organizers to AFSCME’s attempt to organize tens of thousands of new public sector workers in Maryland and Missouri.

Over half of OI 3-Day participants are people of color. This has had a real effect on who becomes a union organizer. For example, in the early nineties, there were only seven Asian and Pacific Islander organizers working in the U.S. Now there are approximately 70.

In conjunction with the Asian Pacific American Labor Association, the OI runs a special 3-Day Training every year geared toward Asian Pacific Islander members and potential organizers. The OI runs similar 3-Days for African Americans and Latinos.

MEMBERS BECOME ORGANIZERS

Two-thirds of 3-Day participants are union members sponsored by their unions. Many unions have programs to develop their members into organizers, and send them to the 3-Day to build their skills. A small number of these members are then hired by their union as staff organizers, based on their evaluation at the 3-Day.

But most of these workers are, or want to become, volunteer organizers working on campaigns run by their union in their industry. Working for short periods of time as a volunteer organizer is preferred by many union members over permanently working the long hours with extensive time away from home which is often required by union campaigns.

One-third of the 3-Day participants are recruited from university campuses or community organizations. The campus recruits tend to be student activists, many with labor activism and often union experience.

Meanwhile, OI campus recruiters deliver a pro-union message in college classes to some 35,000 students across the country every year. This includes a basic explanation of union organizing and stories about recent organizing victories.

Along with the OI’s Union Summer program, the presence of the OI on key campuses year after year has helped many campuses build up permanent student labor solidarity organizations.

Depending on how well participants do at the 3-Day Training, they may be hired by the OI as trainees, usually for about four months, and then hope to be hired as staff organizers by a union.

Back in Newark, the workers at Chrill are in a fight for their first contract. Many of the OI trainees, energized by their experience, have stayed on with the local to continue the campaign for better wages and benefits for homecare workers. Says Esery Mondesir, “The day of the vote was the most exciting day of my life.”


Sam Smucker works for the Organizing Institute in the Midwest Region.