Building a Solidarity Union

Union members in Illinois joined with a local organization to oppose a jail expansion. They've discovered that solidarity with their community means expanding the definition of a "labor issue." Photo: Anna Kurhajec.

How do you build a solidarity-oriented union? Our Graduate Employees Organization has found that looking beyond the campus and using our voice, funds, and organizing skills to help community causes has made us one of the strongest locals in east-central Illinois.

GEO (Teachers Local 6300) won a November 2009 strike at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to protect our tuition waivers. Our success depended on solidarity from campus locals like the Service Employees, AFSCME, and University Professors, as well as Teamsters and other unions that came to campus for deliveries and construction projects. Undergraduates and community members honored and walked our picket lines.

As we negotiated over the same issue again this fall, we planned ahead for another strike—which we averted by prevailing on tuition waivers. As we planned, we counted on support from all kinds of community organizations—groups we’ve come to depend on through our solidarity work. GEO has helped bridge the divide between campus and community that often develops in university towns.


GEO had a defining moment in 2007, when campus building and food service workers were on the verge of a strike. GEO stewards proposed we make a no-strings-attached donation of over $100,000—the entirety of our strike fund. After discussion, members voted yes overwhelmingly—it was easy to see how a successful strike would directly help us.

Though ultimately SEIU avoided a strike and didn’t need our funds, this moment organized me, a newly active member, to see my union as more than a means to my own contractual gains. The union was a way to engage with struggles for social justice led by other groups in our community.

Shortly after, we created a solidarity line of $10,000 per year in our budget. Any GEO member or community organization could submit a request, which would be voted on by our coordinating committee.

We supported campaigns that helped our community and promoted human rights and workers’ rights, like an after-school program in local public housing; a food co-op's effort to provide healthy food for low-income people; and the campus coalition that got Coca-Cola out of vending machines because of the company’s record of attacking workers’ rights abroad.


But GEO’s solidarity work soon went beyond funding. Members formed a Critical Action and Research Caucus where we discussed historical and current movements for environmental justice, against racism, and against the vast increase in incarceration and expansion of prisons. Our local community had seen a lot of organizing on these subjects.

Then we created a Solidarity Committee and started to attend meetings of community organizations, Jobs with Justice, and the county central labor council.

Members of the Solidarity Committee work exclusively on building relationships in our communities. This means that even when many GEO members are busy with a work action of our own, others stay dedicated to long-term community campaigns.

We joined residents calling for clean-up of toxics in an African-American neighborhood, which led to success after a lawsuit. We worked with Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice, a community organization that fights racial inequalities, especially in the criminal justice system. We requested Freedom of Information Act releases of arrest records and participated in citizen court watches in cases that CUCPJ suspected were motivated by racism.

After a Champaign police officer shot and killed Kiwane Carrington, an unarmed 15-year-old, we developed, with CUCPJ, a brief asking the Department of Justice to investigate racially discriminatory policing. We found that skills particular to our members—research and writing—were useful in these battles.


Through our work with CUCPJ, GEO members came to see criminal justice as a labor concern. In Champaign County, African Americans are 12 percent of the population but more than 54 percent of incarcerated people. Incarceration removes 2.2 million people from the workforce nationally, and a disproportionate number are people of color.

After release from prison, the continued stigma makes it hard to re-enter the workforce, and young people of color already have less access to job training. These inequalities severely limit access to good jobs.

When the Champaign County Board considered spending $20 million to expand the local jail, GEO members worked with CUCPJ to oppose it. The jail was not even full, and we knew from our research that expansions create a motivation to fill the jails up—leading to even more incarceration.

We turned out big crowds of campus workers and students, filling the room at County Board meetings. We helped develop and carry out a public survey and petition, arrange community forums, and research alternatives to incarceration.

Most GEO members involved with CUCPJ have done so explicitly as representatives of the union, so CUCPJ sees us as an organization that works with them, not just a few individuals helping out.

In the past year, our Solidarity Committee has also worked against the federal “Secure Communities” program that detains immigrants for deportation and assisted an organizing drive among factory workers.


GEO recently joined a human rights campaign to close the “supermax” prison in Tamms, Illinois, whose practices of prolonged solitary confinement and sensory deprivation are defined as torture by the UN.

As far as we know, we and our sister union at the University of Illinois-Chicago are the first unions to oppose the prison. Our resolution is a challenge to the leaders of AFSCME, which represents the guards at Tamms.

Members of GEO had to think seriously before breaking ranks with another union. Ultimately we felt that supporting working people shouldn’t mean we also support the ill effects of their jobs. Labor can support tobacco workers without falling in with the cigarette companies.

Solidarity doesn’t just mean “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” It means recognizing how our struggles are connected. We support the closure of Tamms because it violates the human rights of prisoners and guards. Nobody should have to work in an institution of torture.

Solidarity means that we push for fellow workers to have good jobs that contribute to the well-being of our communities, jobs that don’t exploit and dehumanize us. This is the kind of solidarity we want to see grow in the labor movement.

Anna Kurhajec is a Solidarity Committee member in the Graduate Employees Organization.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes 405, December 2012. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.


OEMHS | 12/28/12

Until I found this site I hadn't really been able to crystallize what I was looking for in a union.

My union is fat, lazy and not about to change a thing. The 'leadership' is unelected as no one dares challenge the status quo due in large part to the infighting and retribution meted out.

Their social conscience consists of handing out cheques for unspecified amount to community groups. Rumour has it the cheques are no more than 250-500.00, while the union is sitting on millions in unallocated cash.

Oh, and if it weren't for special 'days' many causes, diseases and special interest groups would never even be mentioned on their website.

The union caves in and concedes every time I turn around. Then they get all indignant when no one shows up for meetings - that happens so often it's not even funny anymore.

Foolishly I had hoped that looming 'right to work' legislation would smarten them up and bring the labour movement back to being a movement for the workers. I was wrong. Union executives and their executive titled co-horts have strayed to far and for too long. (I haven't seen this many 'vice-presidents' outside of a bank.)

There are too many UAW's and too few Teamsters type unions.

You want me to show up and get involved?
1/ Allow me to vote for the so called 'leadership', have elections where people are encouraged to run, not threatened if they do. Choice is good, and change is healthy.

2/ Open your books to the people paying union dues. Tell me how much you spent and on what - no more summaries to hide shit.

3/ Talk to me and tell me how you support me with the things I care about in the workplace, and outside of it.

4/ Stop being so secretive. Publish meeting minutes, communicate openly and transparently. The employer doesn't care, they stopped viewing you as a threat 20 years ago. If the employees knew what was going on they might start showing up.

5/ Speak my language. I'm not your brother, you're not my sister and we're not in 'solidarity' for anything. This type of archaic language and mind-set is a huge turn-off.

6/ I need to see something other than fat white men in charge at the union.

7/ and lastly but most importantly, when we need you, don't blow us off with this work now, grieve later bullshit, only to find out that the majority of grievances are bargained away or dismissed and employees only find out after the deed is done. Stop screwing over the people who pay you for a service, because until you engage with me, that's all you are - a service provider.

Unions need to evolve and put the 'move' back in labour movement, I only hope it's not too late.

thanks for allowing me to vent.

Dexter Haney | 12/26/12

Understanding this article is key to changing the course of labor in the US. While the strategy/tactics seem new they aren't; they are what the labor movement was founded on. We stopped being a "movement" that seeks to change the economic system and it's negative impact on ALL people and became a service that a narrowly-defined group of workers keep on "retainer" for use when their contract expires or the boss comes after them. Making your local a generator for change, as opposed to a responder to it, is what attracts serious people. Serious people don't have a lot of time to spare for walking around in a circle, carrying signs and chanting old slogans; they want ACTION and results.
Take this article to work and discuss with your co-workers, members AND non-members. Get to your next local meeting and make a discussion on "How to Proceed", based on this article, happen. Wishing and hoping that your "leaders" will stumble across brilliant ideas is a fools' errand.

OEMHS | 12/28/12

Hi Dexter. I like your comments a lot. I read a story on a union site once about how one local had almost 100% turn out and an incredibly active membership.

Turns out the person who caused this to come about was a trained grief counsellor, and she applied those concepts to the workplace and union activities. Now isn't that an interesting point of view!

One example that stuck in my mind was an employee whose term was ending and they weren't being kept on as they took a lot of time off for personal time. Turns out they had an incurable illness, not long to live and couldn't afford not to work. The union worked with the employee, their family and the employer to keep them employed until they needed to go off on disability. A dignified compassionate response.

People are watching to see what 'leaders' do before they choose to follow. In that story there were many more examples and it became something people wanted to be a part of.

Andrew TS | 12/15/12

This is a very interesting piece, and an inspiring portrait of what most locals should aspire to look like. I would have liked to see some discussion of what obstacles were to this transformation (such as rank-and-file resistance, declined servicing time, etc) and how the local leadership overcame them. When painted in broad strokes, the American labor movement is simply a bunch of backwards leaders unwilling to facilitate this type of progressive transformation. Important nuances are the difficulties faced and skill required when undertaking such a project; more 'how-to' troubleshooting and discussion of the 'guts' of the organizing transformation would be very helpful to many readers.

Dexter Haney | 12/26/12

Great comment: I was thinking the same thing about more of the "how to" of it.
That being said, the basic issue is that most of the "leadership" came up in a totally different world that no longer exists. There was no need, in their opinion, to have a strategy of engagement with anyone other than their narrowly defined universe of workers and employers. Even if they do get it now many have no idea how to do what was done in the article and would go so far as to actively oppose it.
The key to success, based on what I have experienced, is for members to start reaching out to others on their own to make connections and start to build relationships while, at the same time, organizing their co-workers and other local members to support and join them. Simply doing SOMETHING will make the leadership respond; how they respond to it (kill it, co-opt it or support it) should determine how much longer they remain the "leaders".
That's a start, anyway. I would love to hear from some of the folks in the local from the article (or any other local who has done/is doing this stuff) about how they did it, what they had to overcome to do it and what obstacles they still face.