Given the constraints of our two-party system and the differences between the parties on workers' issues, it makes sense for unions to endorse Democrats and for union members to pull the Democratic lever on election day. But for too long, union leaders have tethered themselves to the Democratic Party on fundamental questions of strategy. Ironically, when the Democrats take control of the White House the problem is exacerbated, as unions often mistake access for power. The leaders of the Democratic Party don't wake up in the morning thinking about how to expand social benefits to workers or the poor. And they certainly don't wake up and think about how to make unions stronger.
As the consultant-industrial complex linked to the Democratic Party has taken over at most national unions, unions have substituted "messaging" for organizing while actual organizers have nearly become extinct. To beat the twenty-four-hour nonstop lies blasted into American homes by Fox News requires engaging workers face to face—not blasting them with poll-tested e-mails. It takes a two-way discussion to help workers move past fear and frustration and toward collective action to address the problems in their lives. Note to unions: Twitter and Facebook are not engagement.
Rather than focusing on the immediate economic security of the working class (and in this highly unequal country, that means the middle class too), unions have been preoccupied with their own organizational security. Encouraged by pollsters and Democratic Party consultants, union leaders decided to bet the farm on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). With the economic crisis ravaging the nation, this was the number-one "ask" of the new administration labor had fought so hard (and paid so dearly) to elect. Keep in mind that unions have been trying unsuccessfully to win meaningful labor law reform since the 1940s—when they were much stronger. The Chamber of Commerce and its unionbusting allies were undoubtedly unhappy that Democrats were even discussing labor law reform, but the big business lobby must have been delighted with a strategy hatched by unions that the Chamber could boil down to "unions want to take away a worker's right to vote by secret ballot on whether to form a union." Labor leaders spent the first year of the Obama administration working "behind the scenes" to enact this priority. Not surprisingly, they failed.
What could unions have been doing, and what should they be doing, to change the equation in 2012 and also in future union elections? Creating a real fight over the state of the working and middle classes by picking up on issues where unions can make an immediate difference in people's lives. The ability of unions to expand their ranks doesn't lie in labor law reform; it lies in the potential for Americans in large numbers to see unions as relevant. With just over 7 percent of the private-sector workforce in unions, it's not hard to see why union leaders are preoccupied with their very survival. But after seventy years of unsuccessful attempts at technocratic legislative, legal and regulatory approaches to expanding unions, there is no time like now to try mass social movement unionism.
Workers can't pay rent, pay the mortgage, get a credit card, find a job, buy clothes or schoolbooks for their kids or retire. They face increased divorce rates as family tensions rise, and they have lost their sense of dignity. They don't care about labor law reform, and they don't care about unions (at least in their current form). They are in despair, and unanswered despair quickly becomes either fertilizer for the fear mongers or the reason to not bother showing up at the polls. Either decision is a disaster likely to be repeated unless unions reset, and fast.
Rather than posting links to the websites of housing groups, how about starting direct worker-to-worker conversations about occupying mortgage company headquarters across the country until the banks stop foreclosing on their members' homes? Rather than suddenly calling for members to picket banks or take seemingly random militant actions, how about sitting down with union members and talking about what actions everyone can take to force solutions to the housing crisis—solutions such as making banks revalue mortgages to the actual value of homes and creating lines of credit so workers can move to places where they might find a job?
Unions need to start connecting with workers face-to-face through house parties and worksite and home visits to ask what's keeping them up at night. Then unions should plan direct actions with workers that respond to the issues facing them. How about taking over the offices of big credit-rating agencies and occupying them 24/7 by the thousands until they agree to erase all the bad credit heaped on anyone who has made a late mortgage payment because they lost their job or their hours were cut back? The housing crisis ties directly to the wage crisis, which ties directly to the jobs crisis. People in this country are screaming for a fight, but the only people offering one have been from the right wing. All these issues have been staring labor in the face for several years. Why hasn't any union turned the crisis facing workers into a crisis for capital and the political elite?
There are two main reasons for this failure, and union members need to declare an internal mini-MoveOn movement to confront them. First, to this day, when asked about the housing crisis, many unions essentially say, "That's someone else's problem. We only do workers' issues in the workplace." Given the crises in all aspects of workers' lives, that response is even more backward and shortsighted than the second reason unions have failed to do what they should be doing: union turf wars. Some of the best organizers have been teaching workers to fight one another instead of how to fight the bosses, let alone how to mount collective action against the broader political elite.
It's not too late. The housing crisis still looms large, and the coming attack on Social Security and other entitlement programs will offer plenty of room for unions to mobilize their base and organize the unorganized. But these efforts should be oriented around something other than forming a union.
Union organizers—paid staff and rank-and-file workers—should begin to take to the doors and begin to meet hundreds of thousands of workers and galvanize a movement to demand economic justice. If unions do this with unorganized workers and together they win campaigns, it's more likely these same workers will consider unionization to be a good option in their work life. With a ratio of one organizer for 1,000 organizing conversations in neighborhoods nationwide, just 2,000 union organizers could engage 2 million people—and that's plenty to create an untenable crisis that the elite will have to deal with.
Ironically, the only organizational security issue that should be taken up urgently by the labor movement has produced yet another circular firing squad: the carefully constructed hate campaign against public-sector unions. The bruising attack being waged on "government unions" from the heart of blue states like New Jersey is a three-pronged jihad against everything the right hates most: the idea of redistribution of any resources to the poor; African-Americans and people of color, who are disproportionately represented in the government workforce; and unions in general (the biggest unionized bloc of Americans work for the government). You can bet this third goal is high on the butcher paper covering the walls in conservative war rooms. Watching private-sector unions abandon this fight and willingly serve up government unions for destruction shows just how easy it is to divide and conquer. The longer we allow the right to name the public sector as anything other than one essential component of the economy, the longer we allow the right to dismantle the only real base of unions and the only real source of good jobs left for many people of color and women.
It's time to empower people to get into motion. We know people learn best from action—it's not rocket science or something we need a poll about. For years we have known that the best issues are those that are widely and deeply felt and that we can reasonably come up with solutions for. Unions would see that these issues are staring them in the face if only they'd listen to workers instead of pollsters.
Trade union and the struggle for democracy in Nigeria
When everything is said and done, democracy consists of a set of rights and the processes as well as procedures that are in place for guaranteeing, protecting and expanding those rights. There is agreement that the NLC has made enormous contributions to the struggle for democracy in Nigeria (Alalade, 2004). These contributions are marked in particular in the following areas:
Nigeria's Sovereign Rights
All the economic and political struggles of the NLC have been informed by a vision of genuine national liberation for Nigeria. In all its documents and actions, the Nigeria Labour Congress has consistently defended the sovereignty of the country. It has done this in its positions on the various adjustment programmes, the external debt, the neo-liberal agenda of the Nigerian state, the frequent increases in fuel prices, the devaluation of the Naira, the development blueprints such as NEEDS and other policy initiatives of the regime. This position has been translated into different kinds of action- strikes, demonstrations, education and even legal action.
Popular Rights / People's Rights
The NLC has been a significant contributor to the development and guarantee of popular rights in Nigeria. These contributions have been marked in the struggle against military rule, in the struggle for transparent, free and fair elections, in the opposition to massive electoral frauds, in its role in monitoring elections, contributing to the debate on the political future of the country and in the struggle to remove patently corrupt public officers from office. Notable examples in this series of struggles include the massive education and sensitization of the Nigerian people throughout the period through various publications and leaflets; the alliance forged between the NLC, ASUU and NANS in 1984 to force the Buhari regime to respect fundamental human rights; the general strike by NUPENG and PENGASSAN, affiliates of the NLC, over the annulment of the 1993 general elections by Babangida; the NLC / Civil society action of May 28 and 29, 2007 and again in June 2007 following the massive electoral frauds that characterised the general elections and; the NLC campaign that 'Etteh Must Go Now' in the last part of 2007. There is no doubt that NLC's actions contributed to popular disenchantment with the Buhari regime and its subsequent overthrow in August, 1985. There is also no doubt that NLC's opposition facilitated the setting up of the Commission on Electoral Reforms by the present government and the decision of Etteh to throw in the towel, finally.
Workers' Rights
As a workers' organisation, it is understandable that the NLC has over the years protected, defended and deepened workers' rights. These efforts have covered not only the rights of workers in the work place but also their rights in the larger society. Part of the strategies deployed by the NLC has included the education of large numbers of its leadership. It has thus established Harmattan and Rain Schools. The NLC has also picketed banks as was the case when it mobilised its 28 affiliates and 37 state councils to picket First Bank in 2002. This informs the contributions of the NLC to the formation of a labour party, the struggle for workers to have the right to participate in politics and to be represented in certain governance decision making structures.
Women's Rights
The Nigeria Labour Congress has played a vanguard role in the expansion of women's rights in Nigeria. From the review of its own constitution to accommodate more participation for women in the leadership of trade unions, the Nigeria Labour Congress has sought to reduce the level of discrimination that women face in the workplace and in the larger society.
Students' rights
The NLC has functioned through most of the period as the protector of the rights of students. To protect these rights, the NLC has been prepared as happened, for example, on June 1, 1986 to place the freedom and lives of members of its leadership on the line.

Many people think of labor unions as a kind of special interest group -- manual workers looking out for their own narrow economic interests. Unions are portrayed as powerful organizations, often corrupt, that at best benefit their members at the expense of nonmembers and the society at large, and at worst really only serve the interests of union bosses. Most people interpret the dramatic decline of unions as indicating that Nigeria workers no longer want unions. Americans are individualistic, they believe in individual competition and think that the best way to get ahead is to do so on your own. If unions are no longer all that important, this is because workers have abandoned unions.

 Sociologists like to use words like “spheres” or “domains” to describe different aspects of society. Such spatial metaphors are always a bit misleading, since these different aspects of social life intersect and overlap in all sorts of ways.

Many professional economists share this basic view. The free market works best, they argue, when there is no interference with purely voluntary exchanges. Unions get in the way of individual workers voluntarily making bargains with individual employers.
Unions create rigidities in the market, rigidities in wage rates, rigidities in free choice, rigidities in hiring decisions by employers, and all of this reduces efficiency and economic performance. In the end, the story goes, everyone is worse off because unions muck up the smooth functioning of the system.
We will offer an alternative view of labor unions that stresses two main points: the first concerns the effect of unions on the distribution of economic power in a capitalist system; the second concerns the nature of political power and its relation to collective association in a democracy.

Economic power
Workers are, as individuals, are at an inherent disadvantage in bargaining with employers because they have fewer options. Power, in a market, depends upon how many options each party has, how badly harmed each party is they fail to make a deal. In most circumstances, an employer has many potential employees that can be hired for most jobs. Usually it hurts an employee more to be fired than it hurts an employer for an individual employee to quit, and this means that employers have more power than workers. There are a variety of ways of rectifying this imbalance of power in the labor market. One way is for the government to impose regulations on labor contracts which in one way or another reduce the ability of employers to dictate the terms of an agreement. All developed capitalist countries have such rules. Examples include minimum wage rules, health and safety rules, rules governing overtime and working hours. The assumption behind all such rules is that left to their own devices employers would offer jobs at below the minimum wage, with unsafe working conditions, and with excessive working hours, and because of their vulnerability, there would be workers willing to accept such jobs. The rules are therefore designed to block employers from using their power advantage in labor markets to employ workers under the excluded conditions. Unions are the second main way for rectifying the imbalance of power by creating some semblance of equality in bargaining over the employment contract. Where Unions are strong, employers must come to a collective agreement with workers (through the union) otherwise the employer will not have access to a labor force. This means that workers have a capacity to punish employers for failing to agree to a satisfactory contract by collectively refusing to work. This is called a strike. While an individual worker refusing to work generally does little harm to an employer, a collective refusal matters.
The threat of that collective refusal, then, constitutes a new background condition for labor market bargaining. The results are contractual terms that are more favorable to workers.
This narrow economic benefit of unions for workers is called the wage-premium for unionized workers indicates the magnitude of this premium for some selected low-wage jobs. In each of these cases, unionized workers received over a third higher wages than their nonunionized counterparts.

Political power
Most discussions of unions focus only on the issue of economic power and the impact of unions on the labor market. While this is undoubtedly the main motivation for most people in joining a union, it is by no means the only important role that unions play in society. In particular, unions have the potential to help forge more democratically engaged citizens. Isolated, atomized, individual citizens are likely to be a passive, apathetic political force. The problem of rational ignorance makes people easy to manipulate and discourages participation, and in the absence of strong solidarities, a sense of civic obligation is unlikely to flourish. The labor movement is one of the important ways that individuals can feel connected to each other in ways that makes political activity seem relevant.

Labor unions foster democratic participation in two ways. First, unions contribute to what can be called organic solidarities. Unions are organizations that are embedded in one important setting in many people’s lives – their workplaces. In countries with a vibrant labor movement, unions in the workplace organize all sorts of activities and help ordinary workers get involved in many collective decisions within work. In many European countries there are workplace councils in which workers, through their unions, are involved in health and safety regulations, monitoring working conditions, grievance procedures, and many other things. When conflicts occur with management, individual workers are more likely to experience these as collective struggles rather than simply individual complaints. Through these activities, the interdependencies that exist within work can become solidarities, and these solidarities can facilitate greater involvement in broader democratic politics.

A strong union movement does more than give people the kind of life experiences than affects their identities and builds a sense of connectedness and solidarity. It also solves crucial organizational problems. Unions provide information to their members helping to mitigate the problem of rational ignorance around political issues, and they lower significantly the individual costs of active participation. Unions typically become, as organizations, directly involved in political parties. In electoral campaigns this helps parties solve a crucial problem – mobilizing people for electoral campaigning, both as voters and as volunteer campaign workers. A strong union movement can help provide the volunteer legwork for practical electoral activities and in this way counteract the influence of money in campaigns. This is an important reason why, where unions are strong, voter participation rates are higher and public policies tend to serve the wider interests of ordinary citizens rather than just elites.

Unions are certainly not the only kind of voluntary association that can play this role of building solidarities and facilitating democratic political participation. They do, however, have two big advantages over many other potential associations. First, they are closely tied to workplaces in which workers already have some solidarity through their interdependencies within work. Workplaces are themselves a cooperative community of interacting persons, and this provides a social basis for building deeper solidarities through conscious organization. Second, unions have the potential to be a mass movement – called “the labor movement” – since in contemporary capitalism the vast majority of adults work for a living as employees, and most of these employees have no managerial authority within work. The labor movement has the potential to build broad and inclusive solidarities.
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