TIME TO EXPLORE THE FRONTIER: Just as William Clark (left) and Meriwether Lewis (center) opened up the western frontier more than 200 years ago on orders from President Thomas Jefferson, it’s time for unions to not only expand their member base but to create the same kind of legal-advocacy structure that could have the same positive impact for unions that conservative think-tanks have produced for right-wing causes over the past 40 years, according to the author.

In the Upper Missouri River basin, an area known as the “Missouri Breaks” is a landscape of steep cliffs on the side, and a muddy, shallow river bottom that presented one of the many formidable challenges that the Lewis and Clark expedition faced and overcame.

So also, the decades-long success of the so-called “right-to-work” movement, in formerly strong industrial-union states, has metaphorically presented similar challenges to the labor movement; but unfortunately without the same positive results experienced by the great explorers on their much shorter journey from 1804-1806.

That is, until Tuesday Aug. 7, when the voters of Missouri defeated an attempt by their Legislature to add their state to the shameful list of others that have succumbed to this anti-worker, owner-financed attack on the right to organize.

Labor Regained Its Mojo

Labor took an active role in this victory and that is cause for celebration. The organizing skills, tactics and strategies that have long been the hallmark of the workers’ movement were clearly put to good use after many years of atrophy. So let us recognize this victory; and let us take stock of how we can keep this newfound momentum going.

One obvious conclusion is that this electoral result showed the effectiveness of the good internal messaging to, communication with, and consistent organizing of the union membership that is necessary to continue to achieve electoral and public policy victories. That has been the persistent theme of everything I have written in my Chief columns over the last 16 months, and this electoral victory confirms that.

But honing those internal organizing tactics and using them routinely gets us only to the point we should have been many years ago. Labor needs to expand and persist in this internal member mobilizing, but it must also do more. The dire political/governmental straits in which we find ourselves calls for new strategies that could set the labor movement on a path closer to the type of effort the right has pursued vigorously for the last 40 years.

First and foremost, it is past time for the AFL-CIO to begin a serious effort to expand its member base. We achieve episodic success in organizing new shops, and that of course should continue. But, thanks to the Democrats’ failure to enact card-check in 2009, traditional shop-organizing successes are few and the numbers of new members are small.

Need a New Paradigm

What is acutely necessary is to develop a new organizing paradigm to solicit those workers who support unions, but who have little hope of securing a union shop in their workplace. Several polls in the last year have found Americans’ views on unions reaching a 60-percent-or-better-approval. The Missouri results anecdotally confirm that finding. That support must be solicited and organized.

As I have previously written, what the AFL must now do is create a national membership organization which can solicit that unorganized but sympathetic cohort, not with contractual workplace protection, but with the benefits of group membership, like access to affordable health care, retirement investments, and basic legal counseling or referral services for workplace issues. That type of model gives workers some tangible benefits not otherwise easily available to them, and the AFL gets access to a supportive, engaged and sympathetic demographic that it can organize into critical votes and pressure.

Use Advocacy Think-Tank

Second, the national AFL-CIO must create a permanent internal legal-advocacy structure to engage the best sympathetic legal minds in academia and in Constitutional practice to find a legal path on which to counter the Right at every turn going forward.

For this idea I took a stroll back to my late 1960s anti-Vietnam War activism, when we threw everything against the wall to see what would stick. So in this context I would have this new internal group of legal eagles prepare some strategies for when the Right takes the next post-Janus step of going to court to mandate that the unions “disgorge” the agency fees they collected over the years back to those former fee payers who decided to exercise their post-Janus right to “freeload.”

Time to Take Risks

Maybe there is something in a reading of the contracts clause of the Constitution, or the commerce clause; or the Tenth (States’ Rights) Amendment that could present a case to be argued. I am not a lawyer, so my premise may be tenuous. But my strategy is not. I am just saying that the labor movement must begin to take risks and use the same unorthodox legal tactics that have brought the right wing such stunning success over the last 40 years. The time for the usual tactics is over. Throw it against the wall and see what sticks!

Third, the use of the term “right to work” should be abandoned by the labor movement. So-called “right-to-work” laws can more appropriately be described as “worker-exploitation” or “worker-isolation laws,” or “right to freeload.” I am sure some messaging professional can come up with something better, but those are my two cents. Labor must also better message the basis for opposing such laws. For the public, the message is that the income security and stability that union membership provides puts money from good wages back into communities. For union members, the message is that without a strong union, all their benefits and income stability will be at risk; and the union is only as strong its members. Simple, really; but necessary to be said.

Put Pressure on Dems

Finally, it is way past time for the AFL-CIO to tell the Democratic Party that it will not take their condescension any longer; and that Labor will withhold any financial support until it gets significant and high-level representation on every level of the party’s decision-making structure nationwide and locally. And when (or if) the Dems take control of any house of Congress, Labor will have two non-negotiable demands: enact card-check, and repeal that section of the Taft-Hartley Law that created the so-called “right-to-work” prerogative granted to the states to exploit workers covered under Federal labor law.

To my knowledge there has never been a court challenge or a legislative campaign to alter this disgraceful contravention of a legitimate, collectively bargained contract. Labor must drop its timid and obsequious interaction with the Democratic Party and elected officials and start acting like the dog, not the tail.

The Missouri referendum results of Aug. 7 can be a new beginning for a resurgent and assertive labor movement. We must do that to survive. We shall see.

Editor’s note: Mr. Montalbano is a retired labor lobbyist and former political action director for District Council 37.

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