Secretary-Treasurer’s Report: How Do We Maintain and Build Power?

As union members, we have far better pay, health and pension benefits, safety protections, grievance processes, and job protections than our non-union counterparts.

We didn’t get these things by simply asking. We got them because we have the power — or leverage — to get what we want. Anyone who has sat through a contract negotiation knows that having a strong moral or logical argument isn’t enough. Change doesn’t happen without our union having the leverage to convince management that our members’ demands are in the company’s best interest.

Former United Auto Workers president Bob King spoke at this year’s UWUA regional educational conferences, centering his presentation around the most fundamental question we face as a union: how do we maintain and build power?

More fundamental than the question of “how do we maintain and build our power” is that of “do we as a union want to maintain and build power?” Your National leadership is united in its response: a resounding yes!

Union members have long defined power as having the leverage to get the employer to agree to our contract demands when they would rather not. For example, some in management would rather put money into executive compensation or stock buyback programs than union worker wage increases or pensions.

Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither were our UWUA contracts. Our forebearers fought long and hard, often striking for weeks and sometimes months to move our union forward. Over decades, they made a few huge leaps but more often many small steps that built upon each other to raise UWUA standards to where they are today. And the job is never done. Every generation of workers needs to be continually building power if we are to protect our legacy and build upon these standards for those that will follow.

It’s simple: if we’re not focused on building our leverage, we can’t deliver for our membership.

King laid out three power scenarios in his presentations:

  • With awesome power (i.e. leverage) we win awesome contracts that benefit our members and communities.
  • With medium power we win medium contracts.
  • With little power we get weak contracts

I think we can all agree that we want strong contracts and therefore need to maintain and build our leverage.

So, how do we get the leverage necessary to realize our goals? That’s a particularly difficult question today, especially given that we’re living through a period of falling union membership — as a labor movement, within the utility industry and even in the UWUA. But these challenges are not insurmountable.

How do we get to where we want to be? We organize! My fellow UWUA executive officers Pat Dillon and Craig Pinkham write in their columns about what our union is doing to build our ranks, and with that, our leverage.

The bottom line is that organizing benefits all workers, union and non-union alike. Non-union workers win when they finally have a chance to bargain and earn the union advantage in wages, benefits and job protections. Each and every member of our union wins because greater membership numbers increase the power of our collective voice. Even those workers who remain without union representation win when our union contracts have a ripple effect of raising standards throughout our industries.

We cannot sit back and take for granted that our union advantage will continue. We must continually work to maintain and build our leverage. Rest assured, management is always working to build theirs! And one way to ensure that we keep our higher union standards is to build our power through adding to our ranks. The more we organize, the greater our leverage, and the better our ability to bargain great contracts.

So, get engaged in organizing! Help the UWUA identify and connect with non-union workers who need and want representation. When it comes time to negotiate your local’s next contract, think about how to use the collective bargaining process to build the UWUA’s membership through adding organizing neutrality language and bargaining to bring subcontracted work in-house. The National union is devoting resources to organizing, but our union will only reach its highest potential with all hands on deck.