Learning how to be a union activist


There was no room left so the students piled onto stools and folding chairs and sat on the floor, clogging the aisles of this stifling classroom on a recent Saturday morning.

They shifted in their seats as the teacher, who wore his politics on his sleeve in the form of a red “We Stand With Wisconsin” T-shirt, started to lecture. At first they checked their cellphones, doodled on the pages of their notebooks, and munched on the free chocolate chip cookies and potato chips they were provided, uninterested.

“Who are the people here facing budget cut issues?” asked the teacher, Paul Krehbiel, a grizzled activist who has organized nurses and factory workers over a long career, which includes serving as the chief negotiator for registered nurses at Los Angeles County government hospitals and clinics.


“We all are,” one man cracked with gallows humor, as uneasy laughs reverberated off the walls.

They were in a classroom at Pasadena City College to learn how to be union activists, an endangered avocation in a country in which only 11.9% of employed wage and salary workers belonged to a union last year, down from 20% in 1983. Some of the students had never attended a labor meeting before. Some weren’t even employed, let alone union members.

The techniques Krehbiel and other instructors taught at this one-day event, called Troublemakers School, might have once been learned on the assembly line, in the mine elevator or at the bowling alley. Now, the teachers impart their knowledge through fliers and by drawing on white boards, much like a football coach might sketch out a play when the team is down by a touchdown with just seconds left on the clock.

“It’s hard to keep going if you don’t have any victories,” Krehbiel said to the class. “But look at slavery — it was tough and they resisted.”

In the face of actions to limit the power of unions nationwide, labor activists are trying to galvanize their members and recruit new blood. They hope to tap in to workers unsettled by the success of big corporations and the growing activism of conservative groups such as the “tea party.”

Events such as Troublemakers School are an attempt to keep up momentum after tens of thousands of demonstrators swarmed the Wisconsin statehouse earlier this year to protest legislation that would strip the collective bargaining rights of public employees. The school is part instruction, part pep rally.

“Who took to the streets? The tea party did,” said Sandy Pope, who is challenging Teamsters President James Hoffa in the union’s election this fall. “Those are our streets, that’s where we need to be.”

It could be a long road uphill. The National Conference of State Legislatures is tracking hundreds of bills across the country that target public-sector unions. Those unions, now the biggest cohort of organized labor, are under fire as cash-strapped governments balk at paying workers traditional pensions, a benefit that is all but extinct in the private sector.

“We elect officials to cut government or hold the line on spending, but in many cases they’re unable to do so because of a monopoly bargaining system that takes a lot of that spending and takes it outside of the political realm,” said Patrick Semmens, a spokesman for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.

The Troublemakers School in Pasadena and five others like it held this year across the country were organized by Labor Notes, a Detroit nonprofit funded by membership dues and course fees, as well as donations from pro-labor individuals. There’s no question this group leans heavily left: One student carried pamphlets about a meeting for anarchists.

During the schools, volunteers drill students on Labor 101 — how a union is organized, what labor laws do and don’t protect and how to recruit members. They commiserate about tough conditions at work, and cheer on speakers who tell about their struggles fighting big business. Afterward, they go out for a beer, or maybe three.

“People are looking at ways to organize and turn up the heat,” said Mark Brenner, director of Labor Notes. “We want to help train the next generation of union activists and union leaders.”

Erin Conley, a doctoral candidate in English at UCLA, wasn’t involved much in labor issues until March, when she started to read more about budget cuts proposed throughout the University of California. In April, Conley, 26, ran for a head steward position at UCLA for UAW Local 2865, which represents roughly 12,000 graduate students working as teachers, tutors and researchers. She lost the election but was hooked on labor.

“It was really helpful to see the struggles that other workers are going through,” said Conley, who attended Troublemakers School with a handful of other fresh-faced graduate students.

The school, which costs $10, doesn’t insist that participants be union members. Postcards advertising the schools were tacked onto walls in coffee shops in San Francisco, asking passersby: “Are you angry that bankers get bailed out and workers get sold out? Have you been inspired by the protesters in the Midwest who are just saying no? Learn tactics, skills, and strategies you can use right away.”

Ron Lew, 56, had not been active with his union, SEIU Local 721, for the decade or so he’s been a mechanic for the city of Los Angeles. But recently, he said, his union agreed to what he believed were excessive concessions with the city. (The SEIU disputes Lew’s account.)

“You don’t get involved until it starts affecting you,” he said, sitting in Krehbiel’s classroom, nodding and taking notes. “Now, all of us are in the same boat. If we don’t make a stand, we’re going to end up losing what we have.”

Lew said the tactics he learned at the school were useful. But most useful was hobnobbing with the dozens of workers crowded into the classroom who were facing similar issues and were ready to do something about it.

“What are some of the issues you’re facing at your workplace?” Krehbiel asked his class.

“Apathy among co-workers,” said one woman, a redhead huddled in the corner.

“Hell, yeah,” echoed a man in the back.

“Forced overtime. Downgrading to lower pay status,” said another.

Mitchell Stewart, 22, listened quietly from a desk. He had no complaints to add. He graduated from college last year and is living in Riverside, unemployed. He attended the workshop to learn more about unions, knowledge that he hopes will serve him well when he starts graduate school in Wisconsin this fall.

“We’re going through a very critical moment with a lot of struggles breaking out in the country,” said Stewart, conscious that he is one of the younger workers labor is trying to attract. “Unions can play a strong role in helping to fight back among budget cuts and create a strong safety net.”