The triangle symbolizes the three major programs of the union. None can stand alone. If the triangle is broken on any side, sooner or later it will be broken on every side.
Representation, day-to-day contract administration and collective bargaining, is the base of the triangle. Yet the other two sides – organizing and community and political action – are just as critical to our strength. Unless we build our union through effective organizing inside existing bargaining units, and by organizing unorganized workers and adding new units, we will continue to be disappointed at the bargaining table. Similarly, unless we have effective community and political action programs, we will not have the kind of popular and legislative support we need to bargain effectively.
The founding president of CWA, Joseph Beirne, called this triangle the “triple threat.” As we enter the 21st century, we need to return to our roots and rebuild the triangle in order to defend the rights of our members and their families.
Since 1970, organizing in the U.S., particularly in the private sector, has drastically declined. The percentage of the U.S. workforce which is organized has dropped 30% to 12%. Meanwhile, in Canada, union strength has increased from 30% to 36%. (See chart.) In other industrial countries, the percentage of organized workers is even higher. These data demonstrate that technology and the shift from manufacturing to a service-based economy are not responsible for the decline of unionization in the U.S.
The percentage of organized workers will grow only if our members are actively involved in building their union. Our members must realize the connection between organizing and their families’ well-being if we are to reverse this downward trend. Organizing cannot be viewed as a separate activity, but as a key link that increases the power of working men and women and their families.
CWA’s organizing strategy relies upon strong local organizing committees who are supported by staff and resources from the international union. Each of us must take on the task of bringing new members into our union. If we are to reverse the decline of the labor movement in the U.S., organizing must be more than a slogan.
Community and Political Action
Organizing in our workplaces must also lead to increased organizing in our communities. Our fundamental goals – job security, an improving standard of living for our families, and real protection for the right to organize – require increased political power as well as more workplace organizing.
Improving our chances of electing candidates who share our vision means that we must align ourselves with family members, members of other unions, and unorganized workers who support our goals. We also increase our political power by building coalitions for better legislation with other labor organizations and also with community-based groups who share a similar outlook.
For example, without political power, healthcare for our families will never be a right guaranteed to all. Instead we will continually struggle to protect our right to healthcare with every contract we bargain, often sacrificing other bargaining goals when healthcare costs rise. Multinational corporations will continue to erode our job security under the guise of deregulation and competition unless we have the political power to restore our rights as workers.
Many of us came to join the union solely for better representation on the job. In fact, that is the primary purpose of the union and remains the base of our triangle. Yet, representation on the job depends heavily on our ability to increase our power through organizing and effective political action.
Bargaining contracts during a time when union membership is decreasing will be increasingly disappointing. It is as if unorganized workers in the same company, industry, or community are sitting on the other side of the bargaining table with management. They are pitted against us as management argues for lower wages and benefits and eliminates job security in the name of efficiency.
Similarly, if our political power is waning, there will be fewer safeguards not only for the right to organize, but also for the right to strike if necessary. The law will increasingly work against us when we try to mobilize our members and our allies in the fight for justice at the bargaining table. As we attempt to improve our working conditions and bargain new contracts, we all need to enlist new volunteers for organizing and political action.
What can we do?
We increase our commitment to organizing the unorganized, both in our work places and our communities.
We join in when we mobilize for better contracts and as we defend our rights on the job between contracts.
We build the triangle by discussing key issues at regular worksite meetings and in “one-on-ones” with our co-workers. We build it as we become active in organizations in our communities, linking that work back to our union work. We build the triangle as we talk to friends and family members in unorganized workplaces and encourage them to help build the union where they work.