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Action Session Explores Models for Alternative Membership to Broaden Labor Movement

A central theme of this year’s convention is building a broader, more inclusive labor movement to better support all workers, both union and nonunion. As attendees of the action session “Anyone Can Join and Everyone Should: Models for Alternative Membership” learned this afternoon, associate membership can be a powerful tool to achieve that goal.

Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO, is giving workers all over the country who don’t have a union on the job a voice and an opportunity to stand together to improve their lives. Working America Organizing Director David Wehde moderated a lively panel discussion on how unions are opening new doors for workers through new organizing models, including associate membership programs.

The AFT is giving teachers in the southern United States, where collective bargaining rights are limited or nonexistent, a pathway to joining a union through an innovative program. The union is reaching out to teachers in Texas, Louisiana and West Virginia to offer associate membership on an individual basis, which opens the door to the creation of chartered locals. These locals give teachers a powerful voice to advocate for policies that enhance public schools.

Ann Mitchell, assistant to AFT president for service coordination, says that in Texas the program now has associate members in 661 of 1,033 school districts statewide, showing that even in the toughest of political environments, workers are finding ways to join together with the support of unions like AFT.

The Ironworkers have partnered with Working America to offer associate membership to help give nonunion workers important protections on the job and provide a pathway to union membership.

Ironworkers Chief of Staff Bernie Evers details the union’s effort:

We will have meetings once a month (for associate members). The first part of the meeting focuses on rights on the job. The second part of the meeting addresses issues workers face in their communities. We want these workers to know that we’re there for them, even if they haven’t yet had the opportunity to join our union.

In New Mexico, nonunion workers in the film industry have banded together through the Reel Working America program, creating a powerful new advocacy group to take action on workers' issues.

The group now has more than 1,000 members, and more than 20% of those members are so engaged they turn out for actions to advocate for policies that would benefit New Mexico’s growing film industry, says Jon Hendry, president of the New Mexico Federation of Labor and business agent at Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 480.

While associate membership programs don’t replace traditional organizing, Wehde of Working America says bringing workers into the labor movement on this path often opens the door for organizing down the road. For example, Working America’s website provides workers with useful resources if they’re having an issue on the job, but it also connects them to organizing tools. Associate membership also provides unions an opportunity to stay in touch with laid-off workers or workers who voted for a union in a losing election.

Associate member programs are growing by leaps and bounds as more workers see the value in joining together. And Working America and other programs are growing the labor movement while making it more inclusive.

Says Wehde:

It’s an entry point. We can start the conversation and look for people who are interested in organizing. It’s a flexible model, and we’re open to trying new things to see what works best. 

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