Point Austin: Making Connections
Welcome to SXSW – and the workers who create it
In his 2010 book Restoring the Power of Unions: It Takes a Movement, UT law professor and labor scholar Jack Getman argued that if unions are to reverse their national decline, they need once again to become less labor advocacy institutions and more a workers' movement. "For organized labor to play its proper role in turning the American dream into reality," Getman wrote, "the labor movement must be not only for the people, as most unions are, but also of the people, in ways that most unions are not."
Getman was speaking primarily of the ways unions themselves are currently organized – too often leadership-run rather than member-focused – but the lesson also applies to union outreach, where over the decades a combination of economic changes and business propaganda has served to undermine the worker solidarity that once was a natural outgrowth of common circumstances and common employment (from "employee," a French root meaning "used"). Recently, the AFL-CIO began a tentative effort to reach out beyond union boundaries to all workers, under the community-based theme "Work Connects Us All." Austin is one of three cities (the others are Pittsburgh and Portland, Ore.) where the project is being piloted, and Austinites (and visitors) will get a taste of the effort at South by Southwest – where, among other activities, union volunteers will be distributing thank-you cards to Festival visitors and encouraging them to pass the cards and the sentiment along to the thousands of local and visiting workers involved in planning, hosting, serving, managing, playing, coordinating, etc. the hundreds of events – indeed, in making the entire Festival possible, by literally creating it through their work.
In a press statement introducing the TV ad that triggered the campaign, Texas AFL-CIO President Becky Moeller said, "This effort is not about politics, but about bringing people together for a real conversation about the dignity and impact of work, and how securing respect for all work is fundamental to who we are."
National AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler described the campaign as "a broad, long-term initiative to elevate the voices of working people. No matter what kind of work you do, everyone works, we all have pride and dignity in our work, and we want to get that as part of the conversation." Shuler said that the recent national debate on income inequality – generated initially by the Occupy movement – had in part inspired this effort, which includes an interactive website (www.workconnectsusall.org), outreach via Twitter and Facebook, and public events like SXSW where unions hope to spread the word about connections between working people. Occupy "has sparked the conversation about what kind of country we want to be," said Shuler, "so we think it's really the right moment to be reintroducing people to unions."
In Austin, the Texas AFL-CIO and member unions have built a fledgling working alliance with Occupy activists, and Moeller sees the new campaign as an extension of that effort. "For some time we've also had executive pay in our sights," she said, "so we're glad they're [Occupy] also singing from the same choir book, bringing light to the fact about the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent. It makes the importance of unions, to some of those people that are open-minded, it puts it in their vernacular."
In addition to the thank-you card effort, other potential events are still in the planning stages involving Festival musicians or other performers. In Portland, comedians held a workshop aimed at connecting comedy and organizing, and Texas AFL-CIO spokesman Ed Sills said he's hoping to coordinate something similar here.
It's arguable, of course, that in light of the concerted current attacks on workers' rights in general, and unions in particular, taking place in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and elsewhere, the undermining of teachers' unions in Texas – indeed the entire Republican presidential campaign – an outreach effort that focuses on happy talk about worker connections might not seem the most effective means of self-defense. Shuler says that this project does not replace active organizing efforts, but complements them, by reaching beyond union activists to people not accustomed to thinking of their work in terms of solidarity. In explicit union efforts, she said, "non-unionists may tune out because they think it doesn't impact them. The purpose of this campaign is to let them know that collective action, and joining together, and amplifying your voice is a path to a better future."
So, among the panels and the movies and the concerts and the clubbing, maybe a few more of us will stop and think. "It's just basically elevating this notion," said Shuler, "that there's a lot of work that goes on with SXSW, for example, and that nobody really thinks about the person that's serving your food, or the hotel worker who's making your room livable for you while you're there, or the transportation that's provided to get you to the site. So the idea was to make people realize that – and think about their work a little differently, and then also 'pay it forward.'"
In other words: Thank you for your work.