Working America connects with Occupy D.C. For the second post in our series taking a closer look at the state of the U.S. labor movement, we have an exclusive interview with the executive director of Working America, Karen Nussbaum. Karen
April 5, 2012

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Working America connects with Occupy D.C.

For the second post in our series taking a closer look at the state of the U.S. labor movement, we have an exclusive interview with the executive director of Working America, Karen Nussbaum.

Karen Nussbaum says Working America has had a lot of success in the last nine years, by listening to working families and talking to them on a one-on-one basis. She said that Working America started with the theory that union members view the world differently than many other people — they're more progressive, they vote differently, they have a different view on government. And if non-union people living in the same neighborhoods were given the same information and the same sense of empowerment that they could make a difference in government, they would think and act similarly to union members.

So they went door-to-door talking to non-union households, often an environment where Rush Limbaugh and Fox News played in the background. Working America found that in one-on-one conversations, people were sympathetic to union issues and viewpoints. And they were stunned to find that two out of three people that they got the chance to talk to agreed with them on the issues and were willing to become members. If you have the conversation about who benefits from a particular piece of legislation, people get it. They realize that much of what is being passed now won't benefit them and they become much more questioning of what they're being told and start to look for other options.

Working America has continued to organize and canvass on the local level and they've found that their approach is very effective, even around electoral campaigns. They've found that while the majority of their members are moderates on the ideological spectrum, they vote for Working America-endorsed candidates 65-70 percent of the time. Even in households where Working America members were also National Rifle Association membgers, they were more likely than not to vote for the organization's endorsed candidate.

Nussbaum said their results show the effect you can have if you simply start a conversation with people. She said that working class families, regardless of their ideological background, recognize many of the same issues that movements like Occupy Wall Street have brought attention to. They've been dying to have these conversations, but they just didn't know where to go.

The organization, which is an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, is designed to do community outreach on issues that are important to working families. Founded in 2003, Working America is focused on organizing working class voters — union members or not — so that they have a voice in the political conversation. In addition to talking to workers and recruiting them to participate in the political process, they also work on issue campaigns, particularly fighting against some of the worse-case scenarios that have recently popped up in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, Ohio, Minnesota and elsewhere. In particular, they fight against policies like "right-to-work" (for less), the loosening of child labor laws, and education cuts frequently found in conservative state budgets. They also pursue positive campaigns like attempts to increase minimum wages and pass measures to institute earned sick days at the city and county level.

Working America isn't limited to traditional labor issues, either, as they have also stood up against bad laws like a recent attempt to ban gay marriage in Minnesota. The organization listens to its members, surveying them frequently, and fights for the issues that are important to the membership. And their membership is quite diverse, with more than half of members being women, more than 20 percent being people of color, many members are under 35, and nearly half a million are unemployed. A diversity of voices in the organization give them a broader picture of the issues working families face than many other organizations see.

Nussbaum is excited about what she's seeing in the broader labor movement. She said that the recent examples of activism in places like Wisconsin and Ohio are some of the most exciting things she's seen in some time. When conservatives pushed too far, threatening to weaken or eliminate unions altogether, not only did unions respond, but the broader community did as well. She said the labor movement passed several important litmus tests of their organizational capacity. The successful petition drive to recall Scott Walker — whether he is recalled or not — was an unbelievable achievement in her opinion and the electoral success in Ohio showed that this wasn't simply about Walker and his overreach, but it's about the people rejecting an extreme right-wing agenda and fighting back against harmful policies. She said it showed that Americans hold closely to the belief that workers need to have power and a voice, which is the foundation for the existence of unions. And it showed that there is strength in numbers and that working families and their allies have numbers they can mobilize to make positive change.

The biggest challenge working families face, Nussbaum said, are the well-funded, well-organized legislative attacks across the country pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council. But she said ALEC is just the vehicle for this agenda, not the source. The real concern is the unchecked corporate power we see in every part of our lives now, seen in things like Citizens United and the growth of massive personal debt because of necessities like education, health care and housing.

Things have gotten so out of whack, she said, because there hasn't been a strong countervaling force to fight on behalf of the 99 percent. She said the only thing that can stop the steady move towards corporate control of government is the organized power of the people, particularly of workers. It is necessary to rebuild the belief in collective power in the mind of the average American and it has to be done on a one-by-one basis. People need to see concrete evidence of how their activism can change things and that the larger progressive movement needs to adapt to find more ways for people to exercise their power.

Nussbaum said its hard to guess where the corporate interests will attack next and its hard to see if they have any limits on how far they will go in attacking working families and the American way of life. We have to be vigilant everywhere and on any front, because its difficult to know where the next assault on our rights will take place or what issue it will focus on. She pointed to ALEC's pursuit of "Stand Your Ground" laws as an unlikely avenue for corporate interests to pursue, yet they did it anyway.

She said if we work hard, though, we'll be able to reverse part of what's happening in the states. Particularly now that there is total political gridlock at the national level, people need to know that they can still have an impact locally. Nussbaum said she thinks progressives and unions should go on the offensive next year, focus on positive changes and new policies that benefit working families. The goal should be to try to return to a time when all workers had basic rights — she remembers a time when minimum wage workers had sick days; now half of all private sector workers have no sick days. She said you can't run a country like this. If we continue to eviscerate working and living standards, the one percent will have to have armed guards and armored cars because the direction we're headed in isn't sustainable and people will only take so much of it before they will resort to more drastic measures. Our job, she said, is to make sure things never get that bad.

Working America is trying to increase the use of social media among its members, despite the fact that half of their members are hardly ever, or never, online. Nussbaum points out that 77 percent of their younger members are on the web all the time. The organization has to use multiple avenues to reach their members, but she notes that eventually everyone will be online, so she said they have a robust online campaign. They recently revamped their website, they have an active blog, they now recruit members directly onto iPads and they have a lot of fun with creative, and award-winning, online campaigns like Not Your ATM, the My Bad Boss competition, and the current Simple Questions campaign, which she said has gotten a huge response. The point is to find the best way to integrate people into the information stream so they can become better voters, better advocates and better activists.

Nussbaum said that people sympathetic to the causes that Working America fights for, can join the organization, which makes them an associate member of the AFL-CIO, even if their workplace isn't unionized. Working America also spends a lot of time reaching out to groups with similar values, noting, in particular, recent efforts to support the Occupy movement. She said that people really connect with the 99 percent message, even if they aren't the type to grab a sleeping bag and camp out. Working America members wrote thousands of letters in suppport of Occupy (see video above) and wrote letters to the editor of various newspapers in support of Occupy and the 99 percent.

Working closely with allies around shared concerns is really the future of the movement. It isn't enough, Nussbaum said, to just win elections, we also need to govern. And that governing needs to be done with the support of the working class. Without that support, you see a backlash against the progressive agenda. That agenda has to be as broad as possible, she said, and has to find ways to bring people together over common ground. Environmental issues, for instance, are also economic issues and people concerned about one should be working with people concerned about the other so we can advance on both fronts.

Nussbaum is hopeful. She said we've been through a lot in the history of the labor movement in the U.S., including times that were darker than the present. At one point, the American labor movement was more militant than anywhere else in the world. And if people can find their own way to exercise their power in the system, they can help check unbridled corporate power. She said that the ways that we respond to issues have to adapt to the current realities. Forms of organization are going to mature over the next decade and we'll see a much different landscape for the power of working Americans. That has to happen, she said, because the damage being done now is unsustainable.

More entries in the State of the Labor Movement series

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