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Learning how to be a union activist

Amid efforts to limit the power of unions nationwide, labor activists try to galvanize members and recruit new blood by holding one-day Troublemakers School sessions that are part pep rally, part instruction.

July 05, 2011|By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times
  • Veteran labor activist Paul Krehbiel teaches at the Troublemakers School event held at Pasadena City College last month. The school is part instruction, part pep rally. Organized by Labor Notes, a Detroit nonprofit funded by membership dues and course fees, as well as donations from pro-labor individuals, such events 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.
Veteran labor activist Paul Krehbiel teaches at the Troublemakers School… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

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.

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