For the past five-and-a-half years, I have been the political director of a medium-sized SEIU local in a swing state—that is, a state that “swings” between electing Republicans and Democrats, on a semi-cyclical basis.

Kati Sipp North America, USA,
Capitol Hill March

Union members march on Capitol Hill. Photo by David Sachs.

When I became the political director, the majority of the political work of the union had three elements—working on statewide elections (which was largely driven by SEIU’s presidential efforts, and some coordinated work on gubernatorial campaigns); working to pass a specific piece of legislation (which would ban mandatory overtime in health care facilities); and political fundraising (which was a languishing priority for years, but had been kick-started by my predecessor).

The local has significant challenges—we are a statewide organization of about 25,000 people—with the vast majority of our membership living outside the state’s two major metropolitan areas, where two of the union’s three physical offices are located. Most of the internal organizing staff of the union work from home (or more realistically, from their cars)—and often don’t see another staff person more than once every week or two. The membership is very diverse, in geographic, racial, political, and economic terms—though the vast numbers of women in the health care sector means that the membership is about 85% female.

Implementing a cohesive political program that engages as many members as possible required a shift from being a one-issue program, that only talked about fundraising in the context of elections, to being a multi-issue program that engaged workers through their passions about what they cared about in their worksite and their community. Organizers had to wrap their brains around a new way of talking to people about “politics” in the union—to shift from a transactional method of grievance handling to an organizing conversation, identifying the issues that members were interested in (kids in schools? Safe drinking water?)—and engage workers in actions that presented some kind of solution—lobbying and earned media events centered around the state budget, or working to close corporate tax loopholes, or to stop the governor from privatizing public services.

Because the diversity of our membership means that not every member cares about the same issues, we had to build a political program that mixed some union-wide priorities (banning mandatory overtime, passing the Affordable Care Act, electing a governor who pledged to work with us on health care budgeting) with some sectoral priorities (a campaign for better nursing home oversight, staffing ratios for hospital nurses, fighting privatization in state healthcare facilities). In addition to that, some members were not motivated by worksite issues at all—but were very invested in fighting for school funding, or working to prevent domestic violence.

This change did not happen overnight—it was a multi-year process that essentially said to worker leaders—“what do you think is messed up about our state? And what are you willing to do about it?” This conversation happened in big meetings with formal presentations, like our local’s biennial Leadership Assembly; and in regional gatherings that brought together workers from different parts of the health care industry; and in one-on-one conversations that organizers held with their member leaders.

Over the course of time, we have transitioned our local into a place where worker leaders are consistently asking the question “what’s next?” They aren’t waiting for “the union” to give them a roadmap to victory, they are helping to draw the map. In places where there are skilled, fully-trained organizers, our members pull off an action once a month or so, often around issues that don’t have anything to do with the working conditions inside their shop—things like immigration reform, or fully funding the federal budget, or pressuring the state to tax fracking. Actions feature worker speakers and allies from the community—not paid union staff—and more often than not, the props, chants, and themes are generated by the members who plan and execute the events.

Because these members see that the union’s political program is about issues (and because lots of them have had frustrating visits with their own state legislators), we get many fewer calls from folks who complain that the union “only supports Republicans at election time.” Members understand that they collectively “own” the union’s political program, and that it is an important element of improving their communities—not just their worksites. We have an endorsement process that requires that candidates for office sit down with the members of our union who live in their areas, so they can hear straight from workers why our issues matter. It is always fun to watch an elected official who has refused to sponsor union-backed legislation explain to a nurse or homecare worker why he deserves their support and our collective money.

Of course, we have members of our union who are natural-born activists—those who would have gotten engaged in working for change, even if we hadn’t asked. But we absolutely have grown the reach of our movement by talking to people who had never for a second thought of themselves as someone who could do something about domestic violence, or water safety, or gun control activism—because we engaged them in conversation and told them how they could make change, if they worked for it.

– Follow @KatiSipp on twitter

– Photo by David Sachs

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Kati Sipp

Writer & organizer striving for disruption of the shareholder-only economy. Lover of robots & the @classwarkitteh. By day, @paworkfamilies director.

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