By Kevin Gundlach, SCFL President – What took you so long? We’ve been waiting.” It’s what more than one community member, living in the Madison Southdale neighborhood asked me while we were canvassing. Although I was there to collect signatures, I knew the comment meant so much more than an election.
Months later, that question and comment was being answered in the upstairs hall of the Madison Labor Temple. Over 70 exuberant people representing public and private sector unions and community organizations showed up to be a part of something new and exciting. They were there for a first- time program that had two names: at first, it was called the “Community Outreach Program” and within days, it became known as “Doors Less Knocked.”
Although the “Doors Less Knocked” name connotes an electoral purpose and arose out of the immediate need and desire to reach eligible voters from diverse neighborhoods via canvassing, the “community outreach program” was about building a coalition with neighborhoods and communities, which would not only transcend the electoral process, but actually strengthen it.
A little bit of explanatory history: for years now, residents from diverse areas have rarely been talked to by labor unions during election cycles. There were multiple reasons given for this. The most compelling reason is that labor ran member-to-member campaigns, which legally restricted communications to only union households. We Are Wisconsin changed all of that by conducting outreach to the community at large, and the AFL-CIO might just follow their lead. If so, we will be able to conduct electoral outreach to not only union households, but all workers and community members. Either way, it’s time to build on what we have.
Another reason for the lack of outreach: certain populations, such as those living in apartments, were considered either unreliable, sporadic voters or just the opposite–“low-hanging fruit” who did not need to be reminded. Of course, we know if you never conduct outreach to a community, then it reinforces the fact they are less likely to get involved. Fortunately, we had dedicated volunteers, so we were able to do what should have been done a long time ago, without compromising the traditional program.
There was also a perception by some that locked apartments were too difficult to gain access to and wasted valuable time, especially when in the past, volunteers were not as numerous. As many of us know, a locked door was not able to keep us out of the Capitol building. It sure was not going to keep us from having conversations with our neighbors in Allied, Darbo, Northport, Bayview, Southdale, Lakepoint and elsewhere.
Finally, Madison and Dane County were producing decent results in terms of “voter turnout” and winning enough local elections for school board, city council and county board. To many, there was no apparent urgency to expend the energy, utilize valuable volunteer time or spend the resources in districts deemed to be unreliable. Oh, how things have changed.
Even so, there were legal restrictions on what labor could do in the past: labor was responsible for conducting outreach to labor. Although this strategy has its merits and was effective in the past, it still contributed to a natural disconnect with potential community allies.
A disconnect in one context can be an indicator of a greater dilemma to come. We all know we are certainly facing a greater dilemma.
To address the issues we face, SCFL is initiating a multi-prong approach, from supporting a statewide solidarity strike support network to being a partner with the UW-School for Workers’ very first Labor Leaders Forum. Labor education, workplace actions, community empowerment, a more effective electoral process and communications are imperative to rebuilding the labor movement. SCFL will continue to take an active role in these and other objectives.
One of the critical, fundamental steps we must take is to build new coalitions, lay down a foundation and have a concrete plan in place. “Community First,” the tentative name for our new coalition, is in its infant stages. We are building on the accomplishments of the “Doors Less Knocked” program. Teams of social workers, teachers, trades and plenty of others have developed relationships with neighborhoods throughout the Madison area.
In just our first informal meeting, held the night before the election, an outpouring of creative ideas sprouted forth. One of the first things we’ve done was to meet with and invite neighborhood leaders into the labor coalition, find out what concerns the community has, create ownership within the community, and then build ownership towards making change through an issue-oriented campaign. We will continue to meet with pastors and preachers in the neighborhoods, especially those from the African-American Churches association, Madison Urban Ministry, and the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice. We will reach out to organizations representing Latino, Hmong, African and Tibetan populations, to name just a few.
Any issue-oriented campaign must have buy-in and therefore ownership by the people living in our affected communities. Like the living wage campaign, which was won years ago via a labor-community coalition, our issue-oriented campaign, which will go beyond the November presidential election, must also be attainable. Whether it’s affordable housing, public safety, bringing in a decent grocery store, hosting a job fair, promoting quality jobs, creating community gardens or advocating for TIF projects, the community must have primary ownership and be in control. A victory will go a long way in building trust and strengthening the coalition. At the same time as a specific issue-oriented campaign, an early voter registration program could be implemented on a permanent basis–again, owned and run by community leaders. Labor also has the capacity to be a partner in more specific ways, by producing multi-lingual educational literature, recruiting translators and interpreters from our own ranks and mapping out neighborhoods.
When community organizations, neighborhoods and labor unions come together, we can and will move policies forward and we can and will empower ourselves collectively. A perspective from poor and working people within diverse neighborhoods is paramount to ensuring all voices will be heard, and that concrete results occur. By working together, we will be bringing low and moderate-income people together, thereby creating new organizing opportunities for community members and labor, increased civic engagement, education for the public at large, and improve the livelihoods of our friends and families.
The people are ready. It was heard loud and clear at the Get Out The Vote Concert where Jackson Browne, Tom Morello, Brother Ali, Tim McIlrath, Mike McColgan and the Solidarity Singers along with Sean Michael Dargan performed at the Labor Temple. Attendees wanted more community oriented events. The day after the election, middle-school children asked their teachers to be brought over to the Labor Temple, where SCFL gave the inquisitive and energetic bunch a tour. And a few days later, 150 high school seniors wore the blue fist Solidarity Wisconsin buttons at their graduation ceremony as a statement in support of workers rights.
The recurring theme is the same. There is hope for the future. People from all walks of life are ready for the next step. Labor is ready to take it with them.
When we first knocked on the doors, people who have been disenfranchised were excited to meet us and real conversations were the result. Many volunteers have knocked on the same doors multiple times, going back to the neighborhoods, and creating potentially long lasting relationships. It’s time to take it to the next level. We need to build on what we have before us. When we do, and we form those bonds and build that coalition, I for one, will never forget the people from Southdale who poignantly and philosophically said, “What took you so long? We’ve been waiting.”
Solidarity Sisters and Brothers of our unions and the greater community of which we are all a part. Solidarity!
By Kevin Gundlach, SCFL President
In 1970, the Australian-born Labor leader Harry Bridges stated, “The most important word in the language of the working class is Solidarity.” Forty-two years later, it still rings true now just as it did then. Union solidarity is the key to rebuilding our unions. Community solidarity is also imperative. We, as organized labor, must be a vocal element and visible part of the neighborhoods we live in. It is a time to learn, grow, rebuild, organize, and fight back. With a renewed and vigorous Solidarity movement, we will rid our State of the corruption that has tainted it for far too long, especially within the last year. Wisconsin’s uprising was a spark that brought support from unions and people throughout the world. It not only reinforced a sense of global unity, but also gave us insights into the challenges we face here in our state, and how we can and will overcome them.
In the face of a morally bankrupt governor and the ethically challenged Fitzgerald brothers, we exhibited a form of solidarity of which the world took notice. Even as powerful and cynical individuals attempted to divide us, we stood together on common ground; union worker and non-union worker, student and senior, long-time resident and recent arrival, gay and straight, urbanite and villager, small business owner and family farmer; and the list goes on. We came together as unions, and just as importantly, we came together as a community. We formed alliances, recalled and defeated two state legislators who betrayed working people, and we supported workers in Manitowoc and elsewhere who were facing economic injustices from wealthy, corporate interests. We fought back and proved there is power in the union and power in the people.
The fight-back is just beginning. It’s a struggle that has been around forever. We still face incredibly powerful forces and their political cronies who will continue to outsource our jobs, lower wages and reduce benefits for all workers. No doubt, they will try to lower our standard of living while continuing to impudently blame and attack public employees. Some will even try to charter away our public schools to private interests, thereby taking away the transparency we expect as parents and taxpayers. All this, while hoarding more for themselves, the 1%.
These elected state officials who act as if they rule within ‘Imperial Republican Rome’ are nothing new or special in the course of human events. Like many before them, their thirst for unbridled power coincides with disempowering the workers and disenfranchising the people. They may have unmatched economic and political power, but we have the virtue of justice and numbers. There was another era where a noted ‘Republican’ stated, “All that harms labor is treason to America.” Perhaps some day soon, Abraham Lincoln’s words shall ring true as well, and justice will be meted out to those who have harmed so many working families.
This is why, in the union movement, we try our best to honor the conviction that an injury to one is an injury to all; an injustice to one is an injustice to all. There is a solution. The mechanisms for justice are embedded within ourselves.
There is obviously much work to be done. Electing pro-labor candidates by being active participants in the political sphere. Having substantive conversations about issues and not just the candidates will allow real changes to occur. Spring elections do matter. School Board, County Board and City Council races are more important to working people now than ever before. We are fortunate to have the opportunity to vote for pro-worker candidates running for local, non-partisan offices. I urge you to volunteer your time and get involved.
But, participatory democracy does not end with elections. Recent history has taught us yet again that electing officials is one important piece of the pie, but it’s not the sole solution to all of our problems. While we remain undeterred and engaged within the electoral process, we must do much more regardless of election results: rebuilding what has been torn down, becoming stronger than ever before, and remaining vigilant. In the long run, and as organized labor, we must continue to reach out to all workers and form concrete bonds within our neighborhoods and communities, especially those that have been neglected and ignored. Besides electing pro-worker candidates, we must get more engaged in grassroots lobbying, taking time to communicate with those in elected office, educating them on the issues that affect workers and ultimately hold them all accountable. We must also be educating our friends, neighbors and yes, strangers on the merits of a Union.
There is much to be accomplished, and we have a long, arduous, and exciting, road ahead of us. I know, with your active participation, we will undo the harms, promote justice, and become whole again. I look forward to working with you and urge one and all to get involved: come to the rallies, volunteer for the recalls, hold our elected officials accountable, attend upcoming events, and be ready for community activist and organizing opportunities. With your collective voices and actions, we will be heard.
Thank you for your support and for all of your hard work. In Solidarity, now and forever.
“It’s a challenging time,” Gundlach said after the vote. “In the short term, we have to win back Wisconsin by electing a pro-labor governor and win back collective bargaining rights for public employees.”
In the longer term, he hopes to “organize the organized and the unorganized”—by energizing and rebuilding the local labor movement and by reaching out to community groups and those who are disenfranchised by the current system.
Gundlach is a longtime activist and has held a number of elected positions in his union, AFSCME Local 705. He also did a lot of organizing to bring people into the streets during the Wisconsin Uprising last spring.
“I believe we need an electoral strategy and direct action—as long as it works.”
During the campaign for SCFL president, Gundlach stressed the need to bring people together. One of his first tasks it to actively reach out to those who voted for his opponent.
Gundlach beat out J. Eric Cobb in an issue oriented race.
“We have a lot of challenges,” Gundlach said. “We need to approach things with ideas. This can’t stop with an election.”
The delegates also elected David Mandehr, vice president, Joan Grosse, secretary, Ann McNeary, financial secretary-treasurer, Louie Pody, sergeant- at-arms and D.J. Dixon, trustee. All officers serve two year terms.
Delegates from 59 unions cast votes representing nearly 27,000 area union members.
Long time board members Kim Genich and Anne Habel did not run for re-election. Longtime SCFL president Jim Cavanaugh is retiring and did not run for re-election.