The Atypically Typical World of Organized Labor

Hi, Pitt Honors community! I am checking in after one month at the North Shore AFL-CIO in Cleveland, Ohio, to share what I have learned and what the experience has meant to me thus far.

The work environment of organized labor has quickly shown itself to be like that of an average workplace in some ways, yet idiosyncratic in others. I spend the majority of my time in the North Shore office organizing spreadsheets, writing reports, sending out inquiries, attending Zoom meetings, and performing other tasks that should be familiar to anyone who has worked in a similar setting. However, the big-picture aims of our work are unique to the labor movement. Accordingly, organized labor requires the same skills as many other workplaces, but the objectives toward which they are used differ. My experience helping to arrange the North Shore’s June 9 forum with special guest Chris Smalls, lead organizer and president of the emerging Amazon Labor Union (ALU), illustrates this well. This event also turned out to be a highly gratifying experience for me personally.

In preparation for the June 9 event, my role was to help cast a wide net, consolidating our various contact lists and sending out RSVP invitations as far as possible to generate interest and to ensure that our 250-person-capacity venue was filled. The North Shore AFL-CIO network is broad and diverse, which presents difficulties as well as obvious advantages. With nearly 140 local unions affiliated, alongside various other allied groups, enthusiasm varies for buying in on the North Shore’s outreach attempts. Some unions, a minority to be clear, seem to focus entirely on their internal affairs and their members’ particular interests at the expense of broader solidarity. This is where the people skills found in many work environments come in handy. It is crucial, in order to secure their buy-in, that we communicate well with our affiliates and stress the fruits we all stand to reap by advancing the AFL-CIO’s local, state, and national priorities.

Chris Smalls in conversation with North Shore Executive Secretary Dan O’Malley, June 9 at UAW Local 1250, Brook Park, OH. I helped to organize this event in several ways.

However, what is unique about organized labor are the ends served by these efforts. Organized labor is not an industry in the formal sense, though industries are often where it finds its strength. Likewise, the AFL-CIO is not a business, but exploitative businesses are often the target of its efforts. Its ‘shareholders’ are workers and unions, to whom we deliver ‘profits’ by protecting their collective interests, often at the cost of actual profits in the corporate world. Maximizing our productivity and efficiency is in service of this goal, not of some financial bottom line. I have been pleasantly surprised by the lack of stuffy bureaucracy in the North Shore AFL-CIO. If anything, our staff is dedicated to overcoming bureaucratic hurdles when we find them elsewhere, so that we can connect better with the needs of rank-and-file union members across the Cleveland area.

The North Shore’s efforts produced terrific results at our June 9 event. Our host venue, the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 1250 in Brook Park, was filled to capacity with more than 200 workers, youth, public officials, and labor leaders of many stripes. The energy was infectious as Chris Smalls and North Shore Executive Secretary Dan O’Malley discussed the former’s experiences building the ALU, as well as key issues of the labor movement today. Afterward, they turned to the audience for a Q&A session, during which we heard incisive questions from a diverse group — a young representative from the Northeast Ohio Worker Center, a local union president, and a college-aged revolutionary socialist, to name a few. Following the event, Brian, the North Shore Campaigns Director, pridefully noted to me how much greater the age range of the crowd was than he was accustomed to at events like that, which typically skew much older. In large part, I am happy to say this was thanks to our office.

The cherry on top of the event came at its end, when I had the brief opportunity to meet Chris, whose work I have followed and admired for some time now.

I am grateful for the opportunity to meet Chris, shake his hand, and let him know how much I admire the work he and the ALU are doing.

The tedium of organizing a contact spreadsheet, the rigor of drafting a report on labor law, the uncertainty of reaching out to standoffish affiliate groups — all this is worthwhile in light of days like June 9. I do not know exactly where the final six or seven weeks of my internship will take me, but I am excited to continue honing my skills, accruing experience, and exploring the atypically typical world of organized labor.

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