Am I a Union man?
March 29, 2007 4:56 PM   Subscribe

I've been offered a job as the political director of a regional labor federation. Should I take it?

I currently work as the director of organizing at a small non-profit where I organize youth to push for school and community reform. I've been there 5 years and have a lot of respect and success at it. I am very happy with where I am now, but am always keeping a look out for new opportunities and challenges.

Today I was offered a job as the Political Director of a regional labor federation representing several unions and about 30,000 union members. The compensation package would be a good raise from my current level, and the Board of Directors (who would be my boss) seems to want to give me a lot of flexibility to shape the job into whatever I want. It seems like a great next step in my career.

All my organizing experience has been in communities, and I have no real exposure to the ins and outs of union politics. Does anyone have any experience with similar jobs? What might I encounter? What should I consider before I take the job?
posted by jlowen to Work & Money (6 answers total)
Would you ever want to work in private enterprise? Some employers would not look favourably on someone with a union background. (I've been hassled for having union jobs when I was a college student, which was ages ago.)
posted by acoutu at 5:40 PM on March 29, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks acoutu, but I could never see myself going corporate. I'm sure I've already blown any chance I had at success in that realm.
posted by jlowen at 5:59 PM on March 29, 2007

The first and most important you thing you need to know is whether you are expected to be a lobbyist (getting politicians to do things the union wants) or a field political organizer (getting members to vote the way the union wants, or to volunteer to convince other people to vote the way the union wants).

Assuming it's the latter -- field political organizer -- you have to recognize that it will be very demanding, hierarchical, and results-oriented. In your current position, it may acceptable -- even the point, really -- to get the kids excited and active, whether or not the policies sought are actually implemented. Your new job is Vince Lombardi -- winning is the only thing.

Good field managers are cynics, tyrants and opportunists. The best field managers are cynical, tyrannical opportunists who can put on a convincing -- even inspirational -- show of idealistic fervor in front of the grass roots.

One final thoughts: unions aren't social work, and they aren't church either. Unions are practical, self-interested entities which readily compromise to achieve their members' and leaders' ends. Particularly in their political activities, they will make choices in pursuing those ends which will often severely disappoint someone who thinks unions are idealism on the march.
posted by MattD at 6:19 PM on March 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks Matt - I take it the position will be a combination of both types you described, with both internal organizing and interactions with politicians.

As the VP of the federation put it today, they are looking for a person that can become the recognizable public face of unions and can move issues like living wage ordinances etc.

Also they want parades and picnics. It seems to me that they dont really know what they want and are looking for some leadership to help them figure it out. I think I can do that.

Mattd = you seem to be knowledgeable about this stuff. I'd be interested to chat more.. Maybe I'll drop you an email.
posted by jlowen at 6:34 PM on March 29, 2007

You might want to talk to some interested parties on either side before going forward with negotiations. Your experience doesn't sound commensurate with the job being offered, and in that case I always wonder if someone's not looking a guy to take a fall - a fall that, often, everyone in the know knows is coming.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:06 PM on March 29, 2007

Since you write that the job is with a regional federation, I assume this is an AFL-CIO Central Labor Council. What this job will really look like day-to-day might depend on the culture within the locals that are active in the CLC. The fact that they offered the job to an outsider and are promising flexibility suggests that your area may not have seen much aggressive organizing lately, since they did not find a natural candidate within the ranks. Unfortunately, the U.S. as a whole has not seen much organizing lately.

While the VP seems to want you to be the recognizable public face of organized labor in your area, you are better off making the workers the spokespeople. They can win public sympathy for their cause by highlighting the personal aspects of their struggles much better than you could as a staff person. This might seem obvious, but many unions don't understand this.

If it's true that you will have flexibility, I would implore you to proselytize to your colleagues (e.g. presidents, secretary-treasurers, organizing directors of the CLC's member locals, as well as the other CLC staff and officers) about the need to organize new workers into the labor movement. If you can pull this off, you'll be a hero.

MattD is correct in his characterization of many unions, but not all. Some unions are very progressive, and don't compromise when it comes to the public interest and their members' interests. Quite a few unions, on the other hand, will sell out the public for a perceived benefit for their members, or will sell out their members for the benefit of powerful individuals or some other crass goal. So don't drop your idealism altogether - this sounds like a good opportunity - but prepare for some disillusionment.

But first, get some background on what's going on in the labor movement generally. Start here:
posted by univac at 7:28 PM on March 29, 2007

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