“If you’re not doing one-on-ones, you're not organizing,” Paul Hambleton told participants at the opening plenary Tuesday for NYSUT's 2017 Local Action Project summer conference in Saratoga Springs.
Only through face-to-face contact can union activists and organizers fully understand the issues important to members, build a welcoming union culture, connect and relate to all members and, importantly, discover the “natural” leaders among the rank and file.
Natural leaders, Hambleton said, are crucial to the labor movement's success. “People listen to them. They have followers, they have influence.”
With anti-labor threats emanating from both legislatures and the courts, unions in every state have got to be organizing, he said.
Hambleton was a union activist in Wisconsin where, in the virtual blink of an eye, labor rights were systematically wiped off the books in 2011. If it happened there, it could happen here, he said.
Hambleton left Wisconsin to continue union work with the NEA's affiliate in Maine. After a brief retirement, he recently accepted a new job advising Gov. Paul LePage's office on education issues.
Unions have long operated as service organizations. But today’s unions must build a sense of teamwork and do things with members, not just for members, Hambleton said. To stay strong, unions must listen to their members' concerns, build a culture of belonging and create narratives from shared values.
He urged the LAP locals to focus on new educators who have much to learn about the value of unions and tend to appreciate the power of belonging to something bigger than themselves.
“Start small, but think big,” he said.
The rewards are well-documented. When adults get along at school, he said, students learn more, work is more rewarding, turnover decreases, conflict leads to creative solutions and membership numbers improve.
Above all, he said, “bring back the fun.”
Secretary-Treasurer Martin Messner and Second Vice President Paul Pecorale also told LAP participants that growing the union must be their priority going forward so they can build local capacity for future local action.
To prepare for a likely negative ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court next year on fair share and other labor rights, LAP teams are creating strategic internal organizing campaigns designed to reach each of their local members. The keys? To deeply listen to members and bond them closer to the union.