On Halloween 2002, John Sweeney appointed Stewart Acuff as director of organizing for the AFL-CIO. Before coming to Washington, Acuff had been the AFL-CIO’s deputy regional director in the Midwest and the president of the Atlanta Central Labor Council.
Executive Board member Maura Giannini sat down with Acuff and asked him about organizing past, present and future.
Maura Giannini: How did you learn your leadership skills?
Stewart Acuff: I think the skills I learned as an organizer translate to leadership skills.
One of the most important skills you can have is to be an active listener. Good listening can help in learning how to move people, understanding their perception of their own self-interest.
You need to think like an organizer would and put the organization first, the group first.
It is important as a leader to be selfless, not thinking about yourself. Ask the question, “How do I use my position, my influence and my skill to promote the group — the workers, the fight — and not myself?”
My father was a minister, a Southern Baptist, and my mother was a teacher. I think they were models for my learning about speaking and moving individuals. You run a church something like a union. You have to organize groups, get people to do things, organize committees and activities, manage finances and inspire the members.
MG: What do you think is the greatest challenge facing unions today?
SA: The right to organize, to limit employer opposition, to restore a way for people to move in their own self-interest that is non-threatening. Unions need to move to an organizing model, to move the money and create a culture of mobilization, create a culture of activism.
MG: What advice would you give a union leader on how to be successful?
SA: You have to start with a strategy, a plan, an organized process to educate the members and the board. It is not enough to just move the money. You have to create a program with a focused strategy. You can’t win with a focus on political purposes alone.
MG: How would you make a particular union more progressive towards organizing?
SA: Build on the good and improve the negative. Figure out where you want to go and make a plan to get there. The simple answer: first, answer the question who is with you and thinks as you do? Can you get the leadership with you? If not, create a long-range plan. Look at density, juxtapose this with weakness at the bargaining table. More bargaining power needs more organizing. Find ways to move the money. Some of the things you can do along the way are change job assignments, early retirement, eliminate jobs, create other jobs, do an organizing assessment. You need to explain to members why it is necessary to organize. Create a constituency, and then figure out how. Look at market share, bargaining power, density.
MG: Do you see a need to create an organizing model in a particular situation where the union is successful in eliminating employer opposition?
SA: You need to remember that the employer is never your friend. You don’t look to change the employer by your efforts. We need to limit what they can do to interfere with a right of an employee. We are unlikely to see labor law reform. But if we could, we could define a worker’s interest by signing a card, make firing or intimidation for union-related activities criminal, give workers the right to sue with punitive damages, eliminate the employer’s right to talk about the campaign, shorten the election process from 40 days to 10, hold the election then litigate violations, hold workers harmless not the employer. Any of these things would help. Even with a card check, you need to organize workers. You need to be serious about the craft of organizing. Creating organizing rights won’t shortcut the process.
MG: What advice could you give a new union leader about how to be successful?
SA: I think that humility is underrated, the willingness to apologize, to say I don’t know and to treat others with respect and deference. To think of yourself first is not good. You need to think of the institution and trust the workers. The greatest strength a union leader has is members in motion. Unless you are willing to exercise this through strike, rally, march, petition — whatever — you can’t win for workers as individuals or use your collective strength. To represent members is an awesome responsibility and an awesome privilege. You need to respect your position and to honor your position. That which makes us most human is that which we do for the common good, that most defines humanity.
MG: You speak of mobilizing members for the fight. What is your recommendation for the leader who has mobilized his members and the results of the campaign are somewhat disappointing?
SA: You need to maximize involvement on the front end so that those involved in the struggle have a clear vision of reality and can deal with the outcome. You need to have realistic conversations with the members so that they can recognize the deal when it comes. So that they can take the best deal and know when that is. As an example, I remember one of the first contract battles I worked on in Atlanta. We fought for four or five years and finally won the election. It took two years to get the contract. It was dragging on and we realized we had to organize political heat on the employer to force him to negotiate. There was a public hearing on Labor Day and the political leaders on the panel finally got the employer to negotiate in good faith. We had the deal and the committee would not accept. My job was to get the committee to accept the deal. I told them, “Don’t let the anger and bitterness you feel towards the employer deny the victory.”
You need to define the result as a victory and make the union stronger. A lot of people are involved in contract struggles and have no way to win. Their struggles go on for years and years with no end. We can define the victory as a means to get gains on the way to bigger things. If in 1937, the UAW had held out on their strike in Flint for today’s benefits, there would be no UAW today.
Our struggle is based on hope, not anger. It is difficult to dampen expectations. We should congratulate people on what they did win. We cannot let the naysayers define the issue. We should ask ourselves, “What are the lessons we take from this victory?” What we did right here, can we do more of — solidarity, mobilizing members, challenging people? Talk to the whole room. Tell the truth. Be brutally honest and humble.
MG: How has the labor movement changed since you became a leader?
SA: The labor movement is a better movement but the conditions we operate in have deteriorated. It took us too long to realize what deindustrialization would do to labor.
But the labor movement has changed dramatically, mostly for the good. There is less corruption and more democracy. The movement is more open, more externally focused, more strategic about how to win. We have better organizing — and we are better at confronting internal issues, like racism, sexism and homophobia.