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Labor organizer aims to tap new leaders’ potential

Randy Parraz is passionate about revitalizing the labor movement, and his ideas flow rapidly.

Among them: Spot rising leaders and teach them to unleash their talent. Meet with union members individually to build relationships. Engage your members, since a large membership roll means little if they are not involved.

It was that sort of direct message Buffalo-area labor leaders wanted to hear from Parraz, 47, who lives in Phoenix. He works as a governance, organizational and leadership development coordinator for the western region of the national AFL-CIO. He recently traveled here to speak at the Western New York Area Labor Federation’s annual awards dinner.

Parraz spearheaded a successful drive to recall Arizona’s state senate president in 2011, and led an unsuccessful effort in 2013 to force a recall election for the controversial Maricopa County sheriff, Joe Arpaio.

But the focus of Parraz’s work is labor, and training new leaders to fuel the movement. In an interview, Parraz said union leaders need to adapt to the times to be more effective, and explained why he views New York state as pivotal for labor:

Q: How would you describe the state of organized labor?

A: It varies as you go from state to state. I think that we are limited by our own imagination, by our own creativity. There are some areas where we do very well in, maybe when it comes to doing some transaction types of politics. But we need to get more transformational when it comes to community groups.

But in terms of really engaging our members, it’s not just having a meeting. It’s like, are you meeting with people one-on-one? Are you talking to people, making them feel important, making them feel they’re needed? Do you give them a pass and when they don’t want to get involved, you just say, ‘That’s OK.’ Do you accept that mediocrity from members, or do you agitate and challenge them to get involved, raise the bar and say, ‘We need you to get engaged?’

Or do you just judge them because, ‘Oh, they’re not involved, so they’re apathetic, or our members are just this way.’ Ask them: How did they get that way? They didn’t start there. Have you really done an assessment of your membership?

A lot of time we have leaders that go around, they do all these different meetings but they’re not doing the real work locally, within their own membership, to figure out what’s happening, how they move their locals into action; that’s a different type of work.

Q: What motivates members to act?

A: One-on-one meetings. There’s no shortcuts to it. You can give a fiery speech, but that doesn’t do much. People mistake communication for connection. So they’ll communicate through email, Facebook, texting, that’s all communication, posting things, versus having a connection with someone, sharing a story, showing some vulnerability.

Find out what their self interests are. It’s not important that you know why the people who are engaged are engaged. We need to know why your members aren’t engaged. I want to know why. There’s a reason.

Everyone has a story. But if you don’t do one-on-ones, they’re not going to share that in a group of 15 people. Heck, some of them might not even be coming to the meetings. It’s that missed opportunity of really creating those relationships.

Q: You work in the Southwest. How do view the labor movement in the Northeast?

A: I would say in general, whatever’s going on in the Northeast is happening in other parts, just on a different, smaller scale, because nationally about one of every seven labor members is in New York. It’s the largest labor movement in the country, which makes what they do here even more important. Because if we’re that strong here, and yet we have rollbacks in teachers’ contracts, we have rollbacks in collective bargaining, what’s it going to be like in Arizona and Colorado and these other places, where we have maybe 70,000, 80,000, 100,000 members?

I think they have a greater responsibility, some may call it a burden, but I say it’s a greater opportunity to really see what’s happening in New York is that much more important, whether it’s the western part, or the central or the eastern part, because this is where most of our members live and work.

Q: What do you see as labor’s greatest challenge?

A: I think our most untapped potential is our members. It’s wherever you go. I think the Chicago Federation of Teachers has been a recent example in the last few years. They took a membership base of 30,000 that was not that active, and not that engaged. And in a matter of a six-month, 18-month period, transformed it.

They had an internal organizing department, starting to get teachers engaged, putting 20,000 to 30,000 teachers on the street, went on strike, and actually won a strike and kept the public on their side. … How do you bring to life that potential power? You can have a membership of 20,000 people, but if only 1 percent’s engaged, that’s not power. It’s only what’s perceived.

We have 12 million members [in the AFL-CIO]. People will talk about the negativity: from 10 years ago, we were at 16 million, now we’re down to 12 million. But then the positive thing is, we’re at 12 million. How many other organizations have 12 million? How many other organizations have a $4 billion cash flow? How many organizations have a $150 million budget?

We’ve still got something, so now let’s figure that out. How do we grow that? How do we even function with that many millions of members in a way that’s more effective? And I think that’s our challenge.

Q: What else is pressing to you?

A: The second thing would be organizing. How do we do a power analysis of any work site or any particular industry that we need to go after, and do it in a way that we can win. Does it mean we have to change certain laws? Does it mean we have to reach out to other community partners and get engaged? Does it mean we have to do more work internally so we can prepare our membership to go after those folks who are not members? Because that money has to come from somewhere.

It’s not just about maintaining what you’ve got and servicing those members. It’s about, how do we leverage those numbers and grow?

Q: How can unions cultivate new leaders?

A: It’s a skill. It’s teachable. You can teach people to be leaders. The two basic elements to being a leader is one, that you have a following, and two, you can deliver your following, which means you cannot only speak but deliver people to different things, you can move people into action. You don’t need a college degree for that.

What we’re trying to do basically is break it down to fundamentals, teach people that you don’t need a position and title to be a leader. It’s a skill your learn, so it’s about connections, it’s about your relationships. Because the more you do these one-on-ones, the more you engage, you start to become an expert on the people around you.

You start understanding the politics and the power and you can start to move things. And leadership is basically the ability to mobilize resources to get things done. Leadership’s an action, it’s an activity, it’s not a position.

We have a lot of people who are good activists, but they’re not good leaders. … We have a lot of activists that show up, they’re great people. They’re sometimes the most articulate, but if you look behind them, they have no one behind them, there’s no army.

And sometimes the leader at a work site is not the shop steward, it’s the one everyone’s following to the mailroom, to the lunchroom, this is the cool person, this is the person people listen to. That’s who you have to develop.

Public speaking, another big thing people have a big fear of, that can be taught. … We’ve lifted up all sorts of people who didn’t seem themselves having great talent.