Skip to content Skip to footer

NLLI Helps Labor Leaders Meet the Moment

Article published:
Man sitting in chair addresses a group gathered at a training

The second installment of OrgUp’s leadership discussion shares eight years of lessons from the National Labor Leadership Initiative.

This is the second installment of an Organizing Upgrade discussion about leadership. The first article, Leaders Need to Build Peer Accountability, can be found here.

Labor movement leaders – and leaders in the larger social justice ecosystem of which they are a part – face a dramatically changing world. Even before the pandemic, we faced a set of intersecting crises: a crisis of inequality, a racial justice/immigrant justice crisis, a crisis of democracy, and the climate crisis. The pandemic could have been only a public health crisis, and it would have been formidable and challenging. Instead, the pandemic intensified existing problems, challenging our movement – and all working people – at every level.

For eight years, the Worker Institute at Cornell’s ILR School (in conjunction with the AFL-CIO and a number of other partners) has convened the National Labor Leadership Initiative (NLLI)– a leadership development program for the highest-level leaders in the labor movement. The program endeavors to create a space for labor leaders to explore their personal leadership skills, capacity and vision; to help leaders strategize around adapting their organizational structures and systems to demands of the moment; and to help leaders develop the relationships and make connections beyond the concerns of their specific members so they can step more powerfully into a larger movement space. These objectives were relevant when the program launched in 2013, but in a recent conversation a graduate of the program said, “It feels like the NLLI was made for this moment.” And we can’t disagree.

Program structure

We invite 25-30 leaders a year to participate in cohort. The cohort meets in three week-long retreats over nine months. To be eligible, applicants must have a national impact – either as a national elected leader, a very high-level staff person, or a local/regional leader who sits on a national executive board or has other national impact. We define the labor movement broadly, and all of our cohorts include leaders from national community-based organizing networks or worker center networks that are aligned with the labor movement’s vision of building power for working people.

Your inbox needs more left. Sign up for our newsletter.

Our participants have included elected leaders from the national AFL-CIO and state and local labor federations from New York, North Carolina, Texas, Illinois, Wisconsin, Washington and California, among others. We have brought in leaders from unions representing a diverse set of workers and organizing approaches – including members of the building trades, government employees, teachers, and retail, hospitality, transit and office workers. Participants also represent national coalition, community organizing and worker center networks like Jobs With Justice, Partnership For Working Families, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, National Guestworker Alliance and Restaurant Opportunities Center. We prioritize race, gender and immigrant diversity in our cohorts, as well as economic sector, geography and type of organization.

We use popular education techniques; our curriculum roots learning in the relationships we build in the room, and the expertise and wisdom they offer. For example, we define leadership by inviting participants to think about a time when they were at their most powerful and effective as a leader, and then to develop the characteristics of leadership and what they learned about the nature of leadership by sharing their stories, first in pairs and then with the group. The pairs conversations allow leaders to build respect for the expertise and courage in the room, and build bonds across very different types of organizations and types of leadership. In the second retreat, we introduce systems thinking and how organizational systems respond to efforts to change, and then we invite participants to apply the lessons of that analysis to their efforts to make change in their organizations. When we address community-labor partnerships as one mechanism for building movement in the third retreat, we start from participants’ own experiences with coalitions. They share when it has worked, and why. But we also create space for exploring where and when it hasn’t worked for our leaders. And from that conversation, we shift into an analysis of what makes those partnerships powerful and effective and how we can increase our skills to engage them.

The NLLI is not an academic program. We prioritize self-discovery and immediate application of lessons into the work. We also prioritize deep conversations about race, gender, immigration status, sexuality and other social identities. These conversations are threaded through all three retreats, each of which focuses on one area of leadership – personal mastery, organizational change and movement leadership.

Leadership is lonely

Having worked with over 400 movement leaders in this program, we reflect on what we have learned about labor leadership and about the critical role leadership development can play in advancing strategy – and building the skills necessary to realize it – in this rapidly changing and unpredictable context.

One thing we’ve learned is leadership is overwhelming and lonely, and few leaders arrive in their positions prepared for the volume and pace of the work. Most of the leaders that come into our program report barely having time to think. They need space to step away from the overwhelming day-to-day demands to think about the bigger picture. They can easily get disconnected from the powerful values and vision for change that propelled them into leadership. The deep connection to the daily struggles working people face – a connection that typical propels them to leadership – is attenuated by managing bureaucracy, stakeholders and external relationships.

When we introduce visioning exercises in the first week of the program, many of our leaders have powerful experiences – being reminded of their passion and what fuels them in the work, and remembering how central that is to renewing their energy. Because unions, in particular, are political organizations, many leaders have difficulty showing vulnerability or admitting what they don’t know how to do, what they don’t know, with their closest colleagues. Over and over again, going through the first week of the program, we hear leaders express exhilaration at reconnecting with their passion and relief as they learn their peers share their fears, frustrations, and challenges.

Mindfulness and sustainability

We ground our work in the concepts of pause and intentionality, which we introduce in the first week. These concepts provide space for managing conflict, preparing for courageous conversations and building relationships. Always, these skills lead back to connecting with working people and grounding strategy in their wisdom and experience.

Like many other programs, we emphasize mindfulness and reflective practices that support leaders to identify their habitual responses to conflict and difficulty, and then be more intentional about adding new tools and skills to their toolbox. Our team wondered how well mindfulness would resonate with our cohorts, but over and over again participants have attested to the value of basic practices that keep them connected to their purpose internally and create space for more intentional and strategic responses to difficulties in the work.

Pause and intentionality naturally raise issues of sustainability. When leaders move rapidly – sprinting from one task to another and from one day to the next – there is no space to pause. Emphasizing the pause invites inquiry about how to practice slowing down and valuing the whole person. These, too, are not novel ideas in the larger leadership development ecosystem, but in the labor movement we do not have a history of valuing sustainable leadership. We explore personal ecology practices and urge leaders to manage stress before it becomes debilitating burnout.

Time for change

In the second week, we invite inquiry into how unions and their sister organizations need to change to meet the moment. We ask leaders to identify a project they will implement inside their organization, knowing this will require them to navigate internal organizational structures and objections from other leaders. What has become more and more evident is that our movement organizations have evolved over time with structures, systems and processes that made sense for an earlier set of political and economic realities but are not suited to the current context of crisis.

Leaders have little support for leading organizational change absent a program like ours. Momentum drives preservation of existing structures. Our organizational change curriculum starts with diagnosis of what isn’t working, grounds the effort in systems thinking, and focuses on preparing for resistance and building stakeholder support. There are few spaces in the labor movement where leaders can candidly examine the ways their organization’s strategies and structures may impede the approaches most relevant to this moment. And leaders rarely gain the skills to analyze and change their institution as they ascend through leadership ranks.

Developing the skills to drive sustained organizational change is the primary focus of the second retreat, and this work takes on a life outside the retreat in the powerful projects our participants pursue.

Movements and institutions

In the third retreat we examine the relationships between movements and institutions, using historical analyses to frame the current moment. We trace the history of the labor movement’s relationships to movements and institutions through the lens of the UAW, which began organizing and grew out of strikes staged before strikes were even legal. Movement energy shaped the growth of an institution, and over time, the UAW’s connection to Black civil rights organizing provides an opportunity to explore how leaders have attempted to balance the demands of movement building with preserving the power of institutions.

Because our leaders are rooted in different aspects of their organizations – some are firmly institutional, others have come up through powerful movement-based work – we have a chance to navigate new movement/institution relationships in the room. These relationships give rise to new collaborations and partnerships beyond our nine-month program.

Laying bare the structures of power that have made social identities like race and gender axes of exclusion is one of the most important and powerful bodies of work we can offer labor leaders at this time. Participants in our cohorts are hungry for these conversations, because they know they don’t know what to do. They know what they are doing is insufficient.

Grounding these conversations in deep relationships helps us navigate defensiveness and reactivity as a group. We face a world in which civil rights movements and movements for liberation of marginalized identities are met with powerful white supremacist and authoritarian counter-movements.

Labor leaders first need a space to understand these movements and clarify their own personal experiences in relation to them. They need a space to practice thinking and talking about them, and to strategize how to bring these conversations into their organizations. We begin this work in the first retreat, exploring how participants understand their own identities and what power they bring. We frame this work as a question of leadership – because of our identities, we can lead some people better than others. How we develop the skills to lead across diverse groups depends on how well we understand the power dynamics that make identities important and meaningful. We emphasize learning and growth as core aspects of leadership, including being willing to learn and grow around our understanding of race, gender and other identities.

This work is carried through the second and third retreats, where we focus on building diverse organizations that can be responsive to how power is expressed by identities, and building diverse movements that have to be ready to take on all structures of oppression that affect working people.

Structures of oppression thrive when they go unnamed, unexplored, and treated as normal. By creating a learning space where we call out these structures, explore them, and think about how not-normal they are, we give union leaders an opportunity to build a shared vocabulary and language to name the undercurrents they have felt. Participants sometimes have their first experience of being able to talk frankly about race in a diverse space. Because they get to practice it first, in a room infused with love and respect, they can make mistakes, fumble with their words, speak truth. This builds courage, confidence and competence to start bringing these conversations into their organizations.

Unions that seek to represent diverse members have to address racism, sexism, homophobia, and other structures of oppression inside and outside their organizations. Without doing the internal work, we are less effective at understanding and fighting oppression in the larger society, and at building the relationships across movements required to build real power.

We have been incredibly nourished and gratified by maintaining this space for labor leaders. As we navigate the crises we face together, maintaining the institutional, political and financial power of the labor movement is essential to the larger social justice ecosystem. The labor leaders who graduate from our program, generally speaking, are all-in on this project. We can’t think of a more powerful body of work than supporting them to do it.


About the Author