Steve Lopes loves grass-roots organizing whether it's a teachers' union local chapter, a political campaign or a neighborhood group.
"That's what I live for. It's fun. There's a lot of frustration too," said Lopes, a Lawrence resident for eight years. "But I think it's really neat to take a bunch of people and help them solve problems."
A field representative for the Kansas-National Education Assn., Lopes hopes to increase his organizing skills at a 10-week professional trade union conference starting Jan. 13 at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
He will take part in Harvard's 50-year-old trade union program along with 30 other trade union administrators.
Lopes, who works in K-NEA's Ottawa office, says he hopes to use the new skills to continue to help teachers and school support staff form collective bargaining affiliates to K-NEA, which now has about 21,000 members.
But he also will bring his skills to the local neighborhood groups and political campaigns he has been involved with in the past few years.
LOPES, WHO organized the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods five years ago, is a former president of the Old West Lawrence Neighborhood Assn. and managed former City Commissioner Mike Rundle's unsuccessful campaign for a county commission seat in 1990.
Lopes is currently secretary for the Douglas County Democratic Central Committee and plans to be involved in local political campaigns this summer.
"There's no question that some of the skills are transferable," he said. "Organizing is organizing, whether it's teachers or neighbors."
Lopes said he's already used the skills he learned from the National Education Assn. to run a goal-setting workshop for neighborhood leaders last April.
"One of the things I have worked hard to do with the neighborhood groups is to make us pro-active rather than reactive and to set an agenda," he said. "One of the real challenges is to convert this energy that neighborhood activists have from an angry response to an incursion in their neighborhood, whether it's a trafficway or whatever, and get them to solve problems before they get out of control."
THE SCHEDULE at Harvard will be rigorous, with classes six days a week and 11 textbooks to read within a short time frame, said Lopes, who will be the first K-NEA representative to participate in the trade union program.
"I told my wife I'm going into the monastery for three months," he said.
The program is designed for mid-career union staff people and will include vice presidents of international unions, he said.
"You're expected to bring in your experience," he said. "We'll be given problem situations and deal with them in small groups to come up with solutions."
The conference also will include an industrial relations course with Harvard business students, where union leaders and future managers can share their views, he said.
ORGANIZED labor is undergoing a change across the country, said Lopes, whose father was a trade union member.
He said unions are starting to shed the corrupt image caused mostly by the Teamsters union's past links to organized crime and the high salaries of some union administrators.
New leadership in the Teamsters and a move toward democratization in that union are giving unions a better image, he said.
He predicted that with a more highly educated work force, more white collar unions will be organized in the future.
However, unions have been on the decline since former President Reagan broke up the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization in 1981 after it held a strike against the government, he said.
"I think that it's obvious that as totalitarian countries are in decline, their union movements, as models of democracy, are on the rise," he said. "And it's interesting in the United States, the most democratic country in the world, unions are on the decline."