Organize, Strategize, Revitalize

Unions debate best way to revive labor’s fortunes

David Moberg

Members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) hold a rally in support of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union at the Richard J. Daley Center plaza on February 26, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
The years of denial are over. For several decades, as union membership declined as a share of the workforce, top union leaders refused to acknowledge the problem. Now, every labor leader, from AFL-CIO President John Sweeney down, agrees that rebuilding labor’s numbers will require unions to devote more resources to organizing. But the same leaders also agree that increasing membership alone isn’t enough. The central issue is how to organize to increase the power of workers.

“People are frustrated. Giant corporations are winning, workers losing, unions losing,” one union president, speaking off the record, lamented. “The question is what we do about it?”

That question has precipitated a vigorous debate that is, in itself, a sign of new union vitality. Proposals on the table include more sophisticated organizing, radical restructuring, broad political initiatives and forming new types of unions. These sometimes divergent positions often reflect the particular organizing experience, institutional history or self interest of their proponents. Although union growth has typically come in surges—linked to changes in laws, politics, the economy and popular movements—leaders realize they can’t wait for some social tidal wave to sweep them forward. They must try to generate the wave themselves.

Currently only a handful of unions organize ambitiously in any fashion. Since Sweeny’s election in 1995, the percentage of organized workers—union density—has continued to decline, though more slowly than before. With few exceptions, employers are fighting unionization as ruthlessly as ever.

The AFL-CIO has greatly increased its efforts to encourage and support organizing since Sweeney took office. But even those who want it to do more acknowledge that the federation as presently constituted is limited in what it can do. “I think the AFL-CIO should play a larger role, but I think that represents the lack of consensus on the part of unions rather than the failure of the AFL-CIO,” said Hotel and Restaurant Employee (HERE) President John Wilhelm. “Leaders of labor need to look in the mirror rather than somewhere else about the challenges we face.” Because far too few unions have reformed or significantly raised organizing spending, Sweeney can legitimately argue that “more of the same” would boost organizing.

But “more of the same” would have to include changing the way unions organize. Cornell University researcher Kate Bronfenbrenner has found that unions are more likely to win when they employ comprehensive, strategically targeted campaigns, assign adequate staff, use union member volunteer organizers and apply creative pressure from outside the workplace. Ultimately, the key is building committees of committed workers who act like a union during organizing campaigns and engage in tactics that escalate the pressure on employers as the drives progress. Only a minority of organizing campaigns use such tactics effectively, she says.

Card checks trump elections

Unions are winning slightly more than half of their representation elections conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. But, in a shift of strategy, they also are now winning most recognition as bargaining agents simply by card check (demonstrating that a majority of workers at a company or worksite have signed membership cards), by striking, and by relying on other pressure tactics, including using political clout to keep employers neutral during organizing drives.

Despite these small signs of progress, most union organizing drives still face intense employer opposition—anti-union consultants, forced attendance at anti-union meetings, threats to close plants, and firings of pro-union workers. A survey last year by Hart Research commissioned by the AFL-CIO shows that most people don’t approve of such tactics but also don’t realize what workers face. Even tough unions can’t win on a large scale without a change in public opinion and the reform of labor laws to keep employers neutral. “We need to take the right to organize and make it a civil right,” said AFSCME President Gerald McEntee.

Labor is now gearing up such a civil rights campaign. Last year a group of labor unions launched American Rights at Work, a campaign to recruit labor allies who will support the right to organize. And the AFL-CIO greatly accelerated its Voice@Work campaign, which educates and mobilizes union members to fight employer abuses. In November, U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) introduced legislation that would allow the National Labor Relations Board to certify a union as bargaining representative after a card check and would more harshly penalize employers who intimidate or fire workers during an organizing drive. The AFL-CIO mobilized tens of thousands of supporters on December 10, International Human Rights Day, to demand the unhindered right to organize, and it will organize a grassroots campaign in this election year for the card check legislation.

“If we weren’t willing to have a fight about this central question, which is a human rights question, which is a public policy question, which affects every vision, dream and goal of progressives in America, nothing else can fix [the organizing crisis],” said AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stewart Acuff. “This is the central problem. As long as it takes an extraordinary act of courage for workers to join a union, we’ll not be able to realize the dream of progressives.”

Reorganize by industry?

The stormiest organizing controversy has erupted over proposals to drastically reduce the number of unions and focus each of the new unions on a single broadly defined industry. This debate came to the fore last summer, as five unions who back industrial realignment—Service Employees (SEIU), HERE, UNITE (formerly apparel and textile), the Laborers and the Carpenters (which has left the AFL-CIO)—formed their New Unity Partnership (NUP) to cooperate on organizing.

Stephen Lerner, architect of SEIU’s hugely successful Justice for Janitors campaign, has argued widely that labor needs a new “architecture” because it not only shrunk but evolved in a way that inhibits organizing and weakens workers.

Unions historically represented a particular craft, such as carpentry or sewing clothes, and in the ’30s formed around individual mass production industries, such as auto, steel and rubber. As they faced tougher times after World War II, unions merged—often with little industrial logic (such as one group of chemical workers merging with the United Food and Commercial Workers rather than the leading chemical union).

Too many others just grew small and weak. Unions organized less, often focusing on “hot shops” of disgruntled workers or seemingly easy targets like public employees. In some cases, workers affiliated with a locally powerful union, like hospital workers in Michigan who joined the UAW. Thus, too often, unions became an unrelated hodge-podges of workers around a historic core that had become harder to organize. Many industries were also organized by a plethora of unions that typically do not work closely together. For example, six unions organize in nine major industrial sectors, from health care to construction.

Meanwhile, virtually nobody was organizing in the fastest-growing parts of the service economy, such as anti-union giants like Wal-Mart. Even the biggest unions lack the resources for tackling such behemoths or for organizing whole industries on the scale needed for very fast growth. Local unions also find it harder to organize in their backyards as they have in the past. HERE locals, for example, once faced local hotel and restaurant owners but now face powerful international corporations.

With its Justice for Janitors campaign, SEIU not only grew fast, but won union representation for the vast majority of janitors in several metropolitan markets. It was then able to use that increased density of union membership in local labor markets to win stronger contracts, even in a weak economy, and to wield power to help organize more effectively elsewhere. Unions would organize faster and be more powerful, Lerner argues, if they merged and realigned to focus on perhaps 15 distinct industries, such as durable manufacturing, retail trade or finance. This is the pattern that labor movements have developed in most industrial countries. Although it likely contributes to their strength, consolidation in some countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, has generated controversy without yet producing dramatic gains.

But the proposal for reorganization of unions along industry lines raises hackles from many unions, who argue that workers often identify more by occupation than industry, that geographical power is as important as industrial strength, that sometimes industries are hard to define or that corporations may be more appropriate targets than industries. Some also argue that they are organizing strategically even if in disparate industries. Even SEIU, for example, organizes in health care, building services and the public sector.

Other critics object that such restructuring would be undemocratic. “I absolutely oppose the notion of some guys getting in a room to divide up who organizes whom,” says Communications Workers (CWA) Executive Vice President Larry Cohen. He argues that the union movement should focus on the general right to organize (and collectively bargain) and then mobilize union members to help organize other workers, who can then decide what union to align with.

There are huge institutional obstacles to any realignment, including the power of individual union leaders, jobs of staff, traditional rivalries, and, to a much lesser extent, the attachments of members to a particular union. The AFL-CIO has had little success controlling competition or mergers, partly because it has limited power. Even unions most committed to building a common strategic focus invade each other’s turf. HERE, UNITE and SEIU have swapped locals (with approval by local members) in an attempt to realign industrially, but few others show any interest. Lerner thinks that further decline in the labor movement will force the issue, but an organizing renaissance also could make unions more open to restructuring.

Given the lack of consensus among unions, NUP is an attempt by a group of unions that are politically odd bedfellows to chart a new organizing course that might inspire others. Although they are not all focused on a single industry, they theoretically support the idea of industrial realignment. “At this point all it represents is a group of union leaders trying to figure out the way to organize on a bigger scale and maximize use of our collective resources,” says HERE’s Wilhelm. SEIU Vice President Tom Woodruff says NUP members agree with three principles, “We have to organize in the private sector. Unions have to devote substantial resources to organizing. And, we have to organize by building power in industries and not in a bunch of different industries.”

But many in the labor movement suspect that the group has ambitions beyond just helping each other grow. Leaked NUP notes from an early meeting included discussions about new priorities and restructuring for the AFL-CIO, including cutting or reducing many AFL-CIO functions and having union presidents appoint leaders of state and local labor federations rather than have them elected locally. That document provoked suspicions that NUP leaders may in the future challenge Sweeney and try to centralize the labor movement—or if not, possibly split from the AFL-CIO. But Wilhelm and Woodruff insist the notes were informal brainstorming, not a formal plan.

Increasing worker power

Critics, including writers responding to Lerner in the journal New Labor Forum, have lambasted NUP as a top-down, undemocratic effort to concentrate more power in the hands of top union officials. They contend that the Carpenters, for example, have reduced democracy in their reorganization, that the leaked document suggested giving power over state federations and central labor councils to international union officers and that the organizing strategies of NUP unions rely excessively on unjustified compromises with employers to win neutrality. Yet some NUP unions are internally more democratic than most, even though they have strong central leaders, and have pushed through union restructuring plans. While there are problems in using bargaining or political clout to win neutrality, including striking shortsighted deals with otherwise anti-labor politicians, these strategies—which are used by many unions—often reflect the creative exercise of union power.

Although their views vary, NUP leaders typically argue that internal democracy without union strength to fight employers is meaningless. They insist that organization itself is the first step toward the historic labor goal of democratizing work and corporations, or “industrial democracy.” “You could leave people in small local unions where everybody can decide what paper clips to buy, but that’s not industrial democracy,” Woodruff argues. “Unions have to be about industrial democracy. They have to be internally democratic as well. But unions are getting the shit kicked out of them because they don’t have industrial democracy. We are not leaving out internal democracy as we build industrial democracy. One without the other is not adequate. It’s both.”

“Workers are trampled by corporate power, can’t make a living, don’t have power to organize and get their heads chopped off, and they need the American labor movement to stand up forthrightly for them,” says UNITE President Bruce Raynor. “This time calls for strong leadership. Our problem isn’t a lack of democracy. Our problem is a lack of power.”

The caveat is that democratic empowerment of members is both a source of power for unions and one attraction for many workers, as organizers typically win over new members by telling them that they are the union and will make the decisions. It also is contradictory to argue for industrial democracy but ignore internal union democracy. Yet “democracy” does not by itself provide a strategy for organizing.

SEIU has applied some of the same principles to its internal organization that it advocates for the labor movement generally. Lerner argues that this internal restructuring of its locals, which now combine workers within a single industry in a metropolitan area into one local rather than scattering them among several mixed locals, has created “dramatically more democratic, active locals” that consequently also have more female and minority leaders. He acknowledges that there could be exceptions to his proposal for radical restructuring along industrial lines, but he says that he has heard no convincing argument for labor as a collection of general worker unions with catchall membership, as it has now evolved. In any case, Lerner argues that the critics of industrial restructuring do not have an alternative other than continuing with the inadequate present. “Traditional organizing doesn’t let you do enough fast enough, so that’s why we don’t do it any more,” he said. “How do we get bigger, faster and grow? We should do all sorts of experiments.”

Some experiments include organizing workers into unions that are not based on particular workplaces or collective bargaining agreements. CWA has projects at IBM, at GE and among computer workers. The AFL-CIO is recruiting nonunion residents of working-class neighborhoods in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Seattle for an organization called Working America, which will focus mainly on political action. Other strategists—including academics Joel Rogers and Richard Freeman and SEIU organizer Wade Rathke—have encouraged creation of even broader organizations for workers who do not have a majority for a traditional union in their workplace. Many unionists remain skeptical that such organizations can bring real power to workers. However, unions in the past have at times evolved from loose associations, for example, of teachers or public employees. Cleveland Central Labor Council Executive Secretary John Ryan already credits Working America with playing a key role in electing a pro-labor mayor last fall. As labor experiments with new organization forms, it will have to figure out which models most effectively mobilize members to exercise power.

Labor’s openness to such experiments, to debate on organizing strategy and ventures such as the New Unity Partnership are—despite the turmoil—a sign that there is a new sense of urgency about organizing. More and better traditional organizing combined with a fight for the right to organize may be the best immediate prospect, but the labor movement will have to confront serious restructuring, expand its organizational options, and reconcile internal democracy with the need for industrial democracy if it hopes to create its own new tidal wave of expansion.

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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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