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A Bunch of Union Organizers Explain What's Wrong with Unions

We asked the real experts about the gap between public enthusiasm for unions and the lack of actual union members.

Hamilton Nolan

A picket line in Flint, Michigan on June 25, 1998. Andrew Cutraro/ AFP via Getty Images

Here is the most fundamental quandary of unions in America: Polls show that 65% of Americans approve of unions, and half of workers say they would join a union. But only about 10% of workers are actually union members. In the yawning gap between those numbers lies the entire story of the American labor movement’s decline. 

The systematic decades-long assault on labor power by right-wing business interests is the biggest contributor to union weakness, but by itself it is not a sufficient explanation. Why is there such an enormous disparity between the number of people who want to be union members, and the number who are union members? And how do unions close that divide? There is no shortage of opinions on these questions, but we asked the one group of people who know the most and appear in the media the least: professional union organizers. 

A dozen organizers responded to our call and shared their thoughts about how unions got so deep in a hole, and how to get out. 

How did we get here?

Fear

I do not honestly believe it is possible to separate political issues’ from that gap between support and membership. Yes, stuff like Right to Work and anti-worker National Labor Relations Board appointments harm working people, but right-wing austerity, gutting of the public safety net, and lack of universal health coverage is a huge factor here as well. To me, the biggest reason people don’t join a union or organize their workplace is because their boss has too much power over their lives. When I worked on an external new organizing campaign at United Healthcare Workers West I spent a ton of time talking with workers who were terrified of losing their job if they organized or publicly supported the union because it would mean losing healthcare coverage or financial ruin for their family. A lot of people truly just feel lucky to have a job. And while in theory, yes, they would love to have a union, they are more afraid of rocking the boat. I went to work on the Bernie campaign with the purpose of trying to change that. While card check or the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would certainly make it easier to win unions and first contracts, until losing your job doesn’t mean losing your healthcare coverage and ability to cover rent, it is always going to be an uphill battle.”

— Danny Keane, organizer-representative with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 221

Service unionism

I’ve seen union-busting both hard and soft, and these employers have gotten so good at narrowing the focus of the union. Sure, people support unions in broad strokes, but when it gets down to the possibility of you forming a union, the boss is so good at either scaring people or convincing people that union dues are not a worthwhile investment.’

While right-wing forces have eagerly tried to turn unions into irrelevant third parties, unions have alienated themselves from workers as well. I think that unions have simply shifted away from empowering workers. Through an overzealous focus on contract enforcement through grievances and through some anti-democratic measures, unions have, in effect, made themselves a third party to the workers. These shifts didn’t happen overnight, and I think intentions behind them were good, just misguided.

Take grievances, for instance, which appear to be a win-win: Workers get their issues heard with legal support, and unions get to justify their increasingly bureaucratic structures by bogging themselves down in the drawn-out grievance procedure. But in the long-term, relying too much on the grievance system hurts worker power. Grievance procedures are purposefully slow and bureaucratic, and, by design, grievances are limited solely to narrow contract enforcement. They take the power out of the workers’ hands and put the decisions into the hands of lawyers and an ostensibly neutral arbitrator. They limit workers’ imaginations from dreaming of ways to improve and transform their workplaces. And they turn the union into a third-party service that tries to clean up messes for the price of biweekly dues.

Unions have also taken anti-democratic measures internally. I think that workers are largely shut out from the campaign decision making that union staffers lead. As organizers, we’re trained to follow the workers’ lead, but I see that teaching only goes so far. While I respect the perspective that trained organizers know the best practices for organizing, I believe that workers know their employers and their industries best and need to be more included in the decisions that affect organizing campaigns.”

— Daniel Luis Zager, Campaign Organizer at SEIU Healthcare-Illinois Indiana Missouri Kansas

The nature of the modern workplace

Even before the pandemic lengthened average hours worked by those still employed, working an eight-hour workday doesn’t leave much time for all else that needs to get done. Committing to weekly organizing meetings and hours of one-to-one conversations with coworkers — the backbone of any union campaign — is daunting, and for many, untenable. The workers who have the most to gain from a union at their company — those who are over-worked, underpaid, and under-valued — are also the most likely to take on second or third jobs and manage care-taking responsibilities that make it harder to engage in a sustained union campaign. And unfortunately, because of the necessary clandestine nature of organizing efforts, these meetings must take place outside of the workplace, off work time, and through tedious (yet illuminating) conversations.

Those who see issues in their workplace and would be most supportive of a union are often ones who are on their way out of a company. While there’s similarly a contingent of workers who organize because they love their company and want it to be a place they can remain employed long-term, there are always workplace leaders whose persistent grievances push them to simply find a new job instead of committing to a long campaign.

Along those same lines, the career jobs’ of the past are largely lost in the 21st century. Even those who are satisfied with their jobs and enjoy the work are encouraged to continue gaining skills elsewhere for fear they’ll lose their edge, or miss out on opportunities elsewhere. The decline in long-term commitments to employers poses challenges for union campaigns, whose core philosophies rely on workers digging into their own self interest and organizing around the kind of workplace they desire. If employees already see themselves leaving within two to five years at any given company, putting in the work it takes to build a union may not add up.

We are taught to see ourselves as mobile employees who are poised to climb the ladder in our workplace. Receiving a promotion to a management position is aspirational. And once in that management or supervisory position, employees are no longer eligible for a union. Even if a majority of workers support unions and would like to see one in their own workplace, the distance between seeing themselves as workers’ who would be part of that, and their own endeavors to promote out of the union-eligible designation, can be great.”

— Grace Reckers, northeast lead organizer, Office and Professional Employees International Union

Polarization

Over 20 years of generational change, [the old demographics of affinity for unions] has faded a lot, and attitudes to unionization break down much more clearly along conventional right to left lines. Younger people and nonwhite people and liberals or Democrats — especially African Americans — are the main supporters, and white, working-class people — especially older ones — have as a group slotted unions in with the rest of right-left issues. The same political polarization that exists in most other issues, basically.

Additional dynamics have been: The youngest generation in the workforce now is the most left-wing and interested in redistribution, but also has the least familiarity with any of the concepts of unions and is not necessarily strong likely union supporters.

There is an increasingly regional background to whether unions are a thing you see operate. Blue states and red states have become much more polarized on labor stuff than the simple Right to Work map indicates. Blue states like New England, the West Coast and the Northeast have become much more proactive in working with unions to unionize more people and get them some stuff, and red or purple states (especially the whole Midwest) have gotten much more hostile to that stuff.

The educational polarization we see on right to left stuff has become a huge factor in whether young, working-class people want to unionize. Industries populated with poor, younger adults who are generally overeducated like (ahem) digital media or higher education, are super ripe slam dunks where you can transform an industry with hot-shop organizing. Ones with mostly poorer, younger adults who are not educated, and are not mostly based in urban areas, like retail and supply chain logistics, have had cold workers that are not responsive enough to union drives to make winning a possibility. (Part of the equation holding them back, of course, is how that generation of big-box retail and its supply chain were built from scratch in such a way that unions could be kept out completely and any rare component that got infected could be easily shut down and dissolved. But there’s an attitudinal difference in the constituencies as well.)

A bright spot exception to this has been fast food where, despite the workforce being young and not educated and rarely staying long at particular jobs, people just hate their job and boss so much they are eager to unionize. 

What I find myself wanting to impress upon fellow labor-fan lefties is this: It is truly not just the unfair playing field, or the power of the boss’s fight to scare people, that prevents a majority of a workplace from voting to unionize. In many many workplaces, skepticism and disinterest in doing a collective fight thing is widespread, organic and real among the majority in the middle. Not among social science adjuncts, or journalists, or in large urban service job clusters where almost all the workers are poor and nonwhite. In those types of workplaces, I think any competent organizing program should be able to grow the union. But in places that reflect the educational or political diversity of the country as a whole, I think you’re working with fewer total supporters and that’s why you wind up chasing stuff like card check neutrality.”

— Jim Straub, veteran union organizer

The organizing model

The shop-by-shop model of unionizing in the United States makes it really hard to scale organizing. It saddles both union organizers and employees who want a union with a ton of strategic, legal and bureaucratic work just to organize a workplace of even five or 10 people. It’s as if any worker who wanted healthcare had to form their own insurance company before signing up. We need to build a new model — like sectoral or multi-employer bargaining — so we can organize entire industries together.

Often those most in need of unions have the least resources and bandwidth to form them. Staff working long hours in dangerous or overwhelming jobs just don’t have the bandwidth to sit on a bunch of evening Zoom calls to learn the ins and outs of determining an appropriate bargaining unit under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The only way to bridge this gap would be if unions had the resources to offer more organizing support to workplaces that need it.

A lot of workers support unions’ but think they are for other workers. White collar’ workers in particular think unions are for workers in other eras, in other industries, at other workplaces. Helping people understand that if they sell their labor then they are a part of the working class and deserve a union is often the first hurdle. More broadly, our country doesn’t teach or celebrate collective action as something people should aspire to participate in. In fact, many people internalize the idea that organizing is inconsistent with the idea of becoming a leader in their field.”

— Daniel Essrow, organizer, Nonprofit Professional Employees Union

No popular labor history

I find that there is a huge gap between people’s general support for unions and having any idea of how they really work, what it takes to start one, etc. I think there are two primary and related reasons for this. One is that labor processes are complex and arcane to most people. Elections, grievances, Weingarten rights, just cause, right to work — all of these terms are either totally foreign to or completely misunderstood by most non-union workers. I’m currently working on a campaign in a Right to Work state, and many of the workers there thought Right to Work means unions are forbidden! Others tend to think that unions are something for just factory workers and the like, even though the service industry is [a rapidly growing unionized sector]. Relatedly, I think many who supported unions in that poll might have answered differently if asked, Would forming a union improve working conditions at your job?’ I see a lot of folks who generally support unions, but don’t see their field or company as being a place to organize. 

The other is that labor history and processes aren’t part of our basic education, nor are they ever explained or even really referenced in the media. I think it’s a big issue that our history lessons don’t generally address the role of labor in increasing living standards for workers globally, nor any of the big laws (NLRA, Taft-Hartley) and what they have done. Why don’t we learn about the NLRA in high school when we study the New Deal or McCarthyism? How come we don’t learn about the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the Industrial Workers of the World, and the gains made by the working class in that era?”

— Steven Morelock, organizer, National Nurses United

Hold my jacket…

There’s always going to be a gulf between supporting something in the abstract and being willing to risk your ass to achieve it in a real way. This is a dynamic that plays out on the ground during organizing constantly, as you have plenty of people who are willing to support the union, but don’t want to actually be public about it. The analogy I use is someone offering to hold your jacket before you get into a fight. Getting workers to overcome that fear is a key part of organizing, and it maps out to the broader trend. Institutionally, the union movement has tried to narrow this divide through passing laws like the Employee Free Choice Act or the PRO Act that reduce the risk of organizing a union. I don’t think that approach is a viable or realistic option: I severely doubt Congress will pass a version of the PRO Act if by some miracle Biden wins and the Democrats have undivided control of the Congress.”

— Bryan Conlon, union organizer

Local 1199 on strike in New York City, 1958. Getty Images

How do we fix it?

Start early

Stronger visibility earlier in people’s lives. When I talk to my friends about whether or not they’re unionized, even those who are really progressive or social justice inclined, they often tell me that their wages are good enough or that they already have good benefits. They don’t realize all the things that unions can do just in terms of making your workplace more livable (grievance procedures, etc.) or how crucial unions will be in bringing about the change we want to see in the world. This means stronger alliances with the Black Lives Matter movement, the Sunrise movement, and stronger presences on universities, community colleges and trade schools. It also means striking more often or making use of other visible direct action. The more backroom deals that are cut between union presidents and management, the less visible unions are to the public, and the less workers see a role for themselves in the work of the union. Basically, we have to fight harder, fight more visibly, and fight in a way that really relies on union membership and makes people see the value and the power of their union membership.”

Joey Flegel-Mishlove, political organizer, SEIU

We’ve done it before

*Partner with worker centers to organize and build unions with folks connected to them and community organizations.

*Fight for organizing rights, i.e. the PRO Act.

*Visibly fight for legislation that helps workers not in unions — e.g. higher minimum wage, Covid relief, anti-poverty. Connect with Biden now on serious job producing industrial policy and government purchasing policy.

*Adopt best organizing practices and train to them.

*Invest in organizing. Nobody grows without investing in growth.

We grew the labor movement in 2007 and 2008 by more than in 30 years. We can organize, but it ain’t easy.”

Stewart Acuff, former AFL-CIO organizing director

Embrace social justice

In order to capture the growing pro-union sentiment in the United States and get new members, a few things need to happen: Unions need to invest resources in new organizing, unions need to take a social justice orientation to the organizing by directly supporting and connecting the union to the movements like the Movement for Black Lives, the fight to abolish ICE, the fight for a Green New Deal, and the movement for economic justice and socialism. Unions need to be open to new models of organization and organize workers in the growth areas of the economy: tech, etc. We also need comprehensive campaigns and a real investment in organizing from the AFL-CIO that meets our moment.” 

Justin Molito, organizing director, Writers Guild of America, East

Stronger union staff

What a lot of union staff who don’t grow up poor or working class — and a ton of the kids they bring in to do these jobs aren’t — don’t understand is how big of a risk it is for the people they’re organizing. When you don’t have rich, middle-class parents or a college degree to fall back on, rock bottom is a lot closer. I’ve also, unfortunately, learned through the years that a lot of the fears these members have actually play out more often than we as union reps would like to admit. One strategy for SEIU at least is to make sure your external organizers have a lot of turnover so they literally don’t know that’s the case so they just repeat whatever line they’re given to get the worker past it. It also doesn’t necessarily mean the risk isn’t worth it, obviously, but people can tell when you’re giving them a rap and they can definitely tell when you’re full of shit. A lot of these organizers are doing one or both. Ultimately the solution for me is honesty, transparency and more member involvement. The more the members and workers who are organizing — are genuinely, truly involved in the decision-making process — the less likely I think you’ll have fear winning out. If they trust the people they’re working with, then they’ll be less likely to believe the bullshit their bosses spin. In my relatively long experience, the way to build trust is through honesty, transparency and collaboration. 

We in union circles always talk about member power’ but that’s very often used by people who literally don’t understand what it means because they’ve never been a member or even worked directly with members in their lives or they understand member power but just as a tool to some loftier goal — whether that be their own power within the movement or generalized working class power. Real member power would be members working with staff (some of whom used to be members, maybe some who weren’t) in an open, transparent, honest way to keep their union strong. The teachers have done that and they’re the strongest union in the country. Service workers and other unions need to figure out how to do that too or they’ll never get past the astroturf stage. Populating the staff with people who can actually relate to working people would be a great start.”

Chris, a union rep in Chicago

Bargain for the common good

In addition to shop-floor contract enforcement, unions need to engage with workers’ broader communities in their campaigns, such as in the model known as Bargaining for the Common Good. Part of the way that unions have alienated themselves from workers is by narrowing the focus of organizing campaigns to workplace issues like wages and benefits — not being fully receptive to the issues that affect working people at home. But by engaging the community and organizing workers as whole people, unions can tap into and become part of the potentially powerful communities to which workers go home outside of their time at work. Unions can form coalitions with community organizations and make themselves available as resources for working communities beyond just members. Workers could see unions as not only vehicles to build power at work, but also resources to build power and improve their lives in their home communities. I fully believe in the model of Bargaining for the Common Good as a strategy to utilize the power of the communities that surround local unions. The boss has his money invested in places that affect every aspect of people’s lives. So why can’t unions expand their organizing to include more aspects of workers’ lives?”

Daniel Luis Zager

Focus

*Re-sort all unions to clear industrial lines so that we have a public sector union, a healthcare and longterm care union, an education union, a construction union, a retail union, a transportation union. Also, no more separate federations and free-riders: Every union is in one Federation.

*Focusing on non-offshoreable industries, every union increases its budget spend on new organizing, with a chunk of that pooled and directed to lowest hanging fruit or places we’re having most success. Possibly make a new organizing department an entity that exists across different unions.

*Focus heavily on blue states where there is low hanging fruit to pick up, and on purple states where we can flip the legislature. It is more meaningful for us to get 20,000 new members in North Carolina or Pennsylvania than New York or California.”

Jim Straub

The world breaks

How do you get people to overcome their fear and take action? One way is things get so bad that most working people have nothing left to lose. The human misery it’d generate is incalculable, but it might provoke a fundamental rupture in how things are done similar to what happened in 1934. It could also be the death knell for labor unions in their current form and nothing immediately takes their place. For obvious reasons, this is not an outcome the union movement should actively work towards, but it does need to plan for it.”

Bryan Conlon

Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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