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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