Unions and the labor movement in the United
States have continued their historic decline
in terms of membership and density, under a Democratic president and in a
booming economy. Unions have emerged from a period of economic growth and
prosperity not larger and stronger but weaker and smaller. Having missed an
incredible opportunity to grow in a time of prosperity, labor must now figure
out how to build numbers and strength in the face of economic uncertainty, a
Republican President, the war on
terrorism, budget deficits, public service cuts and the continued exporting of
union manufacturing jobs.
the Resources to Organize Millions
The unions of the United
States have huge resources: 15 million
members, billions of dollars in dues, and hundreds of billions in pension
capital, as well as political power and the leverage of collective bargaining.
These resources offer the potential and the opportunity to organize millions of
workers and rebuild the labor movement. Labor can't and won't rise to this
challenge, however, without an honest analysis of why unions continue
to fail to organize, build and exercise power.
For too long we have avoided that
honest analysis, in an unspoken agreement to avoid difficult questions that
expose disagreements in strategy and beliefs. There is little discussion or
acknowledgement that most unions lack the resources, focus or size to grow.
Even under the best of circumstances many unions cannot develop the capacity
for large scale organizing. The labor movement is "united" around
diplomatically written resolutions that attempt to satisfy everyone. The
problem is that this paper unity doesn’t make unions stronger. It weakens them
by masking fundamental problems that are at the root of our failure to
organize, grow and win.
We have not always been so
reluctant to debate the issues of how best to unite workers and increase their
strength in the workplace, their industry, their communities and the country.
The Knights of Labor died and the AFL was born. The CIO split from the AFL and
organized manufacturing. After tremendous growth of both the AFL and the CIO,
they decided to merge and create one labor federation. Unions have restructured
and reorganized themselves and their labor federations throughout their
history, as changes in the organization of the economy, corporations and work
demanded changes by unions to address the new economic and political realities.
Today working people and unions
need to ask fundamental questions about how the economy is organized, how we
are organized and how we need to reorganize. To begin with, we need to
understand the following:
- Labor's crisis is worsening: The crisis facing labor can't and
won't be addressed by doing more of the same. The continuing decline of
union density, in almost every sector of the economy, threatens the
ability of unions to play a meaningful role in society. Individual unions,
no matter how successful in the short run, can't survive in the long run
unless the labor movement as a whole starts to grow and win.
- The private sector must be organized for all workers to win:
Labor's survival will be decided by our ability to successfully organize
in the private sector. Public sector growth has masked the depth of our
decline while continued shrinkage in the private sector creates the
economic incentive and political space to slash public services and attack
the standards of public sector workers. Organizing millions of private
sector workers in the face of vicious employer opposition, at a time of
incredible corporate wealth and power, is the central challenge for the
labor movement. Failure to understand both the magnitude and importance of
this challenge destines unions to failure and growing irrelevance.
- We must focus on uniting and strengthening workers—not protecting
institutions or leaders: Labor needs a new set of principles that lead
and strengthen the labor movement based on what is best for organizing,
uniting and strengthening workers, not protecting particular institutions
or leaders. The resources put into assuring institutional survival are
diverted from the effort to build power for workers.
- Labor’s structure is a problem: Most answers to the question,
"What is to be done?" prove to be generic rhetoric about the
need for organizing and militancy, or dressed up arguments for doing more
of the same. There are two interrelated questions that must be answered:
a) How does labor best organize
and structure itself to make large scale organizing
and bargaining possible?
b) If unions were to succeed in
doubling or tripling membership, what would be different beyond having more
members? How would the labor movement operate differently and more effectively?
How would workers be stronger within their industries, in their communities,
the United States
and the world economy?
You can’t answer the first
question without answering the second. Until we have a vision of what a
successful labor movement should look like, unions are trapped in a futile effort
to reform and reshape something that is broken. The current structure of the
labor movement stands in the way of organizing workers and building increased
strength for workers at every level of the labor movement.
5. We must consolidate into large sectoral/industry
unions that have the resources and focus to unite millions of workers: A
precondition for successfully organizing and uniting millions of new workers in
unions is a consolidation, rationalization and reorganization of the labor
movement. It is a natural instinct for union leaders to diversify their union’s
membership into numerous industries where they believe there is the greatest
chance of success with the least risk. This is an attempt to gather enough
members to help their institution survive, but doesn’t help build strength for
workers or organize large numbers of workers.
Labor needs to evolve from 66
amalgamated international unions with multiple overlapping jurisdictions into a
small number of large sectoral unions with the
resources, focus, capacity and self-interest to grow and win for workers in
their sectors. These unions, in turn, need to unite in a labor federation where
they can develop strategies to organize and build power while holding each
other accountable to implementing these strategies.
Where is the labor
movement in relation to the economy? There are unending statistics that
document that the labor movement is in crisis and faces potential extinction.
Pointing to labor's density of 13.2% of the overall work force doesn't capture
the true depths or causes of labor's declining power. Today’s unions are not organized in strategic relationship to the
economy is divided into 15 sectors with over 100 million total workers. Sectors
range in size from 460,000 in mining to 19 million in retail. Union density
ranges from a high of 35% in education to a low of 2.7% in finance and
Sectors of US Economy - Employment and
Number of Workers (in millions)
Finance & Insurance
Non Durable Manufacturing
Hotels and Entertainment
Communications & Utilities
Number of Principal Unions By Sector
some unions fall into more than one category; chart includes non-AFL-CIO
The AFL-CIO has documented that
the US economy
is growing away from the labor movement, growing fastest where unions are
weakest: only one out of ten new jobs is union. Private sector unions are
losing density in the traditional unionized sectors of the economy. Labor’s
weakness is glaringly evident in the low density figures in most sectors. We
can see in those same numbers the potential for huge growth, with millions of
non-union workers in every sector but mining.
Snap shot of
- Unions represent 13.2%
of total work force.
represents 9% of the private sector.
- In 13 sectors of the
economy union density continues to decline.
The enormous and difficult task ahead for labor-
organizing tens of millions of workers—is
magnified by the fact that most unions are quite small in relation to the
numbers of non-union workers in their primary jurisdiction. There are ten
million non-union workers in manufacturing alone. Furthermore, increasingly
unions are multijurisdictional, attempting to
represent workers in different and unrelated sectors of the economy. The
overwhelming majority of union membership within the AFL-CIO is now
concentrated among 15 unions.
is consolidating into fewer unions
- In 1979, there were 108
AFL-CIO affiliates; there are now 66, with a total of 13 million members.
- 15 largest affiliates
represent 10 of 13 million total members
- 9 largest affiliates
represent 8 of 13 million total members
- Only 18 affiliates have
more than 200,000 members
- 40 AFL-CIO affiliate
have under 100,000 members
- Average membership of
the smallest 50 affiliates is 58,000
AFL-CIO Affiliates With
More Than 200,000 Members
appendix for a list of affiliate names)
Unions face a choice between two
starkly different directions. One is an accelerating trend towards
consolidation of union membership into 10 to15 multijurisdictional
amalgamated international unions, which represent the vast majority of AFL-CIO
members and are not focused on dominating specific industries, labor markets
and sectors of the economy. The other is for unions to consolidate into 10 to15
unions with each focused on specific sector(s), industries and labor markets.
Organizing in the private sector is becoming more
difficult at the same time it is becoming more important. Union density and
strength is down and employer resistance to organizing is up. As unions become
weaker and density shrinks, employers have both more "rational"
business reasons to oppose unionization (it makes them less competitive in the
market place) and a greater ability to defeat union organizing efforts.
Increasingly, unions face a catch
22. They are in the position of losing members and market share if they force
standards up for the ever-shrinking percentage of unionized employers. If, in
an attempt to protect current members and unionized employers, a union accepts
lower standards they lessen the reason for workers to want to organize, join or
support the union. Unless unions dramatically increase density in key sectors
of the economy, there will be no significant economic advantage to being a
union member or working under a union contract. If union membership brings no
real economic advantage why would workers risk their jobs to win a union at
Density—the percentage of the total workforce, sector of the economy,
industry or labor market that is unionized—is
critical to labor’s ability not just to bargain effectively but also to
organize on scale in the private sector. There are four different ways to think
about density that are useful in gauging the current strength of unions and
identifying where there are the best opportunities to increase the strength of
workers and their unions.
- Workforce Density doesn't show the fact that some sectors of
the economy may have much higher density rates. For example overall
workforce density is 13.2% while in construction it is over 20%.
- Sector Density: The percentage of unionization in each
economic sector indicates more specific areas of membership concentration.
Sectors are so broad, however, that unionization
may be low for an entire sector but significantly higher for industries
within it. For example, density in durable manufacturing is 16.4% while
density in the automobile industry is 37%.
- Industry Density: Within industries employers often compete in
geographically defined labor markets. Density may be low in an overall
industry but higher in specific labor markets. For example there is 10%
density for janitors nationally, but in the New York
City labor market the density is 90%.
- Labor Markets: Labor markets are the places where unions have
the best ability to affect density. In a concentrated and defined labor
market there is greater opportunity for unions to utilize their existing
membership base and the strength of the labor movement in the community
and politics, to support an organizing campaign.
While significant union density
is a precondition for raising standards in an industry or labor market, it is
not a guarantee. High union density only helps if all unions and locals in the
industry or labor market are working together and speaking with one voice. If
unions can’t hold each other accountable, then the decision of one union to go
it alone, and negotiate lower standards undercuts the ability to raise standards for everyone.
Increasing union density is important for three
union density increases a union's ability to raise standards: Density
directly affects the ability to negotiate and improve industry standards. The higher the percentage of an industry or labor market that is
unionized, the greater the ability to take wages out of competition and raise
union density makes organizing easier:
- Since union wages and
benefits won’t make them noncompetitive, non-union employers have less
"rational" business reasons to resist unionization if their
competitors are unionized.
- Unions have more power
and resources to dedicate to organizing when they have higher density.
- Workers have more
reasons to organize, if organizing gives them a real expectation of
- Unionized workers serve
as example for their non-unionized counterparts. A worker whose friends
all belong to a union is more likely to view unionization as the norm
rather than as an exception.
In short, limited employer resistance coupled with
workers who know unionization equals higher standards make organizing easier.
mass sets the stage for large scale private sector organizing: The
challenge for unions is to develop organizing campaigns that allow them to claw
their way to “critical mass” within key industries and labor markets. By
executing smart and strategic organizing campaigns that build from industry and
geographic bases, unions can achieve the critical mass that sets the stage for
exponential growth. The combination of density, corporate leverage, community
and political support helps neutralize employer opposition, and gives workers
the courage to use their combined strength to organize, disrupt, and strike
non-union employers until these actions make being non-union
"irrational" and noncompetitive.
It is difficult to reach
"critical mass" in a time of decline. It is even harder because the
majority of AFL-CIO affiliates, in the private sector, are less and less
focused on increasing their density (power). And it is near impossible when the
labor movement’s structure is a roadblock to increasing density. This brings us
to the seeming paradox of a labor movement that increasingly endorses
organizing but still doesn't organize.
Source: Freeman (1930-1982), BNA
Union Membership and Earnings Data Book (1983-2001)
Paradox: Everyone Agrees Unions Must Organize—But They Don't
After years of debate about the importance of
organizing, almost the entire labor movement salutes the flag of organizing.
Organizing won the debate—everybody
agrees unions need to organize. The only problem is that unions aren't
organizing. Despite the rhetoric that rings through nearly every union
convention, the labor movement, especially in the private sector, isn't
growing, isn't organizing on scale and isn't winning. In the 1990s, unions won
elections for an average of 90,000 private sector workers per year, compared to
250,000 to 350,000 private sector workers in the 1960s. Today we have more
support for organizing and less organizing.
Inspiration and Will—Necessary But Not Enough
Much of the labor movement believes that the
continued failure to organize and grow is due to unions not trying hard enough.
So enormous amounts of time and energy are spent in the effort to inspire and
educate unions into organizing. The operating assumption is that if union
members and leaders are educated to understand the nature of labor's crisis,
and inspired to believe they can win, they would have the will to make the
internal changes in their institutions that make organizing possible.
Education, inspiration and will
cannot overcome the obstacles created by the way unions and their locals are
currently organized and structured. Continuing to hide behind this rhetoric is
dangerous, because it prevents us from confronting the politically explosive
and emotional issues of the failure of most unions to organize or protect their
own industries, even while they organize in industries where they have no
density or strength.
of unions are too weak to organize and win
The fact is that the decline of many AFL-CIO
affiliates is so deep and severe that they do not have the resources or
strength to challenge powerful employers on a large scale. They don't have the
internal resources or capacity, no matter how they "change to
organize," to win enough victories or to increase density and move towards
the "critical mass" that sets the stage for real growth in a labor
market or industry. Exploring the decline in labor's power in the period since
the AFL and CIO merger helps to explain how the problem goes far deeper than a
lack of will and desire to organize.
Labor's historic decline
In 1955 when the AFL and CIO merged, labor was at
the peak of its power. Nearly a third of the workforce was organized, almost
all in the private sector. Over the next quarter-century, total membership grew
from 16 million to almost 21 million. But
at the same time, density dropped from 32% to 23%.
The roots of labor’s paradox lie in 24 years of a
growing membership and declining power (density). Unions thought they were
growing stronger when in fact they were growing weaker. The cliché that unions
chose not to organize does not withstand further scrutiny; in fact, unions
organized 350,000 private sector workers in 1968, almost four times the average
number of workers organized annually during the 1990s. But even as unions grew,
they abandoned the fundamental principle that workers’ strength comes from the
ability to control wages by dominating their industries and labor markets. We
believed we could maintain standards with our existing power, even as we lost
In the period between 1950 and
1980 many unions continued to grow because the economy expanded and their
employers grew. Some unions grew because there was relatively little employer
resistance at a time of high union density. Unions mistook corporate
acknowledgment of labor’s power, for acceptance of labor as a permanent fixture
in the economy.
Ironically, union density and
political power allowed unions to organize workers and industries unrelated to
their historic jurisdiction and base. On the surface this would seem like a
good thing. But it allowed unions to avoid the job of expanding in their
industries in difficult organizing environments like the South. Private sector
unions could grow and add members even as density began to drop in their core
jurisdictions. Union expansion into the
public sector further masked the escalating decline in private sector density.
Union density and membership have
gone through three distinct phases over the last 70 years.
- 1934-1954. Density and membership increase. From 1934 to 1954
density grew from under 12% to 33% while membership grew from 3 million to
16 million. From the period of 1947-1954, real wages for production
workers rose an average of 3.0% per year.
- 1954-1979. Density declines
and membership increases From 1954 to 1979 density went down from 33%
to 23% while membership went up 16 million to almost 21 million. During
this period real wages for production workers rose an average of 1.4% per
- 1979-2002. Density and membership decline: From 1979 to today
density has declined from 23% to 13% while membership has declined to 15
million total union members and 13 million in the AFL-CIO. Private sector
membership has declined to 9% and 9.1 million total. During this time the
income disparity between rich and poor increased dramatically: the
combined wealth of the top 1% of U.S. families is now greater than that of
the bottom 95%.
It is clear that declining
density undermines the ability of unions to organize, bargain, and win for its
members. Even increasing total union membership without increasing density in
specific sectors of the economy offers only the illusion of power. When both
density and membership decline, labor faces a massive loss of power at the very
time that hyper-competition and the global economy are driving labor standards
and union membership down throughout the world.
on in the economy and what does it mean for workers?
The U.S. and world economy continue to go through a
massive restructuring that consolidates corporate wealth and power. This plays
out domestically in two important ways. On the one hand, there are giant entities with hundreds of thousands of employees
(Walmart), whose sheer size allows them to set labor
standards in their sectors and labor markets. On the other hand huge numbers of
"small businesses" have sprung up to handle the subcontracting and
outsourcing of the larger corporations which ultimately control wages and
benefits provided by the subcontractors. The large corporations threaten union
standards and jobs, but it is hard to imagine how existing unions can organize
them. The relentless competitive pressures forced on the small companies drive
wages down and make it impossible for these subcontractors to survive as
unionized companies unless unions also organize their competitors and raise
standards throughout the industry.
In both cases—the growth of giant industry-dominant corporations and industries
marked by massive subcontracting—changes
in the economy make organizing much more difficult for workers and unions. The
size of employers, the number of workers that need to be involved and the
complexity of how subcontracted-outsourced industries work make winning harder.
While changes in the economy reinforce the need for unions that organize and
dominate sectors, industries and labor markets, unions continue to move in the
opposite direction, becoming amalgamated general workers unions.
The globalization of the world
economy threatens certain segments of the U.S. economy, especially in
manufacturing, with international competition that drives down wages and shifts
production abroad. In the long run, this can only be addressed by increasing
density and strengthening the labor movement internationally. In the short
term, the diversity and sheer size of the U.S. economy allows unions to target
segments where competition is primarily driven by domestic and local labor
markets. This is true in the service sector and niches of manufacturing that
are tied to specific geographies.
Worker Unionism and Corner Store/Small Business Unionism
Labor’s history includes numerous debates such as
those between craft unionism and industrial unionism, or social unionism and
business unionism. The response to our present decline has seen unions sliding
into General Worker Unionism and its weaker cousin Corner Store Unionism, which
has profound implications for unions’ ability to organize, win for workers and
play a real role in transforming society. This trend is playing out at both the
national level and the local level.
Craft unionists and industrial
unionists both believed that they needed to dominate their craft or industry to
have the strength to protect and improve standards for their members. Business
unionists and social unionists disagreed on issues of unions' role and mission
in society. But they both took it as given that part of unions’
"business" or "social mission" was to stop workers in the
same industries or labor markets from competing to work for the lowest wages.
In other words, a successful union of any description must build and exercise
power for all workers in an industry or craft in order to raise living
standards for its members. Today the question of standards in relation to other
workers doing similar work is dropping out of the picture, as unions dilute
their industry strength by organizing haphazardly in a misguided effort to
There has been a series of nonstrategic mergers that
has served two purposes: providing a home and jobs for the union too small to
survive, and stabilizing or increasing the membership of a larger union. These
mergers have not been based on increasing the ability of the combined union to
organize and bargain to increase their strength in their industry.
organizing is equally prevalent. Most unions’ organizing programs are based
on organizing low hanging fruit (seemingly easy targets) and exploiting hot
shops (where a group of workers are angry and seem organizable),
even if they are unrelated to the union’s core industry. Trying to gain members
to make up for losses—a little
public sector, a little health care, a few airlines, a little manufacturing—these unions are becoming general
workers unions to stabilize their membership. The price they pay is to be “jack
of all trades and master of none,” attempting to beat employers and change
conditions in a multitude of industries where they only represent a small
percentage of the workers. General Worker unionism allows a union to mask its
growing weakness in its core industry(s) by adding in members from all
Store/Small Business Unions
While some unions morph into general worker unions
at a national level, many of their locals and some smaller international unions
are turning into small business unions/corner store unions. Their primary
reason to exist is to keep on existing and to provide employment for officers
and staff. It doesn't matter what kind of workers they represent or their
ability to improve standards for these workers. Success is measured by gaining
enough members to stay even or at least slow the rate of decline. They are
different from traditional "business unions" in the sense that growth
and being a larger, more successful business isn't part of their plan.
These are miniature general
workers unions, too small to even pretend they have power. They are generalists
with a little bit of knowledge about a lot of products and no resources. They
don't control a market, they can't drive prices, they can't significantly
change conditions, and they don't have political power. They provide employment
for a small number of people (often family members), but they have no real
power or ability to change, influence, and improve conditions in society. And
if they become so small that they can't survive any longer (pay the bills) they
sell (merge) to the highest bidder.
The drift towards general worker unionism and its
weak cousin corner store unionism undermines every level of the labor movement.
It fundamentally changes the basis on which unions define their success. In a
movement of general workers unions and corner store unions, unions don't have
to organize and dominate labor markets to succeed. The definition of success has
been perverted to equal the continuation of institutions, not building power
and winning for workers.
Building a New Labor Movement
A first step in building a new labor movement
requires uniting workers and unions around a vision of what an effective labor
movement can do to transform workers’ jobs, their lives, and this country. A
vision that inspires people by asking them to imagine a country where a strong
labor movement could match the power of global corporations, where everyone has
health insurance and a living wage. A vision that captures how life in this
country would be different if workers and unions had real power in their work
place, in the 15 sectors of the economy that employ over 100 million workers,
in their communities, in their states and nationally.
The next step is figuring out the
best way to organize and structure the labor movement to maximize workers’
strength. If we could start from scratch, and weren't handcuffed by history,
tradition and protecting individual leaders’ domains, would we create a labor
movement that is structured like this one? The labor movement needs to imagine
how it could operate differently, and what it could accomplish if it structured
itself to increase the ability of workers to organize and bargain together. If you believe, in the long
run, that workers would be stronger if they were united in large unions that
dominate their sector and industry then it is critical to address the issue of
how unions organize and structure themselves now.
There are times where a confluence
of forces come together and create conditions in society that dramatically
increase the hand that workers and unions have to play that make it possible to
win on a grand scale. In these times growth comes in dramatic spurts. We don't
currently live in such a time, nor do we have the luxury of waiting for one and
What unions do before, during, and
after a spurt in growth makes an enormous difference in their ability to
maintain and increase density. The higher the density is when unions enter a
time of explosive growth, the higher it will be at the end of the spurt. It is
not surprising that countries that entered the 1930's with higher density than
the US also ended this spurt with higher density than the US and have maintained
it for over 70 years.
Because it is so hard to win
outside of a broad national and worldwide spurt of growth we have to be very
clear on what the preconditions for winning in the current environment are.
While we can't create a spurt or movement out of sheer will, we can take very
concrete steps to win strategic victories now. Winning demonstrates to workers
that by organizing unions in strategic geographies and critical parts of the
economy they can dramatically improve standards, and this gives them a reason
Smarter and Bigger
Unions have demonstrated that they can win, even
against fierce opposition—when they
organize smarter. When a union picks a target instead of letting the target
pick the union, workers are more likely to win. When unions organize off a base
of strength they are more likely to win. When a union has a sophisticated
approach to organizing based on an analysis of the targeted industry and what
kinds of leverage it will take to win, it can defeat powerful employers.
Effective organizing campaigns need to be industry driven and market-wide. By
focusing workers on changing conditions in an industry, not just fighting their
individual employer, unions start to create the conditions that allow unions to
win. No matter how smart we are, small campaigns add up to little. Unions need
to think and act bigger.
For labor to organize millions of
workers we need campaigns the size of which most workers, union leaders and
organizers haven't imagined. To imagine winning big, labor needs to
simultaneously run dozens of smart strategic campaigns in different labor
markets in key sectors of the economy where there is the potential to build to
critical mass campaigns with a comprehensive plan for each level of a campaign
- Organizers: Hundreds of full time organizers
- Union members: Thousands of active union members working as
member organizers, talking to non-union workers and pressuring partially
unionized employers to not resist unionization
- Non-union workers: Tens of thousands of non-union workers
organizing their work sites, other workers and their communities
- Allies: 100,000's of allies united to use community
mobilization and political power to support organizing and neutralize
- Money: Tens of millions of dollars to fund the campaign, and
- Pension Power: Billions in union pension power holding
corporations in which workers have investments accountable for their
To beat the most powerful
corporations in the history of modern civilization requires huge resources and
can't be done by small unions without resources or big unions with small
campaigns. Union members, non-union workers and allies won't rally to these
campaigns unless unions can articulate a vision and plan that has a real chance
of winning, because there is a strategy that makes sense. Campaigns designed to
move towards critical mass require:
- Resources: Size and Scale
To organize whole
industries/sectors/labor markets requires a massive multiyear investment of
human, institutional and monetary resources. Unless unions can amass and focus
these resources they can't and won't win. The best plans and strategies can't
be developed and implemented unless resources are available that mirror the
size of the mission. To win big, unions need to think big, be big, and back up
a big vision with big resources. Investing resources in campaigns of huge size
and scale is a critical ingredient in strengthening the power of workers during
a time of historic decline.
- Industry/labor markets matter: There are fascinating and
complicated stories each time workers and their unions have succeeded in
breaking open a new industry. For each winning campaign there are
different factors that led to success. But there is a simple and common
sense thread that ties together great historic industry organizing
When carpenters organized, when
garment workers organized, when auto and steel organized, they focused all
their resources and future on winning their industry. There was only one definition
of success—organizing the targeted
industry. Industry breakthroughs haven't resulted from a union dabbling part
time in organizing an industry.
- Movement Building: Where Geography and Industry Meet:
Industry-wide campaigns may be driven by a national strategy, but they
need to be implemented on the ground through focused geographic activity.
In some sectors of the economy, labor markets (the group of employers
competing with each other) are national and international, e.g.
manufacturing. In others, labor markets are regional, e.g. construction,
retail. No matter how the competitive labor market is organized, to build
excitement and energy among workers, and to mobilize community support,
there needs to be geographic concentration.
Strong local unions committed to
organizing and structured along industry lines are essential. Uniting and
winning the support of other unions and allies is critical. Workers are
organized, and movements built at work sites and the communities where workers
live. Campaigns that focus just on geography and ignore industry won’t be able
to effect economics and fall into the trap gaining numbers and not power. And
ultimately workers can't build power and win if they don't see the union as the
primary vehicle to change their lives at the workplace, in their communities
and in the country.
- Worker mobilization, organizing and democracy: A historic role
of unions has been to democratize society and distribute wealth more
equitably. For workers this means gaining a strong voice and increased
control over both their work life and the life of their communities and
country. The decline of labor’s strength undermines real democracy at
every level. Imagine if:
the labor movement had 30 or 40 million members,
instead of 15 million
Private sector density was 30% and growing
Union membership was distributed more evenly in
the country and was expanding into non-union areas like the south, and unions
were increasing density in currently non-union sectors of the economy.
A strong and vibrant
industry-based labor movement offers the opportunity for workers to gain
greater control of their lives in three interrelated areas:
place: the place workers spend most of their waking hours
The group of competing employers that control labor standards and jobs.
and community life: The place workers live and the various levels of
government that play a critical role both in controlling employer behavior and
winning economic and social justice in the country.
It is too narrow to limit the
discussion about union democracy only
to the question of internal union
governance. If we are truly committed to meaningful democracy we need to talk
more broadly about how unions are strong enough locally and nationally to win
economic justice and democracy for workers. If only 10% of workers in an
industry are unionized it is impossible to have real union democracy because
90% of the workers are excluded. If unions are weak there is no democracy at
the work site. If unions don't dominate industries, there is no power to
challenge the dictatorial power of corporations. If unions don't represent a
significant percent of the workforce workers won't have political power in our
communities or nationally.
Union democracy, real power and
democratic rights for workers in society are all intertwined in a struggle to
build power for workers at every level of work, the country and the global
economy. It is through direct relationships with unions at the work-site that
workers live and experience the ways that collective power can make a
difference in how they are treated. It is through raising standards in an
industry that workers learn that by uniting with workers employed by other
companies they gain greater power. And it is through uniting with allies in our
communities and nationally that workers can improve their communities, elect
and influence political leaders.
matter: Many times unions have
grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory. Big, smart, strategic campaigns
with massive worker support can be lost by leaders who lack the courage
and vision to support them. In the end, leadership does matter. Good
leadership alone isn't enough to win, but lack of leadership can sabotage
and destroy the best organizing campaigns and unions.
In theory it is the AFL-CIO that should lead and drive labor’s revival. Yet, the AFL-CIO has little power to compel
affiliate behavior and therefore to reorganize the labor movement.
The Federation shall be composed of …
national and international unions that are
affiliated with, but are not subordinate to, or subject to the general
direction and control of, the Federation …
Article III, Section 1; italics mine)
The AFL-CIO isn't
the problem-but it isn't the solution either.
In frustration and anger it is natural to want an enemy, someone
to blame for all of labor's problems. For many it has become the AFL-CIO. It is
easier to blame the AFL-CIO than take responsibility for problems or weaknesses
of our own unions. The problem isn't a shortage of good ideas at the Federation
level, it is the inability to implement these good ideas in the face of
affiliate disinterest and/or opposition.
It is the AFL-CIO that should
resolve jurisdiction problems, encourage rational mergers, focus on industries,
geographic concentration etc. It can
kick affiliates out, affiliates can quit; but by culture, history and
constitution the AFL-CIO is forced to operate by consensus. No matter how great
and inspiring the leaders, they are forced into a constant balancing act to try
to keep affiliates happy. At a time when we need dramatic and fundamental
change it has proved impossible to even get agreement on something as simple as
strategic registrations of organizing targets, where unions would agree not to
organize an industry where one union or group of unions are committing
significant resources. If we can’t agree that unions shouldn’t interfere with
other unions’ organizing efforts, how can we expect to reach agreement on how
we should realign membership?
The AFL-CIO has a series of
affiliate bodies at the national and local level designed to coordinate the
activities of its affiliates. Trade departments, constitutional committees,
state and local labor councils are all hamstrung by the same problem. They have
no authority to hold anyone accountable. Unions negotiate agency shop and
require workers to pay dues, but we have organized the AFL-CIO on the
principles of the Right to Work Committee. In the name of autonomy, affiliates
are allowed to refuse to be held accountable for the impact of their actions or
inaction on the conditions and standards for workers.
everybody “in” and remaining “unified” naturally pulls everything to the status
quo and against change. The job of trying to win consensus among 66 affiliate
unions at a national level is near impossible. This is magnified at each level
of the labor movement since most unions have multiple “autonomous” locals in
each city and state. The abandonment of industry focus and jurisdiction has led
many unions to view attempts at rationalizing organizing through a prism of how
such actions will limit their ability to survive.
AFL-CIO is a creature of its affiliates. It isn’t the AFL-CIO’s fault that
unions aren’t organizing. It can only act with the support of its affiliates.
As unions devolve into general workers unions and shrink into small businesses,
the AFL-CIO has less and less ability to unite and lead the labor movement
around a program of organizing and change.
The AFL-CIO voted at its February
2003 Council meting to establish an advisory committee that will meet monthly,
made up of the presidents of the ten largest affiliates, the three officers of
the AFL-CIO and the presidents of seven additional affiliates. The
establishment of the committee is a de facto acknowledgement of two important
facts: the increasing concentration of union membership in a handful of unions
and the reality that labor’s crisis deepens every day.
The committee is advisory and has
no constitutional authority. It offers a forum for a core of the largest and
most active affiliates to start work together to redefine and focus the mission
of the AFL-CIO and the labor movement. The committee also could be a smaller
version of the executive council where each union dedicates itself to
protecting their union’s ability to affiliate and organize any group of workers
without regard to building real power for workers in a misguided effort to slow
their own decline. Or it could rise to the challenge of the crisis workers face
by voluntarily establishing goals, principles and rules that would guide the
entire labor movement’s behavior.
What is to be done?
Some argue that we must continue to try to reform
the entire AFL-CIO and all of its affiliates. Others argue for focusing on
working together on a local level or for leaving the AFL-CIO (as the Carpenters
union did) and going it alone. There is a middle ground that avoids the
distraction and conflict of attempting to operate outside of the AFL-CIO
without being trapped and slowed down by it.
The starting point is to get
started and not wait for consensus from the entire labor movement. When we
organize a group of non-union workers we tell them the first step to winning a
union is to start working together and acting like a union. A group of
organizing unions need to start acting like a labor movement by adopting,
enacting and embracing a set of principles that guide their actions in the
short run and demonstrate how the labor movement should operate in the long
run. The newly created advisory committee of the AFL-CIO offers an opportunity
to do this.
Labor needs a concrete action plan
that stands in stark contrast to the romanticizing of the 1950’s by the right,
the numbing consensus-building of the center and the generic rhetoric of the left.
Labor needs to realign, start merging, consolidating, and exchanging members.
This needs to be done at a national, state and local level.
In developing a new road map for
labor there is a simple test—how
should unions structure and organize themselves to best unite and build
strength for workers? It is clear that it weakens construction workers to have
15 construction unions. Manufacturing workers would be stronger if they had
one, two or three unions in manufacturing instead of 14. Transportation workers
would be stronger if they didn't have 15 different unions in their sector.
Public sector workers and health care workers would all be stronger if their
strength wasn't divided between dozens of unions. Workers in currently
unorganized jurisdictions will be stronger if one union dedicates itself to
organizing them then if multiple unions dabble in organizing them. Instead of
trying to convince unions of this, we need to prove it through our actions.
- Unite labor movement around new set of principles:
At every level of the labor
movement from the Executive Council, to State Federations, to CLC's to work sites, we need to organize and unite workers
around a new set of principles that should guide the entire labor movement. We
need a way to talk about what we are trying to accomplish that unites workers
and builds support for the idea of a new labor movement. One way is to talk
about the need for:
united movement. We must operate as one united movement of working people.
At the local, state, and national levels, we must develop joint strategies,
pool resources, strengthen worker participation and community alliances, and be
accountable to each other for carrying out the decisions we reach. We can no
longer afford to go it alone, work at cross purposes, or duplicate efforts.
century strategies and structures. We need strategies and decision-making
structures that match today's employers and their political allies. While the
powerful forces we face coordinate strategy at regional, national, and international
levels, workers often find themselves unable to respond effectively because of
weak, splintered, and underfunded structures that
were designed decades ago in a very different world.
working people to action. We need large-scale campaigns that address more
fundamental problems and project a larger vision than the small incremental
goals we typically work toward.
the number of workers who are united with us. We must agree on specific
strategies to double the number of workers united in our movement over the next
decade and to do so in a way that unites rather than divides the strength of
everyone who does the same kind of work. Imagine how different our country
would be if for every union member today another one were added, giving us
twice the strength in dealing with employers and public officials. Without
making this our top priority as one united movement, working people will
continue to be on the defensive and fall behind.
While organizing around principles
of a new labor movement we need to get started by working with unions that are
committed to organizing their industries to win power.
- Building a new labor movement within the AFL-CIO:
A group of organizing unions
within the AFL-CIO need to agree to a set of principles and binding rules that
guide their actions at the national and local level. These unions need to take
dramatic steps to demonstrate the potential of a labor movement guided by a new
set of principles. While some of these ideas are not new, the speed and success
of implementation will be greater without the burden of trying to win the
support of all unions to move ahead.
to build worker strength: Transferring and exchanging members/bargaining
units to support industry organizing and bargaining strategies. HERE, UNITE!,
The Utility Workers and SEIU have already established a process whereby
thousands of union members have had the opportunity to vote to join the union
that is best equipped to organize and build power in their industry. For
example, SEIU members at Disney World voted to join HERE, which represents the
vast majority of Disney workers. SEIU laundry worker members have voted to join
UNITE! which is conducting a national campaign to organize laundry workers.
UNITE! healthcare workers voted to be part of SEIU.
and initiating strategic mergers: A concrete proposal should be developed
that outlines how a series of strategic mergers between unions that share
common industries would strengthen workers’ ability to organize and bargain in specific
sectors of the economy and increase the strength of labor overall. This
proposal would be an outline of what a labor movement consolidated along sector
lines would look like.
together and pooling resources: There are a series of opportunities where
coordination and increased resources could help to win important victories.
a) Geographic concentration and organizing the south: Increase the
resources dedicated to organizing multiple industries in the same areas. Select
a series of states/cities to simultaneously run large scale organizing
campaigns with major political/community initiatives designed to create an
environment that supports organizing. Focusing on southern states and cities
should be at the center of this work.
b) Organizing and bargaining: Agree to common organizing and
bargaining standards where there are overlapping workforces, industries and
c) Immigration Reform and Legalization: Campaigning for legalization
helps win ongoing campaigns to organize immigrant workers, builds community
coalitions and ultimately will enfranchise millions of new citizens.
d) Launching a national campaign to punish antiworker
corporations: Unions won’t succeed unless corporations can be forced not to
interfere when workers try to organize. There needs to be a campaign that puts
the spotlight on a number of prominent companies with anti-worker practices
ranging from interfering with workers’ right to choose a union, to their
policies that impoverish workers. The goal is not just to embarrass them but
also to demonstrate that unions can punish them, cost them money and that it is
bad for business to interfere with workers who are trying to win better lives.
At every opportunity leaders of unions need
to be challenged to endorse this new set of principles designed to build
strength for workers. It isn’t enough to campaign inside the labor movement.
Building a new labor movement requires leading a national campaign that unites
workers and their allies.
- Lead a national campaign with an overarching moral theme. In
the 1880’s labor led a movement for the eight-hour day arguing that
winning a shorter work day was essential to having a just society. On a
local and national level, workers and their allies organized, struck and
ultimately won the eight-hour day. Labor needs a campaign that defines
what we stand for and isolates those who oppose us. A campaign that
excites and mobilizes members of unions resonates with non-union workers
and captures the imagination of the country. Leading a campaign calling
for guaranteed health insurance for everybody that works offers such an
It is too easy to convince ourselves that our
local, our union, our city, can somehow ride out the tidal wave of hypercompetition and deunionization
that is sweeping our country and the world. We don't have to imagine the
consequence of inaction; the present provides us with a window into a future of
worker powerlessness. We can imagine
such a future in the current US corporate abuse of workers and the environment
in Mexico, public sector workers’
salaries in states where private sector unions barely exist, and giant service firms that are union with high
wages in Scandinavia and non-union with poverty wages here in the US. We know what the future is if we don't act,
and we can change the future and the world if we do.
Appendix: Names of Largest AFL-CIO Affiliates
AFSCME - American Federation of
State, County & Municipal Employees
AFT - American Federation of Teachers
APWU - American Postal Workers Union
CWA - Communications Workers of America
HERE - Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International Union
IAM - International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers
IBEW - International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
IBT - International Brotherhood of Teamsters
IUOE - International Union of Operating Engineers
LIUNA - Laborers' International Union of North America
LIUNA - Laborers' International Union of North America
NALC - National Association of Letter Carriers
PACE - Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical Employees International Union
SEIU - Service Employees International Union
UA - United Association of Journeymen & Apprenticed of the Plumbing &
Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States & Canada
UAW - International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace & Agricultural
Implements Workers of America
UFCW - United Food & Commercial Workers International Union
UNITE - Union of Needletrades, Industrial &
USWA - United Steelworkers of America