Organizing: What’s Needed?

Since 1996 the leadership of the AFL-CIO, and of a few important unions, have put as many of labor’s eggs as they could in the basket of organizing the unorganized. John Sweeney says labor needs to organize a million workers a year just to tread water, and that growth is our top priority.

But the numbers are not encouraging. Most unions have not seriously moved resources into organizing. In the last decade, the most new members organized per year was around 107,000, in both 1998 and 1999 (through NLRB elections). Last year, only 68,678 new members were organized, in 2,361 elections. That compares to 2,716 elections and 66,753 new members in 1995.

What’s more, not all those new members end up with contracts-only slightly more than two-thirds win contracts within two years of voting for a union, according to Cornell University researcher Kate Bronfenbrenner.

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In a recent poll, half of non-union workers said they would jump at the chance to join a union-a higher percentage than in a long time. Why isn’t labor signing more of these folks up? Biased laws, determined anti-union employers, and fear of plant closings are part of the answer, but what are the factors that labor can more easily control?

The AFL-CIO is planning a summit on organizing early next year. As a contribution to the discussion and debate that’s needed at all levels of the labor movement, over the next few months Labor Notes will publish a series of articles and discussion pieces on different facets of organizing. The first two appear on this and the following pages.

We’re attempting a wide range of views, but for that, we need your help. If you disagree with the viewpoints expressed in this series, or if you have something to add, please write. The squeaky wheel will get the grease.