Labor’s Structure Stands in Way of Organizing

December 2002

The labor movement as it is currently constructed is incapable of increasing the size and power of unions in the United States.

Labor has 15 million members, billions of dollars in dues, hundreds of billions in pension capital, political power, and the leverage of collective bargaining. These resources offer the potential to organize millions of workers.

This is LaborNotes' summary of Three Steps to Reorganizing and Rebuilding the Labor Movement by Stephen Lerner, Director of Building Services (janitors) for the Service Employees.

The draft was written as part of internal discussion within the SEIU about organizing. We post the summary because of the important questions Lerner raises about unions' refusal to focus their organizing on building power within specific industries. Lerner argues that just "trying harder" with the same mindset will not stop labor's decline.

But, historically, union growth occurs not gradually, but in dramatic “spurts” tied to larger social movements and changes in politics and the economy. Decisions made at these moments have defined what the labor movement became for later decades.

Today we face another critical moment. Working people and unions need to ask fundamental questions about how the economy is organized and how we need to re-organize.

It is clear that:

The crisis can’t be addressed by more of the same. Union election victories in the 1990s brought us, on average, only 90,000 private sector workers per year. In the 1960s unions increased by 250,000-350,000 workers per year. The continuing decline of union density (the percentage of the total workforce, sector of the economy, industry, or labor market that is unionized) threatens the ability of unions to play a meaningful role in society. Individual unions, no matter how successful in the short run, cannot 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.

We must focus on uniting and strengthening workers-not protecting institutions or leaders.

Labor’s structure stands in the way. Labor needs to rationalize and reorganize itself, from 66 amalgamated unions with overlapping jurisdictions, into a small number of large sectoral unions with the resources and focus to grow and win.


The U.S. economy is divided into 15 sectors with over 100 million workers. Union density ranges from a high of 35% in education to a low of 2.7% in finance and insurance. Many sectors are organized by more than one union, from two in retail to six in health care to 15 each in transportation and construction.

Most unions are small compared to the number of unorganized workers in their primary jurisdiction. Unions are increasingly multi-jurisdictional, attempting to represent workers in different and unrelated industries. Union leaders have tried to gather enough members to help their institutions survive, but this hasn’t helped build power for workers.

The overwhelming majority of AFL-CIO members are concentrated in 15 of 66 unions. The 15 largest affiliates represent 10 million of a total 13 million members. The 9 largest represent eight million. Only 18 affiliates have more than 200,000 members. Forty affiliates have under 100,000. Average membership of the smallest 50 affiliates is 58,000.


When the AFL and CIO merged in 1955, 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. Yet, at the same time overall density dropped from 32% to 23%.

Unions thought they were growing stronger when in fact they were growing weaker. They forgot that labor’s strength comes from the ability to control wages by dominating their industries and labor markets.

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.

Ironically, union density and political power allowed unions to organize workers and industries unrelated to their historic jurisdictions. This allowed unions to avoid the job of expanding in their own industries in difficult organizing environments like the South. Union expansion into the public sector further masked the decline in private sector density.

Unions diluted their industrial strength by organizing haphazardly in a misguided effort to survive. Today, most unions’ organizing programs target seemingly easy workplaces or hot shops (where workers are angry and seem organizable)-even if they are outside the union’s core industry. Trying to gain members to make up for losses-a little public sector here, a little manufacturing there-these unions are becoming “general workers unions.” They become “jack of all trades and master of none,” attempting to improve conditions in many industries where they represent too few workers. “General worker unionism” allows a union to mask its decline in its core industry.

            Sectors of US Economy - Employment and Density


Number of Workers
(in millions)

Union Density

Retail Trade









Durable Manufacturing



Finance & Insurance






Non Durable Manufacturing









Wholesale Trade



Hotels and Entertainment






Communications & Utilities









A series of non-strategic mergers has provided a home and jobs for the union too small to survive, while stabilizing or increasing the membership of a larger union.

The definition of success has been perverted to equal the continuation of institutions, not building power and winning for workers.

In our state of decline it is absurd to believe that unions can win in many industries at once. It is a misuse of labor’s resources to have numerous unions attempting to organize and bargain in the same industries at the same time.


Density is important because:

High density increases a union’s ability to raise standards, if all unions in the industry or labor market are speaking with one voice. Thus workers have more reason to join unions-a real expectation of better wages and benefits.

High density decreases employer resistance. If more employers in an industry are unionized, then non-union employers have less “rational” business reasons to resist unionization, since union wages won’t make them non-competitive.

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 join the union.

Critical mass can give workers courage to organize, disrupt, and strike non-union employers until these actions make being non-union “irrational” and non-competitive.

High-density unions have more resources to dedicate to organizing.



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Yet the majority of AFL-CIO affiliates, in the private sector, are less and less focused on increasing their density (power). The fact is that the decline of many AFL-CIO affiliates is so severe that they do not have the capacity, no matter how they “change to organize,” to move toward “critical mass.”

The labor movement, depending upon decisions people make, faces two radically different futures: consolidating into 10-15 multi-jurisdictional unions, which are not focused on dominating specific industries, labor markets, or sectors, or consolidating into 10-15 industry/sector-based unions. The choice is between growth and power or managing labor’s decline into irrelevance.


Historically, unions have helped to democratize society and distribute wealth more equitably. A strong, industry-based labor movement offers workers the opportunity to gain greater control of their economic and political lives.

Considering union democracy as only a question of how a union is governed is too narrow. We need to talk more broadly about how unions can be 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% are excluded. If unions are weak, there is no democracy at the workplace. If unions don’t dominate industries, there is no power to challenge the dictatorial power of corporations. If unions don’t represent a significant percentage of the workforce, workers won’t have political power in our communities or nationally.

The AFL-CIO should, in theory, drive labor’s revival, but the AFL-CIO has no constitutional authority to compel affiliate behavior. The federation is unable to implement good ideas in the face of affiliate lack of interest and/or opposition.


By culture, history, and constitution the AFL-CIO is forced to operate by consensus. It has proved impossible even to win affiliate agreement on the simple matter of not organizing an industry where one union is already committing significant resources. If we cannot agree that unions should not interfere with other unions’ organizing efforts, how can we expect to reach agreement on how we should realign membership?

We cannot wait for consensus. A group of organizing unions needs to start acting like a labor movement and demonstrate how labor should operate.

They first must provide 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.

The next step would be to restructure the labor movement to maximize workers’ strength.

We must agree on specific strategies to double union membership over the next decade, and do so in a way that unites rather than divides the strength of everyone who works in the same industry. Organizing campaigns need to be industry-specific and market-wide. Unions need to think big and act big.

A group of organizing unions needs to take dramatic steps: