Union Power Means More Than Market Share
Steve Lerner has laid out a provocative and insightful challenge to all of us wrestling with how to reverse labor’s devastating decline. In fact, the crisis now is even worse than he has described.
In the last year we have witnessed not only massive job loss in the most unionized sectors of our economy but also a dramatic decline in organizing activity and success for almost every union in every industry. Today unions are not even standing still-they are rapidly slipping backwards.
Worst yet, while the number of unorganized workers goes beyond 100 million, unions are trampling over each other to target an ever smaller portion of the unorganized workforce in a desperate quest for quick and easy gains.
There are a few bright spots: the UAW in auto parts, CWA in wireless, UNITE in laundries, International Federation of Professional and Technical Employees in aerospace, HERE in hotels, SEIU in building services and nursing homes, and a myriad of unions in higher education. But the overwhelming majority of unions are doing no better at organizing than they were 10 years ago, while capital has become even more sophisticated at keeping unions out.
So there is much of Steve’s paper with which I wholeheartedly agree. However, there are several areas where I believe his “three steps” fall short.
First, while jurisdiction matters and using union density is essential, the reality of the current organizing climate is more complex. It is one thing to “bargain to organize” in service sector industries where the union has access, the employer cannot threaten to move out of the country, and customers have built relationships with the workers and rely upon the service they provide.
It is quite different to organize in industries dominated by large multinationals controlled by hidden groups of powerful investors who have no commitment to product, industry, workforce, or community. These employers stop at nothing to keep their companies non-union, except when faced with the sort of comprehensive global campaign that no one union, no matter how large, can mount and win alone.
It is absolutely true that “general workers unions” diffuse and undermine labor’s greatest strength-our ability to use bargaining power and existing members to organize the unorganized, and to use organizing the unorganized to strengthen bargaining power and revitalize the membership.
Yet it is also true that for the labor movement to unite and grow, those lucky unions in jurisdictions that are more connected with community and less touched by capital mobility and foreign investment need to have the humility to recognize how much easier it is for them to keep to their jurisdictions and organize than it is for industrial unions to do the same.
They need to understand that the survival of their own unions depends on their helping unions to organize in manufacturing and in other more challenging industries.
MORE THAN LEVERAGE
Power is about more than just leverage through market share. Unions have to do the hard work of developing leadership, building solidarity and commitment, developing community and labor alliances, making a real difference in workers’ lives at work and at home, and giving new members a seat at the table and a voice in the union once the organizing drive is won.
As we have learned from the public sector, even when there is no employer opposition, if workers are going to stay union, if new organized workers are going to become active members, and if the union is going to have any power in the workplace, the hard work of grassroots organizing still must be done.
When members see unions fighting and winning on the issues that matter-stopping contracting out and excessive work hours, fighting for immigrant rights, and bargaining for part-timers-then they understand unions at their best.
Success in organizing also depends on more than just building on density that already exists. After all, it is in some of the highest-density industries in manufacturing, such as paper and rubber, where unions have had the least success at organizing, and in some of the lowest, such as health care, where they have had their greatest success. While market share helps, it only works if unions develop effective strategies to capitalize on their power.
Nor can we neglect workers who are already members, in our desperate quest to organize new workers. When unorganized workers see weak contracts or unresponsive leadership, taking the risks to organize seems much less worthwhile. But when they see unions fighting and winning on the issues that matter-stopping contracting out and excessive work hours, fighting for immigrant rights, and bargaining for part-time pay and benefits equal to full-time-then they understand unions at their best.
We also must be careful about seeing mega-unions as the panacea. In the last decade some mergers have worked to strengthen bargaining and organizing potential because unions came together as full partners at both the international and local levels. And other mergers have failed because one union came in at the expense of another, and layer upon layer of bureaucracy led to structural rigidity and membership disempowerment that restrained rather than promoted organizing.
NO UNIVERSAL REMEDIES
There are no universal remedies for this crisis. While in some sectors and industries such as hotel and wireless, bargaining for card check recognition may be the most effective strategy, in others such as nonprofit health care, an NLRB strategy might be more appropriate.
Although sticking with their primary jurisdiction may make sense for most unions, for others such as UNITE, where the garment and textile industry is literally leaving the country, it makes sense to branch out to related industries such as laundries and distribution.
Given the crisis, we can ill afford to wait for the magic formula. All of us need to join in the thoughtful and honest debate that Steve Lerner has initiated, and do the hard job of changing union structure, vision, and practice, so that we can rebuild and revitalize the labor movement.
Kate Bronfenbrenner is a labor educator at Cornell University who has done extensive research on what leads to success in organizing.
Organizing: What's Needed
Labor Notes: Summary of Lerner piece