Does Size Matter? Strategy and Quality of Leadership Are More Important

I agree with much of Stephen Lerner’s analysis of labor’s woes and inability to organize. Yes, we need to focus on economically rational targets, to mobilize allies, to work together, to get a vision. But some of Lerner’s solutions seem doomed to make matters worse: member swapping, massive mergers, deferred democracy.

One problem is the 15 sectors on which Lerner bases his merger proposals. This list does not represent coherent industries or sectors. For example, “Communications and Utilities” is not one industry. Even Communications is not a single industry; consider the difference between TV and telecommunications. If we’re want a neat, top-down plan for sorting everyone out properly, it’s back to the drawing board.

That, a neat, top-down plan, is the next problem. Who will do the sorting out? Two scenarios come to mind. One, the international unions agree to a series of swaps which re-establishes industrial and labor market coherence. Would the members have anything to say about this?

Suppose the meatpackers in Teamsters Local 556, who took control of their local with the help of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, don’t want to be in the UFCW? What if switching to the “right” union means being merged into a huge staff-run local where members have no control and contracts are inferior?

We are, of course, saved from such a bureaucratic nightmare because the international unions as currently composed and led couldn’t do this if they wanted to, as Lerner recognizes.

The second, far more likely way in which our better-focused international unions would proceed is by raiding. This would not build union power.


What about the merger side of this proposed reorganization? Union mergers accelerated in the 1980s. From 1984 through 1994 there were 46 mergers or affiliations. In all but two a smaller union affiliated with a larger one. Four unions (UFCW, SEIU, CWA, and IAM) account for almost half of the 46 mergers.

From 1995 through 2000 another 16 mergers of AFL-CIO unions occurred, with the UFCW and SEIU major players. Dozens of unrecorded absorptions of smaller unions and public employee associations also occurred.

Do size and resources really mean more power? Although unions do need resources to improve bargaining power, quantifying union power by equating it with finances and the size of the union staff reflects “service model” thinking.

Resources and bigness are not necessarily enough to beat or even hold off an aggressive employer. What that requires is the sort of mobilization, strategic thinking, and active solidarity that no merger agreement contains.

The UAW has by far the largest strike fund of any union in the U.S., but it could not beat Caterpillar in 1993-94. The absorption of the United Packinghouse Workers into what became the United Food and Commercial Workers didn’t help Local P-9 in its fight with Hormel in 1985-86. Neither did it stop the general collapse of pattern bargaining and wage levels in meatpacking.

In a similar scenario, the merger of the Allied Industrial Workers into the United Paperworkers in 1993 pulled the rug out from under the locked-out workers at A. E. Staley.

Of course, the big unions don’t lose all their strikes, and some mergers have helped unions win. The Rubber Workers’ entry into the Steelworkers enabled them to win a contract at Bridgestone/Firestone in 1995. This was because the Steelworkers had a strategy, not just because the new union was larger.


Small unions don’t lose all the time either. The United Electrical Workers, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and the United Mine Workers still have many above-average contracts. Although many factors determine success, the quality of leadership is more important than its quantity; the degree of democracy and membership participation is more important than the union bank account.

In addition, the match between company breadth and union coverage and the ability to mobilize allies as well as members may be crucial to success. The 1989 Pittston strike by the UMWA is a fine example of a small and shrinking union defeating a major conglomerate by creative tactics and mass direct action that reached far beyond the few hundred strikers.


Lerner dismisses internal union democracy as secondary to questions of power. Just how he expects to activate tens of thousands of members without their having a say in their own organizations is a mystery.

The major scholar of union mergers, Gary Chaison, argues that mergers don’t decrease membership participation or democracy. He notes that the autonomy granted many merger partners guarantees the same level of democracy they had before.

But in the overall union, member influence is diluted. Although members of the smaller partner in a merger may have the same relation to their old leaders, they cannot have the same influence on the top leaders or decision-making bodies of the larger union. It was clear that the Packinghouse Workers had lost their influence in the UFCW, for example, when UFCW President William Wynn fired Packinghouse Division leader Lewie Anderson for not having ended the Hormel strike fast enough.

Another anti-democratic factor is the local mergers that often accompany the national merger. For example, SEIU, UFCW, and the Carpenters push mergers of locals for reasons of efficiency. These geographically extensive locals-which often encompass an entire state-discourage membership participation and increase dependency on staff. Unions such as AFSCME and the Carpenters are moving more bargaining functions up to the district or regional level. Such centralization creates a more staff-driven union.

Chaison’s recent study of union mergers in five countries, including the U.S., concluded, “In each country, mergers were typically unable to resolve the fundamental problems that caused them. Mergers were adaptations to hard times, not antidotes. Neither amalgamations, absorptions, nor affiliations could reverse the spread of domestic or foreign nonunion competition or regain the union jobs lost to that competition…

“In the United States, mergers could not convince employers to halt or reverse their retreat from collective bargaining or to relax their intense opposition during organizing campaigns.”

There is a better way to reintroduce industrially focused organizing. A union might convince its members that such organizing was important and give members a place and voice in it. Suppose the UAW left the rest of the nation’s graduate students to the Teachers union, activated its own members, and took on the auto parts industry, where only 15-20% of over half a million workers are unionized. Miracles could happen.