Raiding: Fighting Over Scraps Leaves Labor Hungry

For an opposing point of view, see Malik Miah: Raiding: Workers Should Have the Right To Choose in this issue of the magazine.

The question of raiding — one union convincing members of another union to decertify and join the competitor — has been a hot-button issue once more this year in the labor movement.

In one of the largest flash points, the California Nurses Association and the Service Employees have been trading blows over an escalating series of raids conducted by both sides.

Much of this recent raiding is done in the name of building “union density,” which is narrowly described as all the union members in a profession or industry belonging to the same union, and perhaps the same union local.

My views on raiding are shaped by the experience of my own union, the United Electrical Workers (UE). When the Taft-Hartley Act was passed in 1948, corporations, the government, and their union allies conspired to destroy progressive, militant, and democratic unions, including UE.

Taft-Hartley required union officers to sign anti-communist loyalty oaths, and those who refused could not appear on ballots in NLRB-run elections.

Unions like the UAW or the newly created International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE) would demand recognition from an employer whose workers were members of UE. The employer would file a petition with the NLRB asking for an election.

The courts then would deny the UE the right to appear on the ballot and the other union would win.

In a handful of years, several hundred thousand members were raided out of UE, at one time the third largest union in the CIO. Twelve other unions were simply raided out of existence.

The only union of the progressive stripe to survive was the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. The destruction of the progressive unions has had repercussions to this day.


Union raiding adds no new members to the labor movement.

There are about 100 million unorganized workers in the United States today—plenty to go around for unions that want to organize. The problem is that it’s harder to organize new workers, for all the reasons we know. It’s much easier to raid existing unions.

In Connecticut, UE represents a group of workers in the public sector. They formerly were members of an independent union that was made up of bargaining units that had left various other unions. In some cases, the independent union raided other public sector unions—and was raided in turn.

Raiding was an accepted way of life in the Connecticut public sector in the last two decades. Although many unions didn’t like it, they justified their raiding on account of other unions’ raiding. It was a vicious cycle.



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At the end of a contract, during the “open period” (when unions can switch affiliation), many locals would hold open houses, inviting various unions to come speak to members. These sessions invariably turned into bazaars where the different unions made promises about how they could get workers better wages and benefits.

Workers would shop around for the union that would charge them the least and promise them the most. The very idea that workers needed to struggle and fight to better themselves, and that the members are the union, was lost in the orgy of shopping and raiding.

Once the independent union affiliated with UE, we worked to convince members that raiding was not beneficial to anybody. A no-raiding agreement now exists among most of the unions in Connecticut’s public sector.


There are a few exceptions. Gangster “unions”—those that prey on workers, especially immigrant workers—still exist. These sham unions tend to be in low-paid factories. Usually the workers never get to see the contract, and have high dues and initiation fees. They are not affiliated with any labor bodies.

Oftentimes if workers start a fuss, the “union rep” will show up and perhaps the workers will get a nickel raise. But these are not real unions and should be forced out of existence.

There are also still company unions in various forms at individual workplaces, some more openly controlled by management than others.

I once worked at an auto parts plant that had a company-controlled union, and I led the drive to join UE. To try to stop the new union, management told company union leaders to ask for a pay raise. They did, and then the workers received a raise. Fortunately, it didn’t stop the drive.


Often, over the years, when workers from other unions have come to UE and asked if they could join, we have told them to stay and fight inside their own unions to take control.

Teaching workers how to run a functioning democratic union is of more use to them in their struggles. The workers often took over their locals and transformed them into decent, member-run organizations.

Today, there are troubling new trends that make it harder to give that answer. The emergence of huge mega-locals makes it extremely difficult for members to take control of their unions from anti-democratic or pro-employer forces.

The ease and frequency with which some unions trustee locals in order to remove leaders they don’t agree with is also troubling. In some cases, workers may have no other recourse than to leave and join another union.

But the main thrust of the labor movement still needs to be on the tough job of organizing new workers.

Anywhere there are unorganized workers we should be there, finding the new leaders who will carry forward the next upsurge of organizing.


Anonymous (not verified) | 08/05/08

Cohen talks a good game, but it simply rings false. He knows all three of their public employee campaigns are nothing more than pure raids that loudly yell cheaper dues and take credit for most success well after the fact. Just because there is no collective bargaining or NLRB involvement - it is still raiding other unions. Virginia - AFSCME, North Carolina - SEIU and SEANC and West Virginia - AFSCME and UMWA.

UE managed to survive the 50's raids of IUE, UAW and others unlike the 12 unions that did not survive. With their hollow anti raiding rhetoric as they raid bigger unions, how long before justified retaliation starts? Will they survive this time?

Fred McColly (not verified) | 07/16/08

In the summer of 2005 I was involved in a decertification election and all that that entails when an independent "union" divided the bargaining unit ( unfortunately mostly along ethnic lines) but did not unseat the incumbent union. The raiders made unrealistic promises about wages and insurance designed to appeal to wishful thinking rather than a rational assessment of what was possible. In the end the incumbent union received 79% of the vote in the election and successfully negotiated a new contract dispite repeated attempts by the raider to have the NLRB overturn the results.
Three years later the contract is about to expire, and the union will be negotiating with management and a still divided bargaining unit. The core group that supported the raider is still around, and some of their points are well taken. The incumbent union hasn't done much in the way of re-establishing ties to the dissenters, or even making their supporters feel loved. Truth is they run their union like a business(John R. Commons as their major theorist) and , at times, seem to have more in common with management than the bargaining unit. There is no push to decertify this time, just some embittered people who are going to be hard sells for a contract negotiated in these ugly economic times. The raiders lost, but they left behind considerable damage. Question your union leadership by all means you can over policies you see as detrimental to your well-being. Voice your opinion over what you see as their failings. That is union democracy, and democracy is a compromise. Think twice before being seduced by a raider that cannot deliver. You will be the ones to live with the consequnces. Decertify if that's what needs to be done, just don't harbor any illusions about things being radically different.

Anonymous (not verified) | 07/29/08

"Freedom of Choice"

You have left out the right of the employees to pick the union of their choice. If the incumbent union is not what the members want then they have every right to throw them out and select another one. Don't spin change the officers because the issue goes beyond that. It does not matter whether its an AFL-CIO or an independent union, if they suck...the employees have the right to throw them out. They are paying for the show not the other way around.

Democracy rules not the labor union

Anonymous (not verified) | 07/14/08

I am a SEIU member and a registered nurse. I am beginning my journey as a union supporter and leader. I have been involved in past labor-management negotiations and have witness the strength of SEIU in ensuring my job security. I have great respect for the California Nurses Association as I have also remained informed on the strides CNA has made in patient care advocacy as well as nurses' rights. That aside, CNA is in the process of disrupting my union at a crucial point in bargaining negotiations with my employer. I do not appreciate this interference. I agree with both David and Malik on their key points but I am also very concerned about CNA's campaign. CNA seems to believe that nurses can only be represented by a nurses' union. I do not think that this is true. A labor union is its' members. SEIU 1199 Wisconsin is very nurse oriented. If more rank-and-file members would become involved in union activities, maybe the worker would realize that strong union support/involvement will allow labor to succeed as well as organization of workers to grow with the worker's choice of union representation.