Tag: Labor Wars

Labor Wars: Shaun Richman Responds

Article 5 of 5

Link to previous article in series – http://newlaborforum.cuny.edu/2016/10/04/labor-wars-put-workers-back-at-the-center-of-organizing/

The respondents have expanded the discussion far beyond the parameters of my initial article. I have written elsewhere about union structure[1], strategy,[2] and legal reform[3], but my preceding article does not purport to offer an all-encompassing solution to labor’s organizing woes. Rather, I intended to highlight two institutional conflicts that I have seen little open discussion about, and which are clearly impediments to maintaining a commitment to an organizing strategy.

Simply put, institutional priorities matter and I don’t just mean the budgetary commitment to do organizing. Jonathan Rosenblum, for instance, identifies mass organizing as the only choice for labor. Sure. I’d add reviving the strike weapon to our wish list, but both strategies are more easily said than done. The historical reality is that the U.S. labor movement has mostly grown through brief periods of worker-led, seemingly spontaneous mass strike activity. The efforts of the last 20 years to increase union density by gaining new members as quickly and easily as possible was doomed to never live up to expectations.

It would be better to find a balance — and a connection—between smart contract campaigns aimed at increasing the power and membership engagement of existing unions and strategic and potentially iconic new organizing fights that might inspire more non-union workers to think about their power and how best to organize.

The best example of that kind of external campaign is, as Jose La Luz points out, the Fight for $15. The campaign offers a model of unions thinking outside their institutional boundaries, it also enables supposedly powerless workers to experience the power that comes from withholding their labor. Along these lines, an “internal” organizing campaign that gives me hope is Bargaining for the Common Good[4], an effort by public sector unions to line up contract expirations and bargaining demands with community demands like progressive taxation, affordable housing, and government transparency, taking dead aim at the largest banks and power brokers while organizing a very real strike threat.

La Luz is correct that the failure by unions to engage in a “serious ongoing conversation” with members about the organizing imperative contributes to institutional roadblocks. Too many unions limited the conversation about the need to engage in organizing to convention delegates, and then just to get dues increases passed.  Among admirers, there’s a fear that SEIU might stop funding Fight for $15 if it doesn’t start producing new members. I think Fight for $15 organizers have been thoughtful about getting existing union members to join the rallies and picket lines in solidarity. Such actions can be the most serious education in why we need to organize.

I must admit that I found Jane McAlevey’s response to be unsporting . She twists a few of my points in order to knock them down as strawmen and only seems to offer do more good organizing as an alternative. Don’t get me wrong; if McAlevey and I were tasked with working together to organize a single bargaining unit, I doubt we would substantively disagree on strategy. But reviving our movement will take more than just running more good single unit campaigns, especially if those campaigns want nothing more of their umbrella organizations than to “stay out of the way of good local leadership.”

Affiliation and federation are proven methods for pooling resources to take on larger employers and industries and connecting local fights to national struggles. They’re a pain in the ass, but retreating to provincialism is the worst possible response to the institutional tensions described in my article.



[1] Richman, Shaun. “The Promise and the Peril of Members-Only Unions.” In These Times. November 4, 2015.

[2] Richman, Shaun. “As Attacks on Unions Continue, Bringing Back the Strike May Be Our Only Hope.” In These Times. January 13, 2016

[3] Richman, Shaun. “It’s Time for the Labor Movement To Pursue a New Judicial Activist Agenda.” In These Times. March 21, 2016

Labor Wars: Time to Set New Priorities?

Article 3 of 5

Link to previous article in series – http://newlaborforum.cuny.edu/2016/10/04/labor-wars-labor-needs-a-bold-vision-to-inspire-workers-in-the-new-economy/

I strongly disagree with Brother Richman’s assertion that the inadequate resources devoted to external organizing is the result of a conscious choice −strategic or tactical − made by labor leaders because they have opted instead to dedicate all or most of their union’s resources toward “winning better pay, working conditions, and rights for existing union members”.

It is entirely possible that many of these leaders have not even considered these two seemingly opposing priorities in the face of a sustained and escalating attack by corporate interests and their political allies. Many may simply be maneuvering to defend their unions by helping to elect a “friend” to the White House who could work with them to usher in a program of modest labor reforms and provide some needed oxygen to their embattled institutions.

It should be noted that, while most unions are not spending enough on organizing, a few − such as Service Employees International Union (SEIU), American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) − have continued to spend on large scale external organizing campaigns, such as efforts to organize home and child care workers or independent providers, and plants of foreign automakers in the south.

Even more significant is that some unions are funding campaigns not focused on their existing members like the fight to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour or movements to improve labor standards for workers in low wage industries. This also includes the struggle to support immigrant rights among unions like UNITEHERE, SEIU, the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) which could also be seen as an enlightened self-interest approach to create the conditions for growth among Latino and Asian workers in certain industries and labor markets across the country. It could be argued that even if these campaigns do not bring in new members in the short run, they pave the way for growth in the immediate future.

It is evident that these campaigns for worker rights and enhanced labor standards have generated increased public support for unions as champions of fairness, equal treatment, and social justice for all workers —not only their existing members. However, it is critical to understand why most unions have failed to invest more resources in external organizing. Many of the unions that were engaged in the Change-to-Organize process during the incumbency of John Sweeney at the AFL-CIO made a strategic choice to invest a lot more resources in organizing the unorganized, but only a handful of these unions reached the mark set by Richard Bensinger to devote 30 percent of the entire union budget to external organizing. The hard truth is that the majority of the unions didn’t even get close to the 10% that was set as a minimum goal.

What could be the reasons to explain this failure?  One veteran organizer Ben Gordon organizing director with CSEA-AFSCME in New York argues that “it is hard to make the case to existing members of the value of external organizing if there is not a larger political and economic framework within we are working.” Gordon insists that “without a political and economic framework that ties the interests of all workers together….in which existing members see the value to themselves in growing the union….it is unlikely that union leaders will devote the resources needed…. They will simply back down when members question the use of precious dollars for organizing versus hiring more grievance reps and lawyers.”[i]

In July and August 1995 pollster Peter Hart conducted multiple focus groups among members of AFL-CIO affiliated unions in several states across the nation. Here is one of the findings that may be relevant to this argument: “These members generally have little or no ideological orientation that would link economics, government and politics. Few can articulate any explanation for what has gone wrong, who is responsible or what should be done about it……when they try to identify the causes of the nation’s problems they often reach for conservative explanations such as immigration, welfare and government waste…left to their own devices they tend to employ fairly conservative analyses and categories.”[ii]

It is also conceivable that these same existing union members lack a basic “political and economic framework” that would help them “tie their interests with the interests” of unorganized workers as Ben Gordon suggested. Perhaps their understanding of the union’s mission is only confined to negotiating better contracts and resolving grievances to protect existing members.  This may help to explain the choices made by the leadership of many unions that, in order to avoid tensions with the existing base and perhaps risk losing their offices, many of them have chosen not to invest more resources to grow their unions.

The path taken by a handful of unions to raise wages for all workers and protect the most vulnerable is part of the answer. To the extent that unions advocate concretely and publicly on Main Street, and not only in the halls of Congress, for a broader social justice agenda, support for unions will likely increase among the public as well as existing members.

But unions leaders will also need to engage their existing base in a serious on going conversation about the meaning of building a union that not only represents the 10 to 15 percent that uses the grievance and arbitration procedures all the time. It will require a conversation about how power is built and why a shrinking membership base has direct consequences on wages and benefits for all. Now may be the perfect moment to engage members when economic populism has gained prominence in the nation as part of the presidential campaign. It has captured the attention of millions of workers and can set the stage for a mass organizing agenda based on innovative and non-traditional forms. A new wave of growth for organized labor in America could be in the horizon.

Link to next article in series – http://newlaborforum.cuny.edu/2016/10/04/labor-wars-put-workers-back-at-the-center-of-organizing/


[i] Interview with Ben Gordon, Never Quit Blitz, Syracuse, NY, April 2016.

[ii] Peter Hart Research Associates, Executive Summary of Focus Group Findings on Union Members’ Political Attitudes.

Labor Wars: Put Workers Back at the Center of Organizing

Article 4 of 5

Link to previous article in the series – http://newlaborforum.cuny.edu/2016/10/04/labor-wars-time-to-set-new-priorities/

Late one night in the fall of 2015, a nurse named Michael Winn was facing the same situation he had faced too many times: patients in his hospital’s unit were at risk because of dangerously short staffing. Frustrated with his hospital management’s profits-before-patients approach, he decided to cold-call nearby Temple University Hospital, which is unionized, and ask about its night shift conditions and its union. It was four a.m. Michael didn’t know the nurses he was calling; he only knew something had to change. When he reached the switchboard, he asked to speak with the charge nurse in the emergency department.

“Hi, Temple E.R. May I help you?” “Hi, my name is Michael. I’m a nurse over at Hahnemann’s and we are having an incredible staffing crisis. I want to pick your brain for a minute: I know you have a union at Temple. Do you like your union? Does your hospital get away with substandard care and nurse abuse the way our hospital management does?”

The answer: “We’d never tolerate those conditions, and I love my union!”

With a single phone call and the answer he heard from the night-shift charge nurse he spoke with at a unionized hospital, Michael and his co-workers decided they needed a union as fast as they could build one. Within days, union nurses from Temple University hospital began meeting with their nonunion counterparts at Hahnemann Hospital. Within months, on January 20, Michael and his 850 co-workers voted overwhelmingly yes (516 to 117) to forming a union through a National Labor Board Relations (NLRB) election. Yes, an NLRB election.

Had Michael reached a nurse who responded, “Union, yeah, there’s one in here, I don’t know much about it. I think they got us a raise, but our conditions sound like yours (or worse) …,” it is fair to say Michael would not have called the Temple hospital workers’ union the next day.

So often, the debate about unions omits the most important people, workers, and their issues—such as those Michael and his co-workers faced on that night shift a few months before deciding to form a union. Shaun Richman’s “Labor Wars” article revisits two long-standing debates in the contemporary labor movement. He makes some good points—for example, “Positing internal organizing against external organizing is a false choice….” But he fails to offer solutions. In fact, Richman’s main solutions don’t include a much-needed discussion about union governance, and they’re centered on needing to run more external organizing campaigns. Almost bizarrely, he suggests that the national AFL-CIO should be the ones to do something about the mess: “Finally, the AFL-CIO does have a role to play here,” Richman writes. “The smaller international unions that have not yet engaged in comprehensive campaigns need the federation’s leadership.” Huh? I think we watched that movie recently and the film got eaten in the reel.

Think Globally, Act Locally

Richman’s focus on national unions and the national federations obscures the fact that almost everything interesting in unions (and most groups) happens at the local, regional, or state level. And his focus on mega campaigns—what he calls comprehensive campaigns (without defining them)—omits the many less well-known efforts like those of a small, smart, independent union called the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP), the union that Michael and thousands more just fought to join.

Whether in eastern Pennsylvania, Chicago and Los Angeles (teachers), Boston (nurses), or Hartford (nursing home and other health care workers)—to name just a few—the hard work of whether unions shrink, expand, or are relevant to anyone (save the national leaders) is determined more by what happens when one pissed-off worker picks up the phone and reaches another worker—not which union aligns with which in the ever-changing turf wars.. At Temple University Hospital workers—who clearly communicated with one another—went on an open-ended, all-out, 28-day strike in 2010 to win their high standards

In my forthcoming book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age,(Oxford University Press, 2016), I offer up several examples of local unions and locally based actions that do win and explore the key factors that promote success. Does it help if national unions stay out of the way of good local leadership? Of course. Is it even better when national leaders encourage robust, high participation and highly democratic forms of local trade unionism—the exact kind of locally based unions where workers spread the word about their great union the old-fashioned way—by talking? Absolutely!

Although Richman’s article discusses some important ideas, I think he misses a more fundamental lesson from the recent twenty years of failed attempts at top-down change in the labor movement: it’s time to embrace an old idea—think globally and act locally. Richman states, “The great push to organize and grow that began 20 years ago with the start of the Sweeney administration (AFL-CIO president 1995-2009), and, which intensified ten years ago in the Change to Win split has frankly and obviously stalled.” I think Richman has this wrong. For a couple of brief years (way too brief) at the outset of the changed national AFL-CIO, from 1996 to about 1999, there were real attempts at organizing. And an important word Richman way too casually intersperses in that sentence—grow—took over by the new millennium and certainly by 2005 when the Change to Win coalition Introduced reforms for the AFL-CIO.

In No Shortcuts, I write about my own experiences during this era, and also cite interviews of many key people, including Peter Olney, the former organizing director of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. He sums up the situation disturbingly well, “Just before the split at the AFL-CIO, the conversations [that New Labor was driving] were about how workers really got in the way of organizing. We [the national organizing directors] would actually sit in rooms, in annual meetings about the state of organizing, and the discussion would be that workers often got in the way of union growth deals.”[1] It would be difficult to find a clearer statement of the organizing versus growth trade-off.

Twenty years ago, New Labor leaders correctly assessed that winning union elections and running strikes was getting more and more challenging. They declared they would rebuild the ranks of unions by organizing the unorganized. But if organizing the unorganized ever stood a chance, it barely got off the ground. Despite New Labor’s rhetoric, the ranks of existing members were sidelined right along with unorganized American workers. Pollsters, communicators and polling replaced organizers and face-to-face organizing. New Labor’s top officials look and sound different from the generation they replaced and they are more identity-politics polished, but behind their twenty-year strategy is a core assumption: Workers aren’t needed as central actors in their own emancipation. Strong on polling and well-crafted narrative, New Labor leadership is weak on actual worker agency.

We urgently need a back-to-basics organizing that places workers and worker capacity at the center of the fight, not as window dressing. There are no shortcuts.

Link to next article in series – http://newlaborforum.cuny.edu/2016/10/04/labor-wars-shaun-richman-responds/



[1] Author interview, Peter Olney, recently retired Organizing Director, International Longshore and Warehouse Union, March 20, 2014.


Labor Wars: New Organizing in a New Economy

Article 2 of 5

Link to previous article in series – http://newlaborforum.cuny.edu/2016/10/01/on-the-contrary-labor-wars/

A little more than thirty years ago, I first heard the debate: Should we prioritize organizing more workers into unions or focus on representing and raising standards for current members? And who should be in charge—local unions or their international bodies? At the time, I was a union member on the way to becoming a full time organizer. One in every five U.S. workers belonged to a union. The movement was on the ropes, bleeding badly, but fighting back.

Three decades later, Shaun Richman posits the same questions in considering how to turn the union movement around. Only today, union density is half of what it was in 1985. Three million fewer U.S. workers hold union cards, and the trend continues inexorably downward.1

At this rate, we could keep debating these issues as we get swept into history’s dustbin.

Certainly, the tensions that Richman describes have had an influence on organizing in the last decade—sometimes positive, at other times not. But, as even Richman allows, his essay “merely nibbles at the edge of the problem.”

Far more vital to the movement’s survival is the existential question of vision and purpose. We should seek answers not from the institutional vantage point of academia or union headquarters, but from the street-level perspectives of the 89 percent of U.S. workers who do not belong to unions—the precariously employed Uber driver, the permatemp Nissan auto worker, the undocumented sheet rocker, the minimum wage fast-food worker, the charter schoolteacher on the permanent tenterhooks of one-year contracts, and the part-time, food stamp–dependent Walmart associate.

The important question is this: What sort of forward-looking vision, organizational form, and array of strategies will inspire these millions to unite in a movement for a just economy?

For these and so many other workers, the idea of the American Dream—stable employment and opportunity for upward mobility—is a cruelly quaint notion from a bygone era. Even education, increasingly corporatized, no longer provides a reliable handhold to secure lifetime employment.

Today’s unforgiving reality has only an indirect relationship to the structure of unions. Rather, it is the product of two major influences: first, an unceasing corporate drive to maximize profit by breaking worker power and by privatizing and monetizing everything, both here and around the world; and second, the U.S. union movement’s limited scope—a collective bargaining model focusing on worksite-by-worksite organizing and standards fights, along with political engagement that largely contents itself with marginal change.

The corporate vision—profits for them, poverty and precarity for the rest of us—is eminently clear. What has been lacking and is urgently needed from U.S. unions is a countervailing powerful vision, one that imagines an economy in which workers have a powerful voice, and the needs of people and community come before profits.

The single-employer bargaining regime that dominates U.S. union-management relations remains a vital battleground to retain hard-won standards and to activate workers in struggle. But, it is just a start. We live in a global economy. Capital and entire industries move with agility across borders. The political system is slow to catch up with corporate executives who contrive increasingly elegant ways to escape their legal obligations to workers and communities.

Given those realities, the contract fights must be waged but workers will not win at the bargaining table without also undertaking exponentially greater organizing activity. The priority of existing unions, then, at both the local and national levels, must be to accelerate traditional organizing where possible, while supporting prototypes of a bolder unionism that motivate and inspire the 89 percent of U.S. workers who do not hold union cards today.

Examples abound. They require ongoing nurturing and development: Uber drivers parking their cars in protest, domestic workers and day laborers creating and enforcing area standards, teachers uniting with parents to demand quality education for all, and the growing call for “$15 [an hour] and a union!” among others.

Richman appropriately calls out the posturing within unions around organizing versus servicing as a “false choice.” But, he fails to identify in its place the real choice: mass organizing or irrelevance. Plummeting union membership numbers, the ascendance of anti-union laws, and declining wages do not lie.

Yet, even the most active organizing unions fall way short. In 2000, the Service Employees International Union raised eyebrows within the movement by establishing a mandate that local unions devote 20 percent of their resources to new organizing. That is an impressive number compared with other unions. But, it is paltry when contrasted with the challenge: If applied across the movement, it would leave 80 percent of resources going to meet the needs of 11 percent of the workforce. Instead, the lion’s share of union funds should go to support new organizing.

The notion of devoting 60, 70, even 80 percent of the union movement’s resources to new worker organizing may seem unrealistic, even laughable to some of my colleagues in labor leadership. This is an especially daunting idea given the entrenched model of business unionism, an exceedingly expensive operating system that fosters membership dependency on professional union staff. To grow, unions will have to break the business union habit. That is going to be enormously difficult. Are you less-than-sanguine about that prospect? You are going to like extinction even less.

Richman’s second frame—decision making by international unions versus local unions— also suffers from a narrow, outdated perspective. What are labeled international unions in the United States are really only North American unions. In today’s world, it is inadequate to build worker organizations that concentrate their efforts almost exclusively within 18 percent of the world’s economy.2

Corporations certainly do not operate so provincially. Boeing is an iconic American brand, but the airplanes are made from parts designed and manufactured by workers on four continents. Your AT&T customer service representative is in Manila. Uber drivers operate in 58 countries. Your son’s late-night emergency room x-ray was read by a health care worker in Australia, or maybe India. The fates of workers around the world are indeed linked.

U.S. unions have made positive, though tentative, steps toward internationalism over the last generation, building solidarity alliances with unions and federations on other continents. But, as with new organizing, not nearly enough has been done. We need a truly international approach.

Richman is not wrong to shine a light on institutional tensions within unions. But, dedicated labor activists, while acknowledging the formidable problems inside unions, need to operate with a much wider lens. In the final analysis, our purpose is not to save an institution from its own entrenched inertia; it is to inspire people with a bold vision to revive a working class movement. If today’s unions can push aside the barriers and make the adaptive leap, fine. They will make great foundations for the new movement. But if not, we will have to create new forms of unions to fight for the interests of today’s workers.

Link to the next article in series – http://newlaborforum.cuny.edu/2016/10/04/labor-wars-time-to-set-new-priorities/

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.



  1. Barry T. Hirsch and David A. Macpherson, “Union Membership and Coverage Database from the CPS,” available at http://unionstats.gsuedu/. See “All Wage & Salary Workers” in “U.S. Historical Tables: Union Membership, Coverage, Density and Employment, 1973-2015.”
  2. Quandl Financial and Economic Data, “GDP as Share of World GDP at PPP by Country,” available at https://www.quandl.com/collect ions/economics/gdp-as-share-of-world-gdp -at-ppp-by-country.