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Labor Wars: Two Reasons Why Most Unions Don’t Do Large-Scale Organizing

In 2005, the labor movement split, ostensibly over a disagreement about the institutional priority of organizing for membership growth. A number of unions seceded from the AFL-CIO to form a rival federation, Change to Win, only to (mostly) quietly return to the fold. Other unions merged, only to attempt to divorce shortly thereafter. There have been trusteeships and membership raids, and some very good comprehensive campaigns for new members and new bargaining units. But as the dust settles from this period of union conflict, the decline in union density has not been arrested. Moreover, significantly fewer unions seem to be engaged in large-scale organizing, and the broad consensus within labor on the need to prioritize organizing has faded.

The story of labor’s wars could be thought of as a tug of war between competing institutional interests within the existing union framework— actually, a twin set of tensions. The first is between keeping decision-making and financial resources at the local union level versus pooling resources and concentrating power at the international union level. The other tension is between devoting resources and attention to organizing the unorganized and focusing on winning better pay, working conditions, and rights for existing union members. These twin tensions are closely related, but worth evaluating separately.

The Local versus the International

The concept of Change to Win was inspired by Stephen Lerner’s “Immodest Proposal: A New Architecture for the House of Labor” (New Labor Forum, Summer 2003) that unions should merge into ten to fifteen sectorally focused international unions.1 Lerner’s thesis was that diluting labor’s resources among sixty-six international unions (particularly when fifty-one of those unions accounted for less than a quarter of AFL-CIO membership) was untenable if unions were to grow. That dilution of resources gets even more hair-raising when one considers that international unions are divided into anywhere from a couple of dozen to a couple of thousand local unions, and that most union dues remain at the local level. Many locals barely have enough money to properly serve their existing members—let alone organize new members to join the union.

And so a lot of merger mania occurred at the local level. UNITE HERE engaged in a fairly thoughtful process of merging locals with overlapping geographical jurisdiction, in the hope of committing garment worker resources to new organizing in the hotel industry. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) utilized slightly more blunt force to forge mega-locals that cover entire multi-state regions. But this effort was not limited to Change to Win unions. One of the projects I worked on at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) was convincing nine stand-alone locals of adjunct college faculty to merge into one statewide union in New Jersey for the purposes of pooling resources to hire a full-time coordinator of bargaining and contract campaigns.

More power and resources were concentrated at the international level. Constitutions were amended to give international leaders and staff more decision-making authority in organizing and even bargaining. Per capita dues were increased, giving the international unions (internationals) the power of the purse strings (and those international unions that left the AFL-CIO got even more money).

It is true that big campaigns against multinational companies can only be run with big resources and national coordination. But local unions with serious organizing programs (these do exist!) may have priorities that do not align with the international’s plans. Too often, the hard work of hammering out a plan that works for both sets of interests is undermined by secrecy and manipulation. In her memoir, Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade of Fighting for the Labor Movement (Verso, 2014), Jane McAlevey provides a good, if somewhat biased, view of this tension from the perspective of an SEIU local that was not entirely “on the program,” as they say.2

I saw some of these tensions firsthand while I was a young staffer at NYC’s hotel workers’ local, the New York Hotel Trades Council (NYHTC). The newly merged UNITE HERE’s first big campaign was coordinating the expiration dates of as many city-wide contracts as possible to end in the same year. This campaign was probably one of the biggest successes of the Change to Win era, as the threat of shutting down a significant percentage of hotel chains’ business resulted in both substantial pay and work-rule improvements in the existing locals’ contracts and neutrality deals that allowed the international union to grow in other parts of the country.

But I do not think anyone at UNITE HERE told the leadership of NYHTC that the plan was to line up everyone’s contracts with their 2006 expiration until after four or five cities’ expirations were already aligned. And the chain that UNITE HERE most wanted to single out did not make strategic sense for the NYC local. Finally, those neutrality deals also involved signing away some locals’ rights to organize other properties that the chains considered offlimits—and no one sought the locals’ consent. I am not sure that any of these disagreements were properly aired until the day that NYHTC President Peter Ward and Las Vegas local President D. Taylor stood in the office of UNITE HERE General President Bruce Raynor and told him he would not be re-elected (thus precipitating the disastrous “divorce”).3

The pressure to gain more members is one that international unions feel acutely, while many locals do not seem to feel that burden if they are able to continue to bring in decent contracts and get their officers re-elected as long as the membership decline happens slowly enough. This is particularly true for locals who only represent one employer, or who have the lion’s share of their membership in a handful of politically important shops. In fact, new members upset the apple cart. This is doubly true for new members who come in having learned the organizing model, and, therefore, have radically different expectations of their involvement in contract enforcement and future rounds of bargaining.

Plus, comprehensive campaigns often feature confrontational tactics that may discomfort or embarrass local union leaders who are not used to them. What results is often a lack of local support, if not outright sabotage, and organizers are caught in the middle of a bureaucratic pissing contest.

Internal Organizing versus New Organizing

Positing internal organizing against external organizing is a false choice, borne out of prioritization forced by labor’s declining resources. Both kinds of organizing are vital to labor renewal. But in the rush to find new money for new organizing, many unions targeted the vast sums that are spent on grievances, arbitration, business agent salaries, and shop steward training—expenses that do not tend to build union power, absent a meaningful member mobilization plan.

At the risk of caricaturizing, the “organize or die!” logic essentially meant the following: We cannot grow if all we do is “service” our existing members and we cannot substantially improve pay and working conditions without meaningfully increasing union density in a given industry; therefore, we should devote as much of our resources as possible to organizing for growth. Taken to its extreme, this resulted in quick and under-staffed organizing campaigns under neutrality agreements, quicker still negotiations that prioritized union recognition and agency fee over detailed language on work rules and new union members receiving a business card with an 800 number for a call center to handle grievances.

In such a framework, international unions jealously guarded resources meant for new organizing from being sneakily expended on contract campaigns. But here’s the thing. Many organizers—including those on international staff—found it was very difficult to organize new members into locals with poor reputations and weak contracts, and so often prioritized reinvigorating legacy bargaining units with contract campaigns.

Because of vicious employer retaliation in union organizing campaigns, workers must have a sense that running the gauntlet of employer opposition will be worth it. Any organizer can vouch for how detrimental a worker with a “bad union experience” can be to a campaign. Conversely, if a worker had experience, or intimate familiarity with some other member’s experience, in an organizing campaign with an informed and democratic organizing committee, a plan to win, and meaningful “asks” of worker activism, such a worker comes away a bit more radicalized and vastly more likely to take action in a new campaign.

The choice between internal organizing or new member organizing may be a false choice, but to the extent that unions have been making it so, there is a strong argument to be made that we have been choosing poorly. It is the visible resistance of organized workers that inspires people to join the labor movement. As a recruiter and trainer of new union organizers, I can recall very few new recruits in the last few years who did not cite as their “reason I want to do this work” either the Chicago teachers strike or the Wisconsin protests. And the Wisconsin protests were a failure! But the example of union members standing and fighting the right-wing agenda was still an inspiration. Of course, I am citing examples of workers who decided they wanted to work on the staff of unions, not stand and fight for a union where they currently work. Clearly, we have a long way to go toward inspiring an upsurge in spontaneous organizing.

In this regard, I agree with much of Richard Yeselson’s “Fortress Unionism,” which proposes for labor to focus on preserving and strengthening existing unions “and then . . . wait”4 (his words). Except we must all take exception with his prescription for merely waiting for a spontaneous worker uprising. Our job is to inspire it! And so unions should engage more in well-planned contract campaigns and job actions with the vast audience of non-union workers in mind.

Comprehensive new organizing campaigns are important for the same reason. Most workers in this country do not even know how a union gets formed. The assumption that workplaces either do or do not have a union by some kind of bureaucratic fiat is surprisingly pervasive. Nonunion workers need to see big campaigns of workers standing up to their employer and demanding improvements and a voice at work to get inspired to do the same. We must talk more about this symbolic and inspirational value that comprehensive campaigns have since institutional support for them seems to be at a historic low. They are too often the victims of impatience, the changing priorities of new leadership, and the institutional conflicts outlined herein. But they are essential and must be revived.

Some Thoughts about Moving Forward

There should be more training for union leaders and staff in the kind of facilitation and consensus-building that actually gets areas of disagreement and hesitation on the table and develops campaign plans with true “buy in.” This is some of our most difficult work, and yet we devote very little attention to building these skills.

International unions, in partnership with their affiliates, should develop, or revisit, their own organizing models. Transparency, honesty, and a commitment to organizing must be the bedrock principles of any model.

There should be a greater openness to chartering new locals where an existing local, for whatever reason, is an impediment to new organizing. The kind of union-building that results in a leadership and a membership base that can stand on its own is very time-consuming and resource-heavy, which is one reason why unions are loathe to do it. But unions should only be engaging in organizing projects with long-term commitments to building power anyway.

Unions must continue to raise their dues and implement special assessments for organizing and strike funds. Members will vote to raise their dues if it is presented as a real plan for increased power. Union dues should cost at least $1,000 a year. Many unions have already raised their dues to this level. Those unions who keep their dues “cheap” do the labor movement no favors.

And unions should continue to find ways to devote a larger percentage of their resources to organizing. We could certainly be more judicious about how and what we spend on politics. Doubling down on political spending in 2014 when, historically speaking, the President’s party was inevitably going to lose the last midterm of the last presidential term, converted the Democrats’ loss into “labor’s loss.” That money could have been spent more wisely on organizing.

Finally, the AFL-CIO does have a role to play here. The smaller international unions that have not yet engaged in comprehensive campaigns need the federation’s leadership. The AFL-CIO should take the lead in facilitating their development of organizing models and plans. A special focus should be placed on unions with similar jurisdictions that could be coaxed into combining resources in joint campaigns resulting in new merged locals.

The great push to organize and grow that began twenty years ago with the start of the Sweeney administration, and which intensified ten years ago in the Change to Win split, has frankly and obviously stalled. Perhaps this discussion merely nibbles at the edge of the problem, but we need a thorough analysis of the institutional barriers that have kept unions from truly committing to organizing for growth and power.

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

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. Stephen Lerner, “An Immodest Proposal: A New Architecture for the House of Labor,” New Labor Forum 12, no. 2 (Summer 2003).
  2. Jane McAlevey, Raising Expectations and Raising Hell (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2012).
  3. Carl Proper, “Unions, Money and Mergers,” Talking Union, July 2, 2013, available at https:// talkingunion.wordpress.com/2013/07/02/ unions-money-and-mergers/.
  4. Richard Yeselson, “Fortress Unionism,” Democracy no. 29 (Summer 2013).

2 thoughts on “Labor Wars: Two Reasons Why Most Unions Don’t Do Large-Scale Organizing

  • Larry Christensen

    I think it would be more profitable to scan the clock back a little further, to the 1970 and 1980 decades. The AFL-CIO leaders do not wish to be today’s Jock Yablonski, Dow Wilson, Ron Carey, or PATCO. They do not wish major confrontation with the corporate powers or the federal government (one and the same thing). So they do what they can to keep their jobs, and their relatives’ jobs, and their subcontracts, while giving the minimum necessary appearance of actual dedication to working men and women. Change agents have to attack this fundamental problem.

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