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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.

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