Winning Against the Odds: The 32BJ SEIU Organizing Model
Airport workers, 32BJ members, and allies arrested while blocking the entrance to LaGuardia Airport on January 20, 2014. Courtesy of 32BJ.
Over twenty-five years have passed since the AFL-CIO New Voice movement urged unions to dedicate 20-30 percent of their budgets to organizing. Despite recent high-profile victories by the Writers Guild in digital media, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in home health care and at Starbucks, and the Transit Workers at JetBlue, most unions have not heeded the call to organize, and the labor movement has continued to shrink. Facing this decline, unions have turned much of their attention to labor law reform, hoping to address notable weaknesses in U.S. labor law that impede organizing success. Winning the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would be a game changer in this regard but the PRO Act will not pass without organized pressure and militancy from non-union workers demanding unions. The fight for the PRO Act must come with a strategic recommitment from unions to organize the unorganized, despite the current obstacles. International unions must work with local unions, which is where the bulk of the money and resources are, to build organizing capacity now, so that labor can grow with or without the PRO Act. Unions must craft strategies and commit the resources needed to launch organizing campaigns that can build union density, while also providing the street heat that can force labor law reform. This will both improve workers’ lives and ensure that labor has the organizing muscle in place to take advantage of the new opportunities that will emerge—if the PRO Act passes.
SEIU Local 32BJ offers a case study of how unions can win, especially in the private sector which has seemed impervious to organizing. Over the last two decades, 32BJ has organized over one hundred thousand new members who others said could not be organized because they were low-wage subcontracted workers, because of their immigration status, or because racial, ethnic, and language divides could not be overcome. Local 32BJ has helped workers see what they have in common, and has offered strategies and tactics that have turned poverty wages into living wages while providing an effective voice for workers both on the job and in their communities. Local 32BJ did not invent many of the strategies and tactics it uses, but it provides an example of how their deliberate implementation can lead to union victories.
Over the last two decades, 32BJ has organized over one hundred thousand new members who others said could not be organized . . .
Graph 1. SEIU 32BJ Growth (1999-2001)
Source. Chris Pipa, the SEIU Local 32BJ Research Department.
Local 32BJ is part of the property services division of the SEIU. It is SEIU’s third largest local comprising janitors, security officers school custodians, food service workers, residential, and airport workers. A mega-local, the current structure of 32BJ came into being in 1999 when it was trusteed by the international union and began to merge with other property service locals. Some of these merged locals brought with them rich organizing cultures carried over from the Justice for Janitors movement. Others had no organizing program and were in decline. Merging these locals together allowed 32BJ’s organizing culture to spread throughout its jurisdiction, and provided the capacity to launch aggressive regional organizing drives that enabled it to grow as the labor movement declined.
Graph 1 above depicts 32BJ growth from 1999 to 2021. Growth due to new organizing totaled 103,268. Growth due to mergers totaled 65,600, which includes 12,889 newly organized workers by locals prior to merging with 32BJ. The gray line is overall membership taking into account declines due to job loss.
During a period when union membership continued its decades-long decline, 32BJ grew dramatically, with 61 percent of its growth the result of new organizing.
Graph 2 shows new organizing by year, including organizing by locals prior to merging into 32BJ. During this time, 116,158 workers were organized.
Almost all the newly organized workers are people of color and many are new immigrants. Unionization has vastly improved their wages, hours, and working conditions. To note a few examples, predominantly Latina immigrant janitors in New Jersey saw their hourly pay go from $5.15 in 2001 to $17.70 in 2021, with the addition of family health care, a pension, and strong language protecting against sexual harassment and assault. In Washington, D.C., largely African and African-American security officers organized in 2007 and saw hourly wages increase from $8.25 to $19.29 in 2021, with health care and an employer contributed 401(K). And forty thousand airport workers in New York and New Jersey are going from $7.50 in 2014 to $19 per hour in 2023. Additionally, these workers won health care legislatively in 2021, and over ten thousand now have a union contract.
Graph 2. 32BJ New Organizing.
Source. Chris Pipa, the SEIU Local 32BJ Research Department.
Committing to Strategic Organizing
Local 32BJ’s organizing victories are not due to chance. They come from a serious commitment to organizing at all levels of the union. Every four to five years, 32BJ goes through a strategic planning process that identifies organizing priorities. This is a deliberate exercise by which the local sets growth goals for the coming years. It identifies industries and regional markets to organize, and extensively researches those targets. A key consideration in picking a target is whether 32BJ can leverage existing sources of power. For example, security guards were targeted because the union already represented cleaners in the same buildings.
A key consideration in picking a target is whether 32BJ can leverage existing sources of power.
Once an industry is picked, an organizing strategy is developed and presented to the Executive Board for approval. If adopted, it becomes the whole union’s priority. The Executive Board requires the Organizing Department to submit an annual plan and budget with clear goals for what companies it will win, how many workers it will organize, and estimates of the resources required. This ensures that there are clear benchmarks, goals, and accountability. Though in many cases campaigns take longer than initially planned, strategies for winning change and tactics pivot, by being deliberate and requiring accountability, the union makes sure it stays on track to grow.
This is very different from “hot shop” organizing in which unions simply follow tips and leads into campaigns with little thought given to the likelihood of winning or the ability to raise standards if a campaign is successful. Like most locals in SEIU, 32BJ shuns this approach and focuses on organizing workers in targeted industries into multi-employer collective bargaining agreements in a particular regional market.
Efforts to forge industry-wide contracts are aided by the use of a “trigger,” which makes recognizing the union more palatable to companies by ensuring that the majority of the market goes union and bargains a contract at once, or not all. The trigger takes the competitive pressures companies face seriously, recognizing that unionization has costs and that increased costs are a problem if a firm’s competitors are non-union. Linking the fate of employers in a given sector together, negotiating economics that a given market can bear, and assuring employers that they will not be undercut by non-union competition, the trigger reduces the incentive for firms to fight. There is still a fight, but it is not existential. Companies eventually come to learn that the costs of unionization will be borne by the industry as a whole, so continuing a disruptive fight must be weighed against a union agreement that does not put them at a competitive disadvantage.
Organizing whole sectors also provides 32BJ with the power to raise standards. Since the focus is not on a hot shop but on an entire market, union recognition brings an immediate boost in density and a first contract, something which is elusive in many other campaigns. With high union density in a regionally defined sector, workers have more power to bargain strong contracts, and by standardizing wage rates, such contracts close racial and gender wage gaps.
Local 32BJ allocates between 20 and 30 percent of its budget to organizing. For the last five years, this is around $15 million a year. This allowed the organizing department to grow from a handful in 2000, to more than one hundred organizers today. While this has increased 32BJ’s organizing muscle, organizing is not just the province of the Organizing Department.
Other departments now see organizing as a core part of their mission. Bargaining committees often force union contractors in one market to accept card check in another. The Political Department understands the need to convince politicians, community, and religious leaders to stand alongside non-union workers on picket lines, in employer delegations, and rallies. The Research and Policy Department helps identify industries to target and crafts legislation designed to incentivize organizing or level the playing field for union employers through such things as prevailing wage laws. Field Reps who typically focused on grievances now see mobilization of the membership to support organizing drives as part of their role. They set goals for member turnout to support non-union workers, and members sign in or scan in at the picket line to measure if those goals are met. Together, this creates a union-wide culture of organizing where every facet of the union prioritizes organizing and where union workers mobilizing to support non-union workers is part of the daily routine of 32BJ.
Committing to Change
Making a top to bottom organizational commitment to organizing means winning the hearts and minds of members. While union diehards understand there is power in numbers, the main concern for many workers is that their dues support bargaining and contract enforcement. The idea that money should come from their checks to organize somebody else does not always make immediate sense.
. . . 32BJ makes a point to bring non-union workers before the membership.
To address this concern, 32BJ makes a point to bring non-union workers before the membership. These workers tell their stories, describe the horrible conditions they face while doing similar jobs as 32BJ members, and ask members to help them win 32BJ as their union. Such worker-to-worker appeals are powerful and give union members a vivid picture of what their job could become without the union. Members also realize that helping non-union workers organize means a larger union, which means more power.
Committing to Training
Building an organizing union requires members to develop new skills, and 32BJ has devoted significant resources for trainings around the connection between organizing, politics, and strong contracts. The union’s biggest commitment to training comes through a program called the “Brigades,” started in 1999 to turn rank-and-file workers into organizers and leaders. Local 32BJ negotiated contract language allowing workers to leave the job for three months to take part in the program. During this period, the union assumes responsibility for their pay and benefits, and at the end of the program, workers return to their jobs.
The Brigades run several times a year and bring 32BJ members together for three days of trainings covering topics such as labor law, union ethics, workplace charting (to gain vital information for organizing), one-on-one organizing, and labor history. Brigade members then join staff organizers in carrying out the daily work of organizing. Six weeks later, Brigaders regroup to debrief and further train.
The importance of the member Brigades is hard to overstate. A union janitor from Philadelphia can connect with a non-union janitor at Newark Airport in ways that supplement the work of staff organizers. To unorganized workers, the benefits of unionism become very real when the person they are talking to does the same job for three times the pay. This provides concrete examples of what unions can achieve as well as solidaristic relationships that are a crucial part of the union’s ability to move workers.
For rank-and-file members, the Brigades are often a transformative experience that impart knowledge and leadership skills. Exposed to the plight of non-union workers doing the same work for a fraction of the pay, without benefits, or basic job security, it is an immediate lesson in how the non-union 90 percent lives, and of the importance of having their union. Brigade members bring this experience back to their worksites, where it provides the basis for union activism.
It is common for leaders of successful organizing campaigns to come out on new Brigades to organize the next group of workers. Brigades of janitors organized security officers, security officers organized airport workers, and airport workers will be there for the next sector that is targeted. This creates a sort of virtual circle in which solidarity is more than a lyric in a song. Many members participate in Brigades multiple times and for some, it is the first step to becoming full-time organizers. Members who demonstrate a talent for organizing continue as apprentices working on their organizing team for an additional six months. If successful and interested, they are asked to join the Organizing Department.
In addition to the Brigades, 32BJ has a New Organizer Training Program (NOTP) which offers people from outside the union an opportunity to train as organizers. NOTP participants are mostly young idealistic activists from other movements, committed to social change, but who know little about the role and function of organized labor in the fight for social justice. NOTP members integrate into the Brigade program, attend the same trainings, and are assigned to the same campaigns. NOTP participants who demonstrate skill as organizers are asked to stay on as fellows. Like apprentices, fellows work for six months and some are asked to stay on as full-time organizers.
Local 32BJ spends 15-20 percent of its organizing budget on Brigades/NOTP. In 2020, 42 percent of the Organizing Department had come through the Brigades, and 18 percent through NOTP. These programs help 32BJ maintain its goal of an organizing staff that is roughly 50 percent from the rank and file and 50 percent from the outside. Additionally, 61 percent of the union’s almost two hundred field representatives, responsible for handling grievances and member mobilization, went through the Brigades, often working as organizers before joining the internal field team. Together, the Brigades and the NOTP ensure that the organizing department has deep roots in the membership, while also bringing in fresh ideas from other movements.
Committing to Political Action in Support of Organizing Goals
Recognizing that organizing builds political power, and that political power can facilitate organizing, 32BJ puts significant thought and resources into political action. Just as with organizing, it sets goals and benchmarks around politics, aiming to get 50 percent of members to contribute $2.50 per week to the union’s political action fund, and to have 15 percent of members participate in politics (election canvassing, phone banking, lobbying on the union’s issues). To reach this goal, the Political Department invests in training members through a program called the Social Justice Leadership Academy. Workers are trained on various political and governmental issues as well as topics such as economics, race, immigration, gender, and climate justice. Graduates become member political organizers and provide the core of the grassroots lobbying and political mobilization needed to enact the union’s political and organizing program.
The union’s biggest commitment to training comes through a program called the “Brigades,” started in 1999 to turn rank-and-file workers into organizers and leaders.
Candidates backed by 32BJ are expected to show up at organizing rallies, walk picket lines, attend bargaining sessions, and stand with the union when asked. But more than that, they must support an agenda that furthers organizing. This includes legislation like the $15 per hour minimum wage and paid sick days, as well as industry-specific legislation protecting workers during contractor flips or establishing mandated sectoral standards. The latter demand has been a key part of airport organizing in which the union has pushed cities, states, or public agencies such as regional port authorities to enact public policies that raise wages, require health care, and establish paid days off. While these policies look different in each city, all increase standards for workers. By taking wages and benefits out of competition, the legislation functions like the trigger, ensuring that no firm is at a competitive disadvantage due to unionization, making winning the union easier. Once the economic standards are set legislatively, non-economic matters like health and safety, anti-discrimination, just cause, and seniority are bargained with the employers.
Political mobilization has also been crucial in fast-food organizing. SEIU and 32BJ politically mobilized to win a minimum wage of $15 an hour in New York and recently 32BJ won legislation covering eighty thousand NYC fast-food workers that requires a fair workweek and “just cause” in the case of firing. In addition to improving workers’ lives, this will reduce turnover, thus creating better conditions for organizing.
Committing to Worker Solidarity
No matter how strategic 32BJ’s plans and tactics are, success depends on worker power. Local 32BJ spends significant time and resources on the intensive work of building organizing committees, doing one-on-one meetings, developing leaders, charting workplaces, testing workers’ commitment to unionization, and inoculating them against anti-union rhetoric. This is the invisible trench work carried out by organizers and Brigade members to put majorities of workers into motion. Local 32BJ believes that workers must tell their own stories. They are the spokespeople for the campaign and must own the campaign, including the risks faced when they begin organizing and confronting their employer. While 32BJ occasionally runs National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections, the bulk of organizing campaigns demand card check. This usually requires strikes. Turning out a majority of workers to strike creates a compression point where union members, politicians, and other allies can rally around the workers to pressure the employer to meet their demands.
Candidates backed by 32BJ are expected to . . . support an agenda that furthers organizing.
When non-union workers take risks and bold actions like strikes and demonstrations, 32BJ’s members show up by the hundreds, sometimes thousands, to support them. On MLK Day 2014, over one thousand members marched alongside workers organizing at JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark airports. They demanded union recognition, decent wages, health care, and MLK Day as their first paid holiday. Thirty-three airport workers, 32BJ members, and community allies were arrested on the 94th Street bridge, the entrance to LaGuardia Airport.
Collective bargaining provides another area where worker solidarity can provide a source of power to win the union. Local 32BJ makes it a principle to use its power during contract campaigns to bargain for organizing rights for workers in new sectors and markets, and lines up contract expiration dates in part to provide it with leverage to do this. Local 32BJ bargaining committees regularly refuse to settle contracts until employers agree to allow workers who are trying to organize somewhere else a path to the union. For example, in 2019 32BJ janitorial bargaining committees up and down the East Coast supported janitors organizing in Miami, Florida demanding that contractors sign a trigger agreement and card check. Union members engaged in solidarity actions supporting striking janitors in Miami, and contractors had to contend with 32BJ’s credible threat to fly strikers to Northeast cities to put up pickets at union buildings that members could and would honor. Ultimately, the contractors agreed.
In 2021, after beating local contractors and meeting the trigger, 32BJ bargained its first contract covering two thousand Miami janitors. The contract includes organizing rights to adjacent markets. In 2021, NY/NJ airport workers demanded that national contractors sign card check agreements for workers in Houston, Texas organizing with the SEIU TX. At present, one thousand six hundred workers have won recognition and are in bargaining.
Committing to a Broader Movement
Local 32BJ believes that the union should not just be a force for change at the workplace, but also in the communities in which workers live. It has supported economic justice movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Fight for $15. A leader on immigration reform, 32BJ has led and won state legislative fights for drivers’ licenses for all and passage of state-level Dream Acts. After Eric Garner’s killing by police in 2014, 32BJ joined the Black Lives Matter protests, including the call for criminal justice and police reform. Local 32BJ consciously weaves these issues directly into organizing campaigns so workers see the fight for the union as part of a larger fight to transform their lives.
Supporting social justice issues is not always easy. In as diverse a union as 32BJ, members who might agree on contract issues do not necessarily agree on broader social justice issues. Far from it. This takes internal debate and struggle, and that takes time, often to the annoyance of rightfully impatient movement activists who want immediate action. Sometimes consensus cannot be reached, but when the union does take a position, the seas of purple shirts at rallies and legislative hearings are testament to the union’s capacity to support social movements.
At times, 32BJ finds itself in tension with progressive movements, particularly around the union’s relationship with real estate interests because it generally supports new real estate development when owners have entered into agreements that will allow workers to join 32BJ. A notable conflict involved 32BJ support for Amazon’s Queens headquarters. Progressive organizations and other unions came out strongly against the headquarters because of tax breaks Amazon had secured from the city and state. But 32BJ had brokered an organizing agreement with Amazon for three thousand contracted cleaning and security workers at the new headquarters, its new headquarters in Virginia, and security workers at its existing headquarters in Seattle. In short, 32BJ believed having a relationship with Amazon through its contracted cleaning and security could only help the drive to unionize Amazon, and that having Amazon headquartered in NYC, where unions have the highest density and political power, would further efforts to organize the company. Due to the resistance it faced, Amazon backed out. While the headquarters did not open in Queens, Amazon’s presence in the city has grown in subsequent years, opening at least fourteen distribution centers, all operating non-union, without public outcry.
Committing to the Future
The success of 32BJ, even in an environment hostile to labor, demonstrates that unions can organize and grow substantially, even without the PRO Act. Committing significant resources, crafting strategic campaigns focused on economic sectors, developing programs that train and mobilize members, and combining aggressive organizing with political muscle, can build worker power and win the union. Rapid union growth has occurred before, and while aided by improvements to labor law, it did not happen without union organizing.
1. Though it is difficult to get data on organizing spending alone, it is clear that few unions followed through with this request. Margaret Levi, “Organizing Power: The Prospects for an American Labor Movement,” Perspectives on Politics 1, no. 1 (2003): 45-68, available at https://www.jstor.org/stable/3687812.
2. Kate Bronfenbrenner, “No Holds Barred—The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing Report,” Economic Policy Institute, May 20, 2009, available at https://www.epi.org/publication/bp235/; Gordon Lafer and Lola Loustaunau, “An Inside Account of How Employers Threaten, Intimidate, and Harass Workers to Stop Them From Exercising Their Right to Collective Bargaining,” Economic Policy Institute, July 23, 2020, available at https://www.epi.org/unequalpower/publications/private-sector-unions-corporate-legal-erosion/.
3. The 32BJ membership decline in 2020 was due to layoffs of airport workers and commercial office cleaners due to Covid-19 pandemic stay at home orders.
4. Steven Greenhouse, “How One Local Union Is Doubling Wages for America’s Airport Workers,” American Prospect, April 2, 2020, available at https://prospect.org/labor/local-union-doublingwages-for-america-airport-workers/.
5. Ross Eisenbrey, “Employers Can Stall First Union Contract for Years,” Economic Policy Institute, May 20, 2009, available at https://www.epi.org/publication/snapshot_20090520/.
6. David Madland and Malkie Wall, “What Is Sectoral Bargaining?” Center for American Progress, March 2, 2020, available at https://www.americanprogressaction.org/issues/economy/news/2020/03/
Rob Hill is Executive Vice President of 32BJ Service Employees International Union (SEIU), New York’s largest private-sector union and the country’s largest property services union. He joined
SEIU 32BJ as a lead organizer in 2000 and has been Organizing Director since 2005.
Stuart Eimer is an associate professor and Co-Chair of the Department of Sociology at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania. His research focuses on the U.S. labor movement, with a particular focus on central labor councils and union organizing. He is also a labor educator who has taught SEIU
32BJ members and staff since 2002.