Independent Unions: The Allure of a Failing Strategy

In the aftermath of the remarkable and unprecedented victory of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) at a Staten Island facility on April 1, 2022, nearly the entire conversation around the American labor movement changed overnight.

The ALU had defeated Amazon, one of the megaliths of the modern economy, in a union vote. No one had ever beaten Amazon. For that matter, almost no successful campaigns against any of the iconic companies of the twenty-first century economy—Target, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Uber, Walmart, or others—had succeeded. So, under any circumstances, this was front page news.

What amazed almost everyone was that the ALU was an independent union movement with few resources. Almost no one believed the ALU had a shot to win this election.[1] I certainly did not. The union record of even highly centralized unions winning elections against the behemoths of the twenty-first-century economy is nearly nonexistent. To say the least, I, like everyone else in the labor movement, was pleasantly surprised.

The rise of the Starbucks campaign at the same time only gave more energy to a rare moment of labor movement optimism. The Starbucks campaign is nominally independent but has support from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) behind it. As of this writing, the Starbucks Workers United has organized 278 stores, although organizing has slowed in the face of overwhelming corporate resistance from Starbucks head Howard Schulz. All of a sudden, it seems that the new era of independent, grassroots, worker-led unionism is upon us.

That the ALU built itself through GoFundMe fundraising and localized events around beer and barbeque seemed even more unlikely. Where were the high-paid union lawyers, the outside organizers, the centrally planned strategy? All of these, admittedly, had not led to a lot of victories in recent years. But still, they all seemed absolutely necessary for even a preliminary victory.

In the aftermath of the initial victory, there was a great deal of talk about how this was the harbinger for a new unionism, one that focused more on independent unions and less on the current unions that are big organizations, often bureaucratic, and often lacking the radical edge that many labor commenters want.

To take just one example, consider the April 7, 2022, Noam Scheiber article in the New York Times about the ALU victory. It cited several labor intellectuals, writers, and activists saying that decentralized unions were not just the future but the present, criticizing established unions for their failures and calling for the labor movement to reorient itself toward an independent model.[2] The great labor scholar Ruth Milkman went so far as to compare the ALU with the United Farm Workers (UFW) and the Flint Sit-Down Strike.[3]

In the months since the ALU’s victory, a lot about this initial optimism has aged poorly. Shortly after the first victory, the ALU suffered a blow-out defeat at a second Staten Island facility. And an election at an Amazon facility in Albany saw less than 20 percent of the bargaining unit vote for the ALU, with a 2:1 loss in the overall vote.[4] Beyond those defeats, some original ALU organizers have talked of being purged from the union for insufficient loyalty to ALU President Chris Smalls. At the Staten Island facility, Amazon has refused to negotiate, although that is hardly Smalls’ fault given it would avoid negotiating with any union.

If you want to find Smalls, you can go to a Labor Notes conference, or to various labor events in New York, or to strikes around the nation where he shows up to give a talk. He has appeared at dozens of labor events around the country in the last year. Where you are unlikely to find Smalls is organizing the ALU. The aftermath of that first election has not gone well for ALU. A single victory by this independent  union might mean a transformation in the labor movement. Or it might be a blip in the long history of American unionism.

In the months since the ALU’s victory, a lot about this initial optimism has aged poorly.

The reality of organizing under American labor law makes victory very difficult. My concern here is not the ALU per se, but rather how large sectors of labor-movement intellectuals embraced this particular election as the future of the labor movement when evidence suggests that the road for independent unions is extremely challenging, much more so than for established unions.

It is due time to have a serious conversation about the viability of independent unions. I will state up front that I have no particular agenda here except for two points. First, I want to promote the best ideas that will help labor win. Second, I want the larger labor intellectual and organizing community to stop taking isolated single wins and declaring them the future of the labor movement, something easily disproven if one looks back to the claims made after these victories.[5] Otherwise, independent or not, centrally organized or run by anarchists, I only want unions to win.

For over a century, independent unionism as an organizing strategy has ebbed and flowed in intellectual currents on the American left. The history provides a useful way to consider the status of independent unions within the labor movement and among leftists today. The longstanding allure of independent unionism might tell us more about the viability of independent unionism than the ALU’s victory can.

The longstanding allure of independent unionism might tell us more than the ALU’s victory can about the viability of independent unionism.

By “independent union,” I mean a union developed as an organization outside of an established union. This can be something as large and long-lasting as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or the kind of short-lived union efforts that have come and gone through American history. But the spirit of the independent union also lives within established unions, and this essay discusses the independent union in both fact and spirit, based on the relevant  context of the era. We need to examine independent unions together with union democratization efforts, for at certain times in American history, there was little space for independent unionism. But those union democratization efforts—and their general failure to succeed against entrenched leadership—represent the same impulses that drove alternatives to established unions both before the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and in the last few decades.

Probably the first important independent union after the creation of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886 was Eugene Debs’ American Railway Union (ARU). The ARU’s rapid rise and descent after it engaged in  its solidarity strike with Brotherhood of Pullman Sleeping Car Workers in 1894 is well-documented. But it is worth remembering that Debs’ experience with the railroad brotherhoods and their lack of solidarity moved him toward a new model. His breakaway union did not succeed in moving the brotherhoods toward a solidarity strike, and the subsequent military repression of the strike converted Debs to Marxism and rethinking capitalism entirely. This first major move toward independent unions demonstrated the limitations of AFL-style unionism and the difficulty they would have succeeding.[6]

Somewhat more long-lasting was the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). The WFM formed in 1893 after a failed strike in Idaho made union leaders realize that only by organizing all hard rock miners in the West could miners achieve any meaningful gains. A major victory in Cripple Creek, Colorado in 1894 provided stability to the WFM for a decade and it became a meaningful presence in  the mines. But further resistance from the Colorado militia stopped it from spreading in 1897, and then in 1903, the governor of Colorado declared martial law to destroy the union.[7]

In the aftermath of the WFM’s defeat, its leadership, now including Big Bill Haywood, called for industrial organizing across the nation’s working classes. This led the WFM to help form the IWW in 1905. Political disputes with the IWW soon caused the WFM to turn in a different direction. The WFM continued organizing in the western mines, later as the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, into the 1950s, when it was redbaited out of existence, its remnants finally merging with the United Steelworkers of America in 1967.[8]

Whether workers affiliated with the IWW were truly “independent” is a debatable question. I argue “yes” for two fundamental reasons. First, IWW affiliation was for most workers an independent act rooted in solidarity rather than a lifestyle or a condition of work. Second, AFL leadership saw the IWW as an existential threat to its future that must be crushed. So the IWW became a loose constellation of workers opposed to AFL methods and politics, or lack thereof. It became a space for socialists, anarchists, syndicalists, and rank-and-file workers, both immigrant and native-born, to organize for what they needed in their jobs and lives. It became an organization that at least purportedly, and sometimes in reality, actively fought against racism and segregation and saw class as a real identification that could unite the world’s workers.

Through its brief history, the IWW eschewed AFL-style business unionism. Principles of struggle were worked out at the point of production, not in union offices or in smoke-filled rooms with lobbyists. There is much about the IWW that appeals to activists today. It focused on local leadership over union bureaucracy. It created cultural productions such as the black cat and the Little Red Songbook that inspire modern leftist culture. The role of the state in violently crushing allows for a romantic narrative of the struggle that retains great power among contemporary  activists. The IWW seems far more relevant than the AFL to those who have raised the banner against police brutality, imperialism, climate change, and other issues that challenge the core of racial capitalism. That mainstream organized labor today seems so unwilling to tackle these issues only goes farther to set the IWW as an inspiration for independent grassroots unionism.

The IWW seems far more relevant than the AFL to those who have raised the banner against police brutality, imperialism, climate change, and other issues that challenge the core of  racial capitalism.

This brief history is important to understand the role of historical memory on the contemporary left because the next wave of union growth—the CIO in the 1930s—had almost no room for independent unionism. The failures of unions in the 1920s and the ideological rigidity of the Communist Party meant that the CIO and its leadership—communist or not—had little patience for an independent union model. Democratic unionism existed in some of the CIO unions on the left, such as United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (popularly known as the UE), but the United Auto Workers (UAW), United Mine Workers, and  United Steel Workers had next to no union democracy, at least after the 1950s in the case of the UAW. This was the era of the bureaucrat, the expert, and the mass movement based on leadership at the top. For the next three decades, the union movement was personified in leadership, such as the UAW’s Walter Reuther, not in independent strikes. When workers did express independence, such as in the World War II wildcat strikes, union leadership worked closely with the Roosevelt administration to suppress them.

This was the peak of the institutionalization days for both liberals and the left. The Democratic Party embraced expertise as part of the New Deal state. From soil managers to electricity experts, it was the proverbial man in the white lab coat, not the union member, who would make decisions about the nation’s future, even if unions were now accepted as part of American governance as never before. Moreover, the success of the Communist Party demonstrated to most leftists a model of centralization that had created a successful revolution, even if the Lincoln Brigades in Spain demonstrated the continued appeal of direct action.

Simply put, that generation of leadership tended to believe only big organizations could raise the standards of the working class. Small “d” democracy only got in the way of what centralized leadership could provide. Within the Labor movement, the CIO provided a top-down model that made sense to most unionists at the time. While the various CIO internationals had differing levels of democracy, at the top, John L. Lewis had no time for such things, either in the federation or in his United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

George Meany’s campaign to defeat George McGovern in 1972 and the Hard-Hat Riots led by New York building trades against anti-Vietnam protestors poisoned mainstream labor for much of the New Left for a generation.

The independent unions of the 1920s and 1930s soon joined established unions or disappeared. One example of this took place at the Hormel meat plant in Austin, Minnesota. There, ex-Wobblies created the Independent Union of All Workers (IUAW), which engaged in an early sit-down strike in 1933. They won and forced Hormel to sign a contract. By 1937, the IUAW had organized plants in Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and South Dakota. But by the late 1930s, the independent union disintegrated due to infighting and rightwing violence. Most of  the locals ended up in the United Packinghouse Workers of America, a much larger CIO-affiliated union that provided the stability and resources the IUAW lacked. Perhaps not surprisingly, this local kept an independent streak so that by the 1980s it defied its own international, now the United Food and Commercial Workers, in the infamous P-9 strike.[9]

The mid-twentieth century saw few independent unions develop. Grassroots resistance would emerge to challenge the centralized bureaucracy of the unions, but still rarely questioned the need for an institutionalized union movement. This began to change in the late 1960s. Much of this was related to the larger disillusionment with government in the Vietnam War. The New Deal planners had helped create the environmental crisis; men in lab coats became suspicious whether they worked for the Department of Defense or for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Labor leaders were bureaucrats who supported the war, not the vanguard for justice. George Meany’s campaign to defeat George McGovern in 1972 and the Hard-Hat Riots led by New York building trades against anti- Vietnam protestors poisoned mainstream labor for much of the New Left for a generation.[10]

Within the labor movement, the dominance of institutional unionism meant that the broader protests of the 1960s mostly did not manage to spur new organizing around independence. Rather, union democracy became the reforming mantra. This was most true in the UMWA, where workers organized against the corrupt leadership of Tony Boyle, especially after he murdered his challenger Jock Yalbonski. Boyle died in prison and the UMWA went through a period of direct democracy that changed the culture of the union. Ed Sadlowski became a gadfly within the United Steel Workers. Workers at the Lordstown, Ohio General Motors (GM) plant in 1972 struck against both GM and the UAW’s indifference to job losses through automation and the general terribleness of work on the factory floor. The Teamsters saw Teamsters for a Democratic Union rise up to challenge its established leadership.[11]

Where an independent union movement did surface was with the rise of Cesar Chavez and the UFW movement. Although Chavez allowed little democracy in the UFW and increasingly sought to center power around himself, his distrust of the established union movement, his embrace of the moral high ground through his hunger strikes, and his willingness to bring in idealistic white volunteers to run the grape boycott around the country made him a hero to the left in the 1960s and 1970s. This was a new social justice model for unionism, one forged in the fields and far away from the bureaucratic union offices. That the United Brotherhood of Teamsters, the epitome of a corrupted union in the minds of many on the left, worked with growers to poach farmworkers and beat up UFW volunteers only reinforced the need for a very different union model.[12]

While the radicalism of the late 1960s and early 1970s may have faded by the later 1970s, the influence of non-centralized activism remained as strong as ever. New movements such as the anti-nuclear campaigns took on this new grassroots, volunteer-driven model. The groups that formed out of this movement either remained highly localized or, even more significantly,  were larger organizations such as Greenpeace that took anarchist ideology and placed it into action, directly challenging everything from whaling ships to nuclear plants in dramatic confrontations.[13]

. . . [S]uspicion of tired old union leadership not only remains but is almost conventional wisdom at this point.

The growth of radical environmentalism through the 1980s only reinforced this strong anti-institutionalism. While “Big Green” organizations such as The Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society fundraised to fight the Reagan administration’s anti-environmental measures in courts, activists accused these organizations of selling out. EarthFirst! became the most prominent of these groups challenging mainstream environmentalism, often engaging in dangerous tactics such as spiking trees and lying down in front of logging equipment. Even more radical organizations such as the Earth Liberation Front went so far as to burn timber mills and ski resorts. Not only did these actions drive a wedge into the labor-environmentalist alliance of the 1970s, but it openly eschewed concern about the consequences.[14]

These groups were openly anarchist in ideology and action. The ideology itself may often have  been half-baked and the actions sporadic, but it attracted a lot of young people who distrusted institutions on the left as much as they did the right. This anarchist core came to labor’s attention with their participation in the World Trade Organization protest in Seattle in 1999. To say the least, the anarchists had little interest in the institutional unions in the protest. Their direct-action attacks on corporate property in the city did not mesh with the careful coalition-building the labor and environmental movements had undertaken in the previous years. The response of organized labor to the window-breaking and the violent police response it caused varied by the union, but for the anarchists, they provided the actual attack on capitalism that they felt the unions would continue to shun.[15]

Many of these young activists did end up in the labor movement, often through the organizing efforts of the John Sweeney years with Union Summer and the Organizing Institute. They had to negotiate their own ideology as they entered the labor movement, and many have become long-time staffers. But suspicion of tired old union leadership not only remains but is almost  conventional wisdom at this point. This has not necessarily led to changes in the union movement, but it has sharpened the critiques, both internally and externally.

. . . [M]any new union movements have begun as independent. But if they succeed, they rarely remain so for long. The need for resources of all kinds becomes overwhelming.

Perhaps we saw this suspicion of Big Union manifest itself in the most interesting way during Occupy Wall Street (OWS). When OWS woke up the nation to income inequality, unions started showing up at the protests. The response of the OWS protestors was fear that unions  would co-opt their protests. As if established labor had the skill and wherewithal to do so! They very much did not and do not today. But this spoke to the fear of institutional control and the suspicion of centralization at the heart of a movement that came up with such innovations as the people’s mic and attempted consensus decision-making, perhaps the vision of decisions most impossible for AFL-CIO leadership to comprehend.

For the masses of unorganized workers to choose AFL-CIO-established unions, rather than creating new autonomous organizations, the established labor movement will need to change course.

Through these years, many new union movements have begun as independent. But if they succeed, they rarely remain so for long. The need for resources of all kinds becomes overwhelming. To take just one example, in the early 2000s, I was organizing at the University of Tennessee in what became the United Campus Workers (UCW), a union of any campus worker who wanted to join that became something of a model of how to organize in a right-to-work state where a union contract was effectively impossible. The UCW maintained its independence for a few years, but soon chose to join the Communication Workers of America (CWA). As UCW-CWA, it has maintained a lot of daily independence, but also has access to the support that only a large organization offers. Such a model of quasi-independence may have appeal to many workers today, avoiding some of the downside of being part of large, bureaucratic organizations while still having access to at least some of the resources large unions can provide. This could enable workers to build a more democratic, worker-centric activist organization of the sort they envision.

If the ALU is to endure, probably it will have to affiliate with a more established union. Even with the greatest leaders in union history, there is almost no way it could survive against a behemoth like Amazon. Organizing Amazon is going to mean winning dozens of facilities, not just one. This requires massive resources. The ALU victory spurred talk of “member-led unionism,” but nearly all union campaigns are member-led. Yes, the internationals bring years of organizing experience to the table. Sometimes that advice is good and sometimes it is not, but it is not an adversarial outside organization trying to undermine the rank and file. The ALU and all independent unions require legal expertise, the money to pay organizers to bolster the efforts of volunteers, and political lobbying and legislative expertise. It is almost impossible for independent unions to muster this level of resources without affiliation with a larger international.

Affiliation with an established union is the natural trajectory of an independent union campaign. Whatever happens with the ALU, it is unlikely to depress the ardor for independent unionism. For the masses of unorganized workers to choose AFL-CIO-established unions, rather than creating new autonomous organizations, the established labor movement will need to change course. It will need to do things such as place the interests of the planet front and center, lead the way on protesting police brutality, put major money into organizing, and take other bold steps to  combat the massive structural inequality in which we live.

In the end, the emphasis on independent unionism is a damning indictment of the failure of the established labor movement to meet the moment.

5. For one example of this, see several essays in Daniel Katz and Richard Greenwald, Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America, written immediately after the
Wisconsin uprising and using terms such as “we have them where we want them.” By the time the book was published, Wisconsin was long past and to say the least, things had not improved for the labor movement.
6. Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982); Carl Smith, Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, the Haymarket Bomb, and the Model Town of Pullman, 2nd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007).
7. Elizabeth Jameson, All That Glitters: Class, Conflict, and Community in Cripple Creek (Urban: University of Illinois Press, 1998); Mark Wyman, Hard Rock Epic: Western Miners and the Industrial Revolution, 1860-1910 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).
8. Melyvn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World, 2nd ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 19-56; Justin Akers Chacon, Radicals in the
Barrio: Magonistas, Socialists, Wobblies, and Communists in the Mexican-American Working Class (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018); and James J. Lorence, Palomino: Clinton Jencks and Mexican-American Unionism in the American Southwest (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013).
9. Peter Rachleff, “Organizing ‘Wall to Wall’: The Independent Union of All Workers, 1933-1937,” in We Are All Leaders: The Alternative Unionism of the Early 1930s, ed. Staughton Lynd (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996), 51-71.
10. Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (New York: The New Press, 2010); Penny Lewis, Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: The Vietnam Anti-war Movement as Myth and Memory (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013); and David Zierler, The Invention of Ecocide: Agent Orange, Vietnam, and Scientists Who Changed the Way We Think About the Environment (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011).
11. Cowie, Stayin’ Alive.
12. Matt Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012); Frank Bardacke, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers (New York: Verso Books, 2011).
13. Frank Zelko, Make it a Green Peace! The Rise of a Countercultural Environmentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
14. Erik Loomis,i(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Erik Loomis, “Towards a Working-Class Environmentalism,” The New Republic, December 5, 2016, available at
15. Alexander Cockburn, Jeffrey St. Clair, and Allan Sekula, 5 Days that Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond (London: Verso Books, 2000).

Author Biography
Erik Loomis is professor of history at the University of Rhode Island. He is the author of A History of America in Ten Strikes (The New Press, 2018).

1 thought on “Independent Unions: The Allure of a Failing Strategy

  • May 2023 at 2:12 pm

    I appreciate this — the balance of romanticism vs. the long term effort and support needed for sustainability. A question here is how to take that spark of rank and file activism and help ensure it can help light a flame that lasts for a generation? Many elected union officers and staff have that spark in their heart, or the spark at one time led them to union leadership, but the day to day of grievances, contracts, politics (both within and outside the union) means that’s where the energy goes. At what point is the union’s energy directed towards its own institutional survival, vs. nurturing the members involvement and activism? A tight rope walk that some unions seem able to walk .. but again, usually with a strong leader who inspires the members!

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