The Truth About Union Organizing: It's Much Better Than You Think


The union movement is 3.5 million members smaller than 40 years ago, and the forces that brought that about are as energetically engaged and powerful as they have ever been.

From that undeniable fact, it has been wrongly concluded:

  • Union organizing is impossible, futile, or a thing of the past
  • The labor movement is dead, or dying
  • The best hope for workers is through something different from trade unions and collective bargaining.

These conclusions are very disconcerting to this organizer. I am upset that there’s so little acknowledgement of the millions of workers who have risked much to try to unionize.  Thousands are doing it today. 

And so little acknowledgement of those who have done it and succeeded. They number a million and a half.

How do I know that?  I know it from my own experience; it’s the work with which I have been immersed for those 40 years. And I know it by virtue of simple arithmetic. The 3.5 million members by which labor has shrunk is net. I simply added the net shrinkage of union membership, industry by industry, as shown in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ admittedly imprecise annual surveys of union membership. Those lines add up to 5 million; 5 million minus 3.5 yields a million and a half workers who organized unions at the same time others were driven out of them.

The labor movement has been growing while shrinking. Growing through organizing.

In those years, workers were driven out of unions, not by choice, but by:

  • offshoring of what were union jobs;
  • deunionization of major industries;
  • the rise of relentlessly anti-union companies to industry dominance;
  • the thwarting of the promise of the labor law by the general adoption of the union-busting playbook by employers;
  • and the spread of casualization, irregular part-time and temporary work, and all the forms by which the employer-employee legal nexus has been undermined. 

But, in the face of all that, workers continued to organize, and unions continued to support them.  Workers took risks, and unions did too.

For the first 20 of those 40 years, public workers did most of the organizing. Twenty states in 20 years established a legal framework for the rights of public workers. In 1973 public sector density was (a bit) below private sector density: 23 percent in contrast to 24.2 percent. As of 1993, it was 37.7 percent, compared with 11.1 percent.

Taking full account of this dangerous picture, union activists launched the movement to “Change to Organize”. We used the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute, launched in 1989, to train a whole new generation of organizers, and we recommitted the labor movement to organizing the unorganized. The training was rigorous, suited to an environment in which employers paid little heed to workers’ rights. Strong organizing committees, community support, and research to identify leverage points all became part of comprehensive organizing campaigns.

The concept of the Organizing Model was elaborated, contrasted to the Servicing Model; 25 years down the road this contrast continues to illuminate serious conversations within labor. The power of the concept is undiminished. It was paired with new expectations: that unions were to reallocate funds from representation of their existing members to organizing new ones, to build organizing staffs, and to raise the profile of organizing within the movement. John Sweeney adopted these themes in his successful insurgent campaign for President of the AFL-CIO. Labor also launched a campaign for labor law reform that built up steadily for 16 years.

Labor put every bit of its political capital into that fight, but we didn’t produce a change in the labor law. But many unions changed what they did, and how they did it. 

The millions of workers who organized unions include home care and child care providers, nurses and emergency medical technicians, hotel workers, adjunct college teachers, transportation security officers, taxi drivers, wireless telecom workers, drug store workers, truck drivers in ports, pickle harvesters, bakery workers and passenger service agents

There are a thousand stories. Each story illustrates different creative strategies that workers and unions have forged, and are devising. Each is about workers, in large numbers, determined to face and overcome the daunting obstacles that impede organizing, combining with unions that changed to organize.  Walmart workers, auto transplant workers, and fast-food and other restaurant workers are doing their best to add to this list of successes.

Of the millions who have organized, almost all have done so with national unions that changed to organize. This was different from the experience of the 1930s, when the CIO gave birth to brand-new unions. Today’s successes require the resources and focus of existing unions.

We can fairly say that there is movement in the labor movement, and its most significant expression is in union organizing.

These stories of growth are as significant as the better-known stories of labor’s defeats and the erosion of collective bargaining and labor standards.  If (in some parallel universe) employers would let workers decide, if Congress would let the labor law be revised, unions would grow, a whole lot.  It’s possible that  more workers would join unions than the number being pushed out.  Of course, the power to make that ‘parallel universe’ a real one isn’t in our grasp; its possibility is what we wish will develop out of the anger of Americans about the growing unfairness of our economic system.

Unions, and other progressives, are fanning the flames of that discontent, building opposition to the way things are being run. While we do that, what are we to say to workers who are willing to fight to organize even in today’s difficult terrain? Should we tell them to wait, until the rules of organizing are fairer? Not if we are satisfied that our creativity, resources, and deep, sustained commitment, combined with workers’ determination, is sufficient to win, not always, but often enough.

The case for organizing, today, is not just that we should do it; it’s also that we can.

And to that case we should add what we’re seeing in the worker movement, outside of the unions. In worker centers, especially among workers in temporary, casual, contractual and other insecure forms of employment, and in the fast-food strikes, workers are breaking new ground. These initiatives can’t reach or resemble the sustainability that union recognition and collective bargaining afford, but in other respects they are indeed part of the worker movement. They can resemble some of the features of unions, by:

  • Operating democratically, being “of, by and for the workers”
  • Emphasizing member participation as the foundation of their way of operating
  • Building power by exercising it, at the workplace
  • Being part of a movement, not just an organization.

To make the most of what worker centers have started, they need to find a way to combine with existing unions, in the same sense that workers have been doing so for all these years of uphill fights. Success has come where the unions’ commitment has been deep and persistent, and where a creative formula to overcome obstacles has been devised.  The chance to make combinations of this type work is one further dimension of the case for organizing.

Today’s fights come from three sources. There are fights that grow, more or less spontaneously, from workers taking risks. There are the fights picked by our enemies: fights like Wisconsin and so-called "right to work" anti-union measures, fights where our enemies try to bust a union through lockouts, bankruptcy, legislation or other tactics to become “union-free.” And then there are the fights we pick: campaigns where we go on offense, where we take risks in order to grow our power.

For all of these, we need organizations that will tap everyone, in our unions and outside them, to take action, to support workers, even workers very different from themselves.  We need rapid response capacity; those who are disposed to take action must be organized to be ready. As we take action, we need to build in a learning system, so that each action builds commitment and so that the next will be more powerful. 

Organizing the unorganized does all of that.

Organizing is hard; employers have made damned sure of that. It requires taking risks, and committing resources, resources that could easily be used only on behalf of today’s members, not tomorrow’s. So it requires that today’s members make that commitment.  We have to place a bet on the future. The case for organizing has to be sufficiently compelling to merit such a bet.

Movements often spring up, spontaneously. The economy we’re enduring constantly gives birth to grievances. But what flares up can flame out, unless we are prepared, and our organizations have the ability to recognize fights with mass appeal and the capacity to carry a fight as far as it takes us.

So let us all be missionaries—missionaries for solidarity, for organizing, for growing our unions and for the fights for justice. 

It’s not a new idea, but it’s the right idea. Organizing the unorganized is the highest priority for labor, and for all of our hopes for change.

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