Organizing for Numbers -- Or For Power?

Why, seven years into the “new AFL-CIO,” have organized labor’s numbers continued to dwindle? Peter Olney, writing in New Labor Forum, notes that despite the national AFL-CIO’s vigorous shaming, coaxing and cajoling of its affiliates, federation membership fell by 68,000 in five years. The AFL-CIO, well aware of the alarming numbers, has called for a “National Organizing Summit” early next year.

New Labor Forum, a twice-yearly journal published at Queens College in New York, devoted a chunk of its spring/summer issue to some challenging articles about two of unions’ strategies for survival: organizing and mergers. Often, the failure of the former-either through unsuccessful campaigns or through lack of trying-has led to the latter.

Here’s a summary of proposals in three of the articles about organizing. To order the whole issue, see below.

What are the elements of an action program that will build unions’ numbers, density, and power?

1. Organize the factories. Both Jack Metzgar and Peter Olney argue that manufacturing is not only still a vital part of the U.S. economy but also vital to union survival.

Metzgar notes that, contrary to impressions, manufacturing is far from over in the U.S. There are about 19 million manufacturing jobs here, two million more than in 1955. The percentage of the workforce engaged in manufacturing has fallen from a third to about 16 percent since then, but that’s mostly because the service sector has been growing so fast.

Unions’ grip on manufacturing, on the other hand, is loosening daily. Metzgar notes that once over half of factory workers were union members; now it’s only 14.8%. In 1985 there were 5 million union factory workers; today, fewer than 3 million.

Metzgar told Labor Notes, “If manufacturing was still 50% organized, we'd have 6 or 7 million unionists we don't have now, and overall union density (private and public sectors) would be 18% or 19%, versus 13.5% now. So, if unions are committed to ‘organizing at an unprecedented pace and scale’ (as the AFL-CIO urges), manufacturing workers is a large group to ignore or give up on.

“I also think there’s a kernel of truth to the idea that factory workers are easier to organize because they're more culturally disposed to unions and to collective action. Many nonunion factory workers have some experience (through parents or relatives, if not direct experience) with unions (not all of it good, unfortunately). So in terms of organizing soil, manufacturing should provide a bit more ‘ease of opportunity’ than other sectors.

“For particular unions, like the UAW and the Steelworkers, organizing factory workers is an urgent necessity because they are losing density in areas of their traditional strength. In auto, it's the transplants and auto parts. In steel, it's the mini-mills, which now must have half or more of all steel employment, almost all of it nonunion. Wages and benefits at the auto transplants and steel mini-mills generally mimic, without equaling, union standards, but history argues that eventually this process will be reversed--the nonunion sector will start pulling down union standards--if that is not already happening.”

Metzgar’s article cites a 1998-99 study by Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University, who has studied organizing for years, of seven unions that organize in manufacturing, only two, the UAW and UNITE (needle trades), were winning a majority of their campaigns. The Carpenters, Machinists, and PACE (paper, oil, chemical and other workers) won a third or less; the Steelworkers 43%; the IUE (Electronic Workers, now merged into the Communication Workers--CWA) a piteous 17%.

In a September 12 interview with Labor Notes, Bronfenbrenner talked about why unions are not doing more to organize manufacturing workers: “There’s no question that it is harder to organize in manufacturing, because of capital’s mobility. Workers are terrified. When the employer says ‘we’re going to move to Mexico or China,’ it is real.

“So all the manufacturing unions are shifting into industries that are easier to organize or moving to healthcare, like the Steelworkers’ alliance with the California Nurses Association. But if we give up on manufacturing, then we give up on the core of the economy.

“Manufacturing will always be with us. It is a myth that we’re moving to a high-wage, high-skill, white-collar economy. There are still lots of pink collars, lots of gray collars [utilities], still a lot of blue-collar. So many of these other jobs are ancillary to manufacturing-distribution of goods, selling of goods, suppliers, companies that feed the workers in the plants or launder their uniforms, service occupations that serve the workers in those communities.

“It’s the factory jobs that are really the tax base of the community. If they’re union, they’re the good jobs, the long-term ones, the ones that have health insurance and pensions and are most likely to be full-time. If you give up on the best jobs, then the pension in the family goes, and the health insurance in the family goes, and the taxes to the school district go too.”

Olney observes that when the Service Employees (SEIU) organized 74,000 home care workers in Los Angeles County, the media called the victory one of the most significant since the UAW’s 1937 sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, which wrested recognition from General Motors. That, says Olney, is an example, of confusing numbers with strategic significance. “If auto workers strike, the economy crumbles,” he notes. “If home care workers strike, they hurt their own relatives and the poor.”

Olney argues that unions must address “the power points of the economy,” not only manufacturing but also distribution: trucking, air freight, courier, and warehousing. Yes, factory workers who try to organize are vulnerable to shutdowns, but many other factors besides wages go into a company’s decision on where to locate, such as product perishability and proximity to suppliers. (Even General Motors continues to build new factories in the U.S.-in Michigan!)



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In addition, when supplier chains are organized on a “just-in-time” basis, as is now the norm, a strike threat at a supplier plant becomes a powerful tool to force management to recognize a union there. The UAW’s short strikes at supplier Johnson Controls in June, which shut down five Big Three assembly plants, were examples of this power. The AFL-CIO, Olney says, could help unions figure out which manufacturing sectors and which companies are most organizable, taking into account their place in the supply chain and factors that limit management’s ability to relocate to low-wage areas.

The reality, though, is that “most industrial unions have given up on organizing manufacturing workers.” Olney credits AFL-CIO leaders with trying to convince manufacturing unions to organize their core jurisdictions. But their suggestions have largely fallen on deaf ears.

2. Reform the labor laws. Olney argues that organizing on a significant scale can’t happen without laws that help, or at least don’t hinder. The AFL-CIO has concluded that the Republican domination of Washington means that no reform is possible, and has ignored the reform bills put forward by Senator Paul Wellstone and Congressman Bernie Sanders.

Olney argues that labor should begin now to educate members about the need for new labor laws, so that a massive effort is possible once the political climate shifts in favor of labor. He points out that the AFL-CIO does have a huge political apparatus in place, one that has been more successful, in some senses, than “changing to organize.” That apparatus could fight for labor law reform.

3. Build non-union forms of worker power. Olney argues that workers who are uniting to win gains from their employers-even if they don’t yet have a majority of the workforce or signed contracts-are part of the labor movement too. He points to CWA’s organizing among workers at IBM and at high-tech companies in Seattle, both of which have created stable organizations that are not yet unions, and to the Longshore union’s work with a mutual aid society of bike messengers in San Francisco. The ILWU now has contracts at two messenger companies, but the bike messengers’ group continues to exist, with its own spirit of camaraderie.

Olney wants such differently-organized workers, and those who have participated in failed organizing drives at their shops, to be counted as “members, voters, and officers of existing unions.”

(For information on what “nonmajority unions” can achieve, see Labor Notes’ July, August, and September issues on this site.)

4. Seek out black workers for organizing. Olney notes that attitude polls always find that African American workers are the most supportive of union organizing. They are 11 percent of the population but 17 percent of union membership, partly because black workers are concentrated in sectors that are more highly organized than some others.

Olney wants black union leaders to join with black community organizations to organize-which would not only bring more workers into unions but also be a powerful community economic development strategy. “Move the black community’s history of struggle into labor’s column,” Olney says.

5. Use solidarity to win strikes. It should be obvious: when non-union workers see what labor is capable of, at its best and winning, they are more likely to take the risk of organizing themselves. John Sweeney’s remark has been quoted often: that the successful 1997 UPS strike was worth a million house calls.

Olney says strikes are “in danger of becoming a lost art,” and that winning strikes through labor and community solidarity should be a principal focus of central labor councils.

6. “Salt” the workplace with organizers. Training and hiring new professional organizers, Olney argues, is not as important as encouraging potential organizers to take jobs themselves, in target workplaces. This “salting”-taking a job with the intent to organize-was one factor in the massive drives of the 1930s.

Salters Carey Dall and Jonathon Cohen tell of their experience in San Francisco’s bike messenger industry. The reason for their success, they say simply, is that “a fellow worker resonates much better than a ‘staff hack.’” The shared experience of the daily insults of the job, the social bonding after work-these, according to Dall and Cohen, make it much more effective to organize from the inside than from the outside.

They are also at pains to say that one task of salts is to promote rank and file leaders, by showing how to be such leaders themselves. If existing union officials fear that their locals will get stirred up by new members and new leaders, those officials won’t be able to work well with salts. Ideally, a drive initiated by salts will be member-run and democratic-which in turn will breathe new life into “stale and shrinking unions.” It’s win-win-if the stale and shrunk can take the heat.

Which brings us back to Olney’s key point: “Bringing in millions of new workers is important, but the quality of that organizing and the fate of those workers once organized is the key to building power.” This point alone would stand a book’s worth of discussion. Union density-the percentage of the workforce that’s organized-is not the only determinant of union power, Olney notes. He mentions the powerful national strikes by public workers and truckers in France in the mid-1990s that paralyzed the country-though total union density was only 9.1%.

We need numbers-badly. But we also need our numbers to be strategically placed, to know how to fight, and to be willing to fight-both leaders and members.

To order a single issue of New Labor Forum, send $10 to Queens College Labor Resource Center, 25 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036, or visit Another interesting pair of articles in the spring/summer issue is Kim Moody’s argument that union mergers do not necessarily increase union power-and can even weaken it--and Bob Kirkman’s view of successful mergers-and swapping of members with other unions-by the SEIU.