Volunteer Organizers Can Add Muscle To Major Union Recruiting Campaigns

There are many reasons why unions fail to win organizing campaigns, why they abort them soon after launching, and why many campaigns don’t get off the drawing board. These failures explain why unions are especially reluctant to target corporations that employ thousands of workers in multiple plants and facilities throughout the United States.

Unions do not have enough competent organizers to take on major corporations. Far too many of them are inadequately trained and are no match for the high-priced lawyers and management consultants that employers hire to defeat them.

Also, organizers often do not have enough support staff to respond effectively to the many contingencies that arise during a campaign. Successful organizing requires a staff that possesses a variety of skills, almost all of which are put to the test in any large-scale recruiting effort.

But the most serious defect in most organizing campaigns is that very little effort is spent on involving union members. Organizing is treated as a separate activity, carried on almost exclusively by staff people, largely in isolation from the members.

Let’s face up to the grim truth: if we can’t get masses of union members to be active participants in recruiting new members, we’re never going to become a bigger and stronger labor movement. Our situation is so critical that it will require all of us, union officials as well as union members, to take extraordinary measures to fulfill our responsibilities to America’s working families.


If you’re trying to build an army of volunteer organizers, the best place to look for recruits is in local unions and the workplaces they control. There are at least 10,000 local unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO and Change to Win federations, whose members are worried about their jobs and economic future.

While there is broad agreement that organizing millions of new members is the key to rebuilding a bigger and stronger labor movement, our national leaders have failed to come up with a practical plan to accomplish this.

To fill the vacuum and overcome labor’s inertia, the creation of an “Army of Volunteer Organizers” would offer frustrated union members an opportunity to participate in an organizing program that could challenge the nation’s anti-union corporations.


Under such a plan, volunteer organizers would have the right to participate in any of the activities listed below, each of which has an essential role in a well planned, long-range organizing program. They would work in teams with like-minded unionists and have a voice in determining how to proceed on a number of key tasks such as:

1. Survey: It is important to gather a list of non-union companies in your area, including detailed information about their operations, which should be periodically updated.

2. Research: Check company behavior on taxes, health violations, standing in the community, attitude toward employees, strikes, past labor problems…

3. Contacts: Check around to find names and phone numbers of employees in various non-union enterprises.

4. House Calls: Visit workers at home or job site to talk up the union. Keep record of interview with each person.

5. Community Affairs: Get to know media people, politicians, other union leaders, and influential heads of community organizations.

6. SWAT Teams: A quick-response campaign that takes reactive steps when workers are fired for pro-union activity.

7. Strategy Planning: A select leadership group elected by volunteer organizers on the basis of performance.

Other activities could include publications, such as leaflets and online communications, picket duty, and working with local media.


At some point, the volunteers from each local could meet to elect a regional council of their leaders, who would work with the central labor council in their area to provide staffing and resources for organizing campaigns.

There are more than 500 central labor councils across the U.S. Through a network of councils, it would be possible to target non-union corporations that have multiple plants in various states.

Harry Kelber received a Troublemakers Award at the 2006 Labor Notes Conference for a lifetime of work in the labor movement. This article is part of a series on organizing run by the Labor Educator. The whole series is online at www.laboreducator.org/demarmy.htm.

Organizing: What's Needed



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Labor Notes staff: Introduction to roundtable discussion

Erin Bowie: The CWA's Experience, A Tale of Two Card-Check Agreements

Kate Bronfenbrenner: Union Power Means More Than Market Share

David Cohen: Labor Needs a New Approach to Organizing...But Members Must Be a Part of It

Steve Early: AFL-CIO's Organizing Summit Looks at "Best Practices" - But Leaves Much Unexamined

Steve Early: A Look at Three "Strategic Campaigns"

Lenny Gentle: South Africa's Experience of "One Industry, One Union"

Allen Gottheil: The Other Side of Organizing -- Winning the First Contract

Jeff Lacher: Members as Organizers Build Stronger Unions

Stephen Lerner: Three Steps To Reorganizing And Rebuilding The Labor Movement

Labor Notes: Summary of Lerner piece

Kim Moody: Does Size Matter? Strategy and Quality of Leadership Are More Important

Peter Olney: To Organize to Scale, We Need Labor Law Reform

Ken Paff: Failure to Organize in Core Jurisdictions Costs Teamsters Bargaining Power

Daisy Rooks: New Organizer Recruits Recognize Flaws in Staff-Centered Organizing Model

Ed Rothstein: A New Vision for Organizing

Sid Shniad: Restructuring Won't Happen Top-Down

Sam Smucker: The AFL-CIO's Organizing Institute

Wendy Thompson: Strategy and Resource Shift Needed: Auto Workers Union Need Organizing Campaign Based on an Army of Member-Organizers

Chris Townsend: Labor Law Reform Could Turn Tide on Organizing

Suzanne Wall: From Amalgamated to Focused