Toward a More Perfect Union: New Labor's Hard Road

No single strategy can reverse a 20-year decline in average wages and its threat to our postwar pattern of broadly distributed prosperity. But it's hard to imagine a successful set of policies that doesn't include a revival of labor unions. With the election of John Sweeney as AFL-CIO president, and a fresh commitment to organizing, many union supporters (inside and out of the labor movement) are newly optimistic. However, the obstacles remain daunting.

At their 1954 zenith, unions represented 39 percent of private-sector workers. By 1973 when wages began to stagnate, the union share had fallen to 28 percent. Today it's barely 10 percent. A labor movement representing one worker in ten can't bargain effectively, especially when union strength has diminished in leading industries where master contracts once established national patterns. The once fully unionized auto industry now includes union-free Japanese and European transplant factories, ghost voices for wage restraint at Big Three bargaining tables. Steelworkers now work for nonunion mini-mills as well as for integrated steelmakers. Unionized UPS no longer dominates package delivery. Even in the powerful construction trades, the union share has plummeted. The declining unionization rate helps explain America's declining living standards. Not only do union jobs typically pay premium wages, but when unions are stronger, nonunion employers often improve compensation as part of their union avoidance strategies.

In 1994, the American economy added three million new jobs, while shedding a third as many in downsizings and closures—for a net gain of two million. But successful organizing drives enlisted just 72,000 potential new union members; and not all victories led to union contracts. In order to hold the current 10 percent union share of the labor force, let alone increase it, organizing victories must add a quarter million new members a year: one-tenth of the two million net new jobholders, plus some—because jobs lost in economic churning are disproportionately concentrated in union firms. To reverse the pattern of decline, union organizing rates would have to increase many times over.

The challenge is even more formidable, considering how organizing happened in the past. After a brief and fierce spurt of militant organizing in the middle and late 1930s in basic industries such as steel and autos, organizing ceased to be a priority for most unions. The labor movement coasted upward during World War II, and again after the war, partly because already-unionized sectors were adding workers. With the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, management resumed its fight to stay union-free and never really accepted unions as social partners. Unions gave priority to defending the territory they had won and servicing existing members. When unionized sectors began to decline in the 1970s, unions declined with them. But, today few believe the labor movement can again grow simply by organizing a few small firms in expanding sectors, and then piggybacking a ride to the top as these firms rise to industrial dominance.

It has been a long time since a Democratic president was openly pro-union. The Clinton administration, like Carter's before it, is ambivalent about unions, viewing them as a handy source of money and phone banks—but not as a needed ingredient in a strategy to restore wage growth and higher "middle-class" incomes. When Vice President Al Gore was asked, at the AFL-CIO's February meetings, whether it would be a good idea for nonunion workers to organize, he refused to commit himself. The administration emphasizes labor-management cooperation, when it should be emphasizing the revival of unionism. Many congressional Democrats are no better— happily accepting union PAC donations, but too willingly diffident about saving the labor movement and the collective bargaining system.

When America's economic challenge was a perceived lack of "competitiveness" against less adversarial Japanese and European firms, it might have been reasonable to advocate reform of both union and nonunion workplaces to promote labor-management cooperation. But "competitiveness" is not our most compelling problem today. Rather, it is rising inequality and declining living standards. To halt wage decline, unions' penetration and bargaining power must grow. This requires labor law reform, not simply to make organizing fairer, but to help it succeed.


In the current organizing climate, management routinely violates the spirit of the National Labor Relations Act, which is designed to give workers a free choice about whether they want to seek better wages and working conditions by having a union bargain for them. The penalties for harassing and firing pro-union workers are so light and so remote that management views them as a trivial cost of doing business and a small price to pay for union avoidance. Except in the public sector, where managers less frequently mount vicious union avoidance campaigns, the legal right to organize has long been rendered moot.

Following the 1978 failure to win Senate cloture for labor law reform, AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland and Secretary-Treasurer Tom Donahue ceased to press for legal changes to ease organizing. Instead, they romanticized "new forms of unionism," in the Dunlop Commission and elsewhere, promoting a German brand of codetermination that has little applicability to the more decentralized and adversarial U.S. labor-management climate [see Richard Rothstein, "New Bargain or No Bargain?" TAP, Summer 1993]. For many unionists, Kirkland's heavy political investment in the Dunlop Commission (which couldn't even bring itself to call for stronger unions) made his re-election as federation president finally untenable.

Instead of demanding labor law reform to ease organizing, the Kirkland regime wasted limited political resources on a legislative drive to outlaw permanent replacement of strikers. This goal naturally appealed to the leaders of big industrial unions who blamed the loss of some strikes on the hiring of permanent replacements. But the goal was conceptually flawed, as Caterpillar recently demonstrated when it humiliated the UAW by hiring replacement workers who were technically "temporaries," and whose hire would have been lawful even if labor's "anti-scab" bill had been enacted. An effective prohibition on permanent replacements only gives union members the right to ask to return to work, under whatever terms and conditions management sees fit to impose, after a strike has been lost. It does nothing to keep a company from winning a strike, as Caterpillar did, by hiring replacements. Labor's ranks are dwindling today not because managers can offer strikebreakers permanent jobs, but because most new jobs are not being brought into the ranks of unionism.

The new regime of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney will have to show greater interest than its predecessor in making labor law reform a priority. Likewise, liberals outside the labor movement need to appreciate the importance of reform. Expansion of collective bargaining should be understood as part of a broad strategy to raise living standards, not a self-interested program for unions. Liberals don't wait for armies of poor people to demand hikes in the minimum wage or earned income tax credit before liberals themselves propose such improvements. They don't wait for leadership from the underemployed before proposing job training or college loan programs. Likewise, liberals concerned about growing inequality should, without waiting for AFL-CIO leadership, now organize a broad Committee for Labor Law Reform, not simply as a show of solidarity with unions but because reversal of wage declines should be everyone's fight.

Subscribe to The American Prospect

Reform, of course, will not become law in a Republican Congress, nor probably in a presently conceivable Democratic one. But labor law reform should be central to the liberal platform to lay a foundation should Congress's complexion someday change, and, at the very least, to establish a climate of opinion more supportive of pro-union NLRBand judicial decisions.

And let's not be coy about the strategic goal of labor law reform. It isn't the neutral "balance scale" of labor and management rights often invoked in labor law literature. In this view, management has a right to give anti-union speeches on company time and property; unions have a reciprocal right to name-and-address lists of employees, and so on. The goal should not simply be equal rights. If reversing the decline of average wages is the objective, we need a results-oriented program to promote more union victories.

The original Wagner Act, after all, was not enacted to create a "level playing field" for unions and corporations. President Roosevelt and Congress were not saying, "Let's you and him have a fair fight!" Rather, the organizing rules enacted and enforced in the late 1930s and early 1940s were specifically designed to increase the membership and bargaining power of unions to support the New Deal goal of raising workers' wages. CIO organizers carried out an administration economic program when their leaflets proclaimed, "President Roosevelt wants you to join the union."

In the early 1950s, unions won an average of 72 percent of 5,900 NLRB elections annually, winning the right to represent over half a million new workers each year. By the late 1980s, unions were winning only 48 percent of 3,500 elections, gaining representation for only 80,000 workers each year. Routinely, worker majorities sign up for unions, only to experience wilting desire under management pressure during election campaigns. For experienced organizers, even majority interest is no longer sufficient to justify commitment of resources to a campaign, without militant leadership and a stubborn quality to worker support as well.

The labor movement's most experienced organizers generally agree that three reforms would be most helpful to boost union victory rates:

Card check. Current procedures require unions to submit to a cumbersome process in which a majority of employees vote "union" in an NLRB-supervised election, before a company is required to bargain. Management lawyers can delay voting until union supporters are replaced, or until an atmosphere of terror (created, for example, by closed-door interrogations or by company suggestions that workplaces ordinarily move if union bargaining is approved) dampens the union's drive.

Instead, once a majority of workers have signed cards, the NLRB could order bargaining—before an employer terror campaign has escalated. Card check rules apply in most Canadian provinces. Not surprisingly, de-unionization in Canada has not paralleled U.S. experience, despite similarities in other economic trends. From 1955 to 1990, Canadian union membership grew slowly from 31 percent to 36 percent, compared to a decline from 33 percent to 16 percent in the United States.

First contract arbitration. Even where unions win representation rights, victory is often prelude to defeat: no contract results. Current law requires only that employers bargain with unions, not that they reach agreement. Employers can lawfully propose to unions that wages and benefits be reduced below pre-union levels; they are prohibited only from stating that the proposal is intended to retaliate for unionization. Knowing such suggestions will always be unacceptable, management attorneys can drag out bargaining indefinitely.

Where management unreasonably delays, arbitrators could award contract provisions based on prevailing wage and benefit practices in the industry or in competitive firms, and could deny management proposals designed solely to weaken union strength—proposals, for example, to impede union reps' participation in grievance hearings.

Restricting employer campaigns. Over the last 50 years, NLRB and court decisions have progressively distorted election rules. For example, it is now customary for employer consultants to exclude from company meetings both known and suspected union supporters, assuring by this tactic that anti-union propaganda will be unchallenged and that other employees will be impressed with the apparent unanimity of employee opposition to unionization. There are many possible reforms of NLRB rules—granting union representatives access to company property during an organizing drive, prohibiting supervisors from meeting with workers to inveigh against unions during paid working hours, granting unions "equal time" to respond to employer propaganda, and so on.

Other reforms, such as making it more difficult to fire union supporters, reinstating fired supporters more rapidly, penalizing (civil or criminal) employer misconduct, and shortening NLRB hearing and decision procedures, would all improve the atmosphere in which organizing takes place. But judged by how much they would enhance union victories, other reforms don't match the top three in importance.


To be sure, enactment of reform is currently politically inconceivable. Yet despite legal barriers, some organizing succeeds and more could be accomplished by more creative and aggressive union leaders. John Sweeney's victorious campaign for AFL-CIO president encouraged hopes for such change, as he pledged to invest $20 million in a new organizing fund and to beef up organizing efforts with a "Union Summer" of youthful volunteers.

But by themselves, these important moves by Sweeney won't do the trick. As a federation of autonomous unions, the AFL-CIO has no worker-members of its own. President Sweeney can cajole union leaders to make organizing a priority and can offer assistance and training where his entreaties succeed. But he has little power to make more organizing happen or to make it more successful. National union presidents are elected by members (or by conventions of member-delegates), not chosen by John Sweeney. To make organizing a higher priority requires these national union leaders to redefine their political and organizational interests.

Contrary to the beliefs of many who care about union reform, a low priority for organizing cannot be cured simply by a greater dose of union democracy. In most unions, organizing has been a low priority both for leaders and for the rank and file. Organizing serves labor's long-term interests, but, in the short run, may be seen as aid for prospective members at the expense of actual ones. Industry-wide unionization, of course, helps existing members by "taking wages out of competition." But that benefit may be remote and hard to discern. We can bemoan union members' lack of sophistication, we can even blame leaders (probably unfairly) for failure to educate members about long-term interests. But their failure is, at most, one of vision, not the result of bureaucratic insulation from democratic control.

New organizing can also conflict with short-term political interests of union leaders. Some elected local leaders have little interest in seeing the base from which they were elected destabilized, disrupted, or expanded. While they may exaggerate the extent to which bases are threatened by new organizing, in this respect they differ little from local Democratic officials known to be unenthusiastic about voter registration drives—essential to Democratic presidential or senatorial campaigns but which may bring new activists and interests into a previously secure political base. In the case of local union leaders, this concern is heightened if newly organized members are ethnically different from a union's existing base. Even if not, newly organized members may be more restless and demanding than existing members for whom trade unionism has become habitual and ritual.

There is an additional concern: Union organizing is a task for zealots. Nonunion workers must be contacted when they are not at work, in evenings and on weekends. Frequently, successive organizing campaigns are in different towns, further destroying organizers' chances for normal personal or family lives. Good organizers are driven by ideology and mission and rarely last beyond their 30s.

Yet organizing jobs, accompanied (as they must be) by expense allowances, decent salaries, reasonable job security, operable cars, and more prestige than factory workers enjoy, are sometimes seen as desirable rewards by those who've spent years as line workers, then as stewards, then perhaps as local union officers. When their union hires organizers, loyalists (who fight for the seniority principle in their workplaces) may believe themselves entitled to the positions, certainly in preference to just-out-of-college kids or younger members of their local unions whose main qualifications are energy and enthusiasm. These loyalists are not opportunists—often they're truly devoted to their unions and believe in their own abilities to strengthen them by recruiting new members. But few effectively make the transition from local union leadership to organizing. If the union's organizing director emphasizes youth and fanaticism, not union experience, in filling organizing positions, it can spark resentment. Several years ago, rank-and-file delegates at a national steelworkers convention challenged a policy to hire outsiders as organizers. The protesters were defeated by a delegate majority, but the fight was the sort that most union leaders would rather avoid.

Intellectuals have habitually seen the United Auto Workers as the prototype of progressive unionism, combining political liberalism with competitive local politics, militant Big Three bargaining, and meticulous contract enforcement. But there's been little energy left for organizing. Conscientious stewards may pay exquisite attention to seniority violations in Michigan, but fail to appreciate how absence of similar rules at European transplants inSouth Carolina also threatens security. When the union has attempted to expand unionization of the auto industry, it has only rarely been successful. The strike this March at General Motors' Dayton brake plants over "outsourcing" would not have happened if organizing independent parts suppliers had been a higher UAW priority—including willingness to make Big Three contract concessions in exchange for leveraged employer neutrality in those organizing campaigns. There is now new UAW leadership that demonstrated willingness to break with the past by cutting its losses to concede defeat in the debilitating Caterpillar strike. Whether these leaders can now also move the UAW to a more aggressive organizing stance will be an important test of their leadership, as well as a reflection of the effectiveness of a new "culture of organizing" in the AFL-CIO.

Union decisions to hire more organizers may require hiring fewer business agents to handle grievances and devoting less staff time to negotiations. This exacts a substantial price—more contract violations, less monitoring of speedups or health and safety violations—and leaders who make organizing a priority may face political challenge from members whose servicing needs become less urgent. A dues increase to finance organizing is always an option, but invites political opposition. That many unions nonetheless now enact such organizing-fund dues increases reflects the beginnings of a culture change within the labor movement.

In some national and union regional bodies, substantial sums could be devoted to organizing without having to rob servicing functions. Many union treasuries have grown to gargantuan proportions as investments of earlier-era dues payments generate continuing incomes no longer needed to service a membership base that's withered away. In some unions, investment income alone is now sufficient to operate the organization indefinitely, while in others, strike funds now approach a billion dollars. The capital value of union halls and headquarters buildings in appreciating real estate markets is another potential source of almost limitless organizing funds. (Labor journalist Jonathan Tasini estimates that more than $300 million in union assets are now tied up in Washington, D.C., headquarters buildings alone—labor's "edifice complex," he calls it.) Billions of dollars could be devoted to organizing if unions' political will to use their treasuries for organizing grew.

In a very difficult organizing climate, there is an understandable psychology of "don't throw good money after bad." But a strict cost-benefit analysis misses the point. Labor cannot afford not to bet the farm on acquiring new members, or it will die.


Public attention has flowed to the AFL-CIO's Organizing Institute, the six-year-old brainchild of the federation's newly appointed organizing director, Richard Bensinger, an inspiring figure whose institute has trained many hundreds of young, dedicated, and skilled organizers, recruited from college campuses and local unions alike. (The author believes the praise flowing to Bensinger is well deserved, but discloses his association and collaboration with Bensinger over more than 20 years.) The Institute has successfully recommended dozens of these to national and local unions for staff positions. Bensinger's recruitment and training budget increased to $2 million in the last year, but he still had 250 unfilled requests from union organizing directors for institute graduates.

So popular had this program become that it sometimes seemed the Sweeney-Donahue race for the federation presidency had been reduced to a competition between pledges of support for the Institute. Sweeney won the election and concluded the bidding war with a $20 million pledge. No organization, however, can expand that rapidly, and it will be several years before the federation's organizing program can effectively spend that level of resources.

In addition to recruiting and training organizers, the new AFL-CIO may put resources into coordinated campaigns of its own. But if John Sweeney's election as AFL-CIO president spurs a new dedication to organize, it will not be because he has $20 million to throw into the effort. Twenty million is a pittance compared to resources of the national unions whose charter is to organize and represent American workers. Sweeney's success can only come if he can inspire, motivate, and beg leaders in the unions themselves to reorder priorities, assume political risks, put labor's long-term interests ahead of short-term pressures, and become an organizing force. Even if Sweeney chooses to devote his energy to this task—as opposed to the many other opportunities tempting his presidency, like lobbying for good causes or becoming a visible spokesman for American workers—success is hardly assured. But unless he makes this choice, his leadership will surely be judged no less a failure than Kirkland's.

There's another bottleneck. After years of lethargy, organized labor has only a small corps of experienced and tested leaders who can direct successful organizing campaigns; they number in the dozens, not hundreds. Successful organizing requires energy and zeal but, especially with the obstacles placed by NLRB restrictions, alone these qualities lead to humiliation and defeat. Successful organizing also requires strategic sophistication, a product of years of experience. It is most particularly needed in first contract fights when, in an era in which strikes aren't viable, more complex pressures must be brought to bear on recalcitrant employers. The all-too-frequent willingness of activists nowadays to declare consumer boycotts against any company whose behavior offends has cheapened the value of this particular tactic, but others remain. The most useful pressures often require little involvement from affected workers—these tactics mobilize pension-fund assets, interlocking directors, supplier relationships, and community organization. But the combination in a single leader of both the ability to inspire field organizers and the capacity to intimidate or court corporate directors is rare.

However there are such leaders, and their numbers are growing slowly. The most successful AFL-CIO organizers are not those who specialize in "new" tactics easily glamorized in liberal journals. Corporate campaigns, civil disobedience, community support, and consumer information certainly have their place in a developed organizing strategy, but they are not the main story. Model AFL-CIO organizers are mostly unheralded, operating no differently from organizers of old. Against impossible odds, they do win NLRB elections.

Tom Woodruff, for example, has built the membership of a Service Employees health care workers union in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio from 800 in 1980 to 13,000 last year. He's done so by winning NLRB elections at one small nursing home or group health care unit after another, always refusing to commit union staff to a campaign unless nurses and other employees in a potential bargaining unit are sufficiently determined and militant to assume most leadership roles themselves. Woodruff's staff won't petition the NLRB for an election until a solid majority of workers have joined his union, designated their own leaders, and been trained to withstand inevitable employer assaults.

Bruce Raynor, leader of the Textile Workers' southern region, feels that, unlike Woodruff, he can't afford to respond to small units suddenly "hot" for organizing with active grievances; in soft- goods industries, small units will sooner close than negotiate union contracts. So Raynor targets large plants, scheming carefully the corporate and financial pressures he might later bring to bear to force contracts if elections are won. Years in advance of a drive, Raynor's staff builds in-plant leadership. His victories dwarf accomplishments of organizers in any other union: In 1993, for example, Raynor's staff won 12 of 13 NLRB elections they contested, and secured contracts at all but one. The following year, organizers returned to Tultex, a 3,000-worker textile plant in Virginia and site of a previous election loss. With a committee nurtured in the interim, they won representation and a first contract.

John Wilhelm, leader of organizing drives in Las Vegas hotels and gambling halls, presents another contrast to a pattern of organizing ineffectiveness. Since 1987, his union's membership has grown 60 percent (to 35,000) in Nevada's right-to-work climate, though the Las Vegas hospitality industry is growing faster than Wilhelm's union can keep up. Because much of the Las Vegas hotel growth comes from expansion of chains that already include a union hotel, Wilhelm's strategy has mostly consisted of making employer "neutrality" in future organizing drives a priority demand in contract negotiations at existing units. This requires membership mobilization and sophistication because, while rarely explicit, it's obvious that the quid pro quo for future neutrality is inevitably a less-rich wage and benefit package for the present.

Notwithstanding Wilhelm's creative use of "concessions," the demand for neutrality is still so offensive to corporate managements that the bargaining strategy has been supported by mass demonstrations, sometimes leading to arrests, of union members; where possible, Wilhelm leverages pressure from hotels' financial stakeholders to win contracts. In an industry characterized elsewhere by minimum wages and high turnover, Wilhelm has preserved, for the time being, middle-class living standards for Las Vegas maids and casino workers.

Emergence of a few charismatic, disciplined, and tactically sophisticated organizing leaders suggests there are more to be found. There is new energy in the organizers for the Laborers, the Teamsters, and the Steelworkers. AFSCME is now conducting careful organizing drives with private-sector service workers. Certainly one cause of labor leadership's lethargy is lack of good alternative models. As models develop, more can follow their examples. While there are today insufficient mentors to whom the Organizing Institute's recruits could be apprenticed, it should not take many years to reach the point when spending $20 million on recruitment and training is conceivable.

There are, of course, hundreds, if not thousands, of dedicated union leaders who presently try hard to organize but fail mostly because organizing rules are so stacked against them. As long as successful organizing requires leaders of heroic proportions, organizing will expand slowly, if at all. But rules will continue to be stacked against organizing, so slow progress is the only kind now likely to occur.

With only 10 percent of the American private-sector workforce organized, and an escalation of union organizing needed even to stem further decline, we'll not soon see union representation in the 30 to 40 percent range of two generations ago. Perhaps 15 percent is not inconceivable; any movement in that direction will contribute to renewed wage gains, higher living standards, and greater income shares for American working families. For this result, both mobilization of liberals for labor law reform, and organized labor's own redefinition of mission are simultaneously required. Liberals, however, can't wait for a better labor movement, and labor can't defer its internal transformation until liberals deliver. Both efforts must proceed on the assumption that the other is unlikely. If they do proceed in this way, perhaps modest progress is possible.

You may also like