Column: The retreat from union organizing
In mid-August, when Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, the main union federation, resigned from the White House’s Manufacturing Council to protest President Trump’s apparently bigoted comments, many observers thought the union movement would be jeopardizing its legitimacy. But the unions already gambled with and lost their legitimacy by retreating from organizing.
Unions are learning that you can’t have a labor movement that no longer moves; you cannot claim to be a voice for working families when you seem to be in disfavor with so many workers.
What is organizing? Unions organize workers by proving to employers that they have majority worker support, and by recruiting and forming workers into groups for collective bargaining. Labor unions have two other key roles: They serve as agents representing workers in negotiations, and they engage in political activities by supporting candidates who favor bargaining and organizing. But organizing is the heart of unionism.
Here’s a metaphor I use to suggest why unions must organize or collapse: Imagine “unions” on a treadmill at a fitness center. The faster the treadmill goes, the faster unions must run to stay in place. Suddenly, “globalization” walks by and turns up the speed. Rude! Now globalization, who already hurt unions’ friends by sending jobs overseas, forces unions to run even faster just to keep from falling off the machine. How can unions possibly pause to organize?
There is more than ample evidence of the decline of union organizing. First, studies of membership attrition show there must be at least one million new members each year for unions to gain 1 percent in the already low proportion of the workers organized. Second, government surveys show that, over the past 30 years, the number of workers in unions has fallen to 6.4 percent from 16.5 percent of private employment. Unions lost 6 million members. In addition, there is anecdotal evidence of major organizing drives lost by unions, such as the defeat of the once-powerful United Auto Workers at the Nissan plant in Mississippi this past year, where two-thirds of workers rejected unionism.
So what is the cure for a shrinking labor movement? Yes, there should just be a higher priority on organizing. But it costs about $1,500 to organize each worker and for enough new members to offset losses, the unions would have to devote about 30 percent of their budgets to organizing. They presently devote less than 10 percent.
Unions must take heroic action by devoting greater portion of their budgets to organizing.
Union relevancy was not lost when Trumka walked away from the Council on Manufacturing. It was lost when the unions decided it was too difficult to organize.
Gary Chaison is professor emeritus of industrial relations at Clark University.