On Labor Day 1995, for the first time in decades, the major media were filled with stories not about broken strikes and corrupt union leaders but about the promise and possibility of labor’s revival. John Sweeney, Richard Trumka and Linda Chavez-Thompson had launched their campaign for leadership of the AFL-CIO pledging to organize on a massive scale, “to open up and reinvigorate the labor movement at every level.” There was talk of building a national organizing fund, recruiting thousands of new young organizers and organizing millions of workers in new occupations and industries.
In the months following Sweeney’s victory as the new AFL-CIO president, “changing to organize” became the mantra of a newly energized labor movement. For the first time, the federation had an organizing department, a director of organizing and an organizing fund to support large-scale, multi-union campaigns in key industries. The AFL-CIO also launched Union Summer, bringing in hundreds of college students to assist in a wave of new organizing campaigns.
These initiatives were not limited to the AFL-CIO. Across the country, local and national unions engaged in an aggressive effort to improve significantly their organizing capacity and success. This entailed shifting staff and financial resources into organizing, mobilizing leaders and members to support organizing campaigns, and developing and implementing more effective organizing strategies and tactics. By 1999 the combination of organizing victories and employment expansion in unionized industries resulted in a net gain of 265,000 union members, the first such gain in more than twenty years. The great American decline in union organizing seemed to have finally bottomed out.
But the good news was not to last. This past January, the government released union density figures for 2000 that once again told a story of decline. For last year was a presidential election year, and just as in the past, unions shifted enormous resources, including organizing staff, to the election campaign, leaving fewer staff and resources for organizing. Overall, organizing activity was down, and there were none of the massive victories that had dominated the 1999 organizing cycle. To make matters worse, in the last weeks of 2000 there was a series of plant closings and mass layoffs in unionized manufacturing and retail companies, raising the bar even higher if the number of newly organized workers was to offset those lost to the sudden downturn in the economy.
Even leaving aside the unusual events of last year, it is clear that despite all the new initiatives and resources devoted to organizing and all the talk of “changing to organize,” American unions are at best standing still. They will need to organize millions, not hundreds of thousands, of workers each year if they are to reverse the tide and begin to regain their influence and power in American society.
Why is this so difficult? Why has it taken so long for new organizing initiatives to bear significant fruit? After spending the past fourteen years conducting a series of studies analyzing the factors contributing to union organizing success, I find the answers to these questions to be painfully obvious. Building capacity for organizing is one thing. Changing the structure, culture and strategy of the large, entrenched, democratic institutions that American unions have become is quite another.
Transforming the way unions operate is particularly hard at a time of escalating crisis and employer opposition. While labor has finally begun to regroup, the economic, political and legal climate has only grown more hostile. Each year, employer anti-union campaigns increase in intensity and effectiveness. Discharges for union activity, plant-closing threats, intimidation, harassment and surveillance have become routine elements of the organizing process, so much so that fewer than a third of those attempting to organize succeed in gaining representation under a collective bargaining agreement.