'Changing to Organize' | The Nation


'Changing to Organize'

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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.

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Kate Bronfenbrenner
Kate Bronfenbrenner is the director of labor education research at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor...

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Don’t forget that political power is intrinsically linked to organizing power.

But it is too easy to blame employer opposition alone. American unions must shoulder a good portion of the responsibility for their organizing failures. The problem is not that the labor movement does not know what it takes to win. The problem is that the majority of unions organizing today still run weak, ineffectual campaigns that fail to build their strength for the long haul. They are not doing everything we know is necessary to succeed in the current climate of mobile capital, aggressive employer opposition and weak and poorly enforced labor laws.

There are no silver bullets, no simple formulas that guarantee union victory. Instead, as my research has shown, union success depends on using a multifaceted strategy including a broad range of union-building tactics: committing sufficient and appropriate staff and financial resources; using strategic research to select organizing targets and to increase bargaining leverage; emphasizing grassroots, person-to-person outreach and leadership development among the workers being organized; training and utilizing rank-and-file members as volunteer organizers; focusing on issues that resonate with the workers being organized and the broader community; building for the first contract during the organizing campaign; and engaging in escalating pressure tactics in the workplace and the community to foster commitment among the workers being organized and to deter employer opposition. The more comprehensive, aggressive and multifaceted the union strategy is during the organizing campaign, the more union-building strategies used, the more likely the union is to win.

There is no question that in the past five years more unions have begun to run aggressive campaigns. But for most, the shift toward a greater emphasis on organizing has been piecemeal. They have invested some money in organizing, recruited a few more organizers and added one or two new tactics to their arsenal. But they have not made the wholesale strategic, structural and cultural changes required to take on the diffuse, globally connected and extremely mobile corporate structures that dominate the American economic landscape today.

Nowhere are these deficiencies more evident than in the realm of choosing organizing targets. At a time when private-sector union density has dropped to 9 percent, unions can ill afford to waste precious time and resources on campaigns and targets that will not advance their long-term goals. Instead, they need to focus their energies where they are most likely to win not just the election but also the first contract, and on the units that, once won, will have the greatest impact on strengthening their bargaining power in existing units. Unions that attempt to organize any type of worker in any industry with no regard to the union's bargaining leverage in the enterprise, community or industry risk seriously diluting their power, and the power of other unions, at a time when they most need to concentrate their power in any way they can.

This puts a special burden on unions in core sectors such as manufacturing, where win rates average as low as 30 percent and where employers are much more likely to engage in the most aggressive anti-union tactics such as discharging union supporters and making plant-closing threats. It is understandable that many industrial unions look longingly at the hotel and healthcare sectors, where win rates average as high as 60 percent and plant-closing threats and discharges for union activity are much less common. But as tempting as those service-sector targets may seem, it would be a grave mistake for industrial unions to give up on organizing in their primary industries--and for the AFL-CIO and service-sector affiliates to turn their backs on the struggle to organize in manufacturing. Sixty years ago, it was organizing in manufacturing that helped build theAmerican labor movement and the American middle class. Today, manufacturing workers have felt the worst effects of globalization, both in declining job security and in deteriorating wages and working conditions. Absent intensive efforts to organize the nation's most mobile and global industries, working conditions will deteriorate even further. If manufacturing is not organized, there will be nothing to stop the race to the bottom in wages, benefits and working conditions for all organized and unorganized workers in all industries.

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