As is her norm, Kate Bronfenbrenner is right on target in her assessment of the challenges now facing the labor movement. She presumes that labor’s charge is, or should be, to “build a social movement powerful enough to take on global capital and win.” In light of this understanding, the internal limitations that she describes are mainly expressions of labor’s retreat from movement-building.

I imagine that Bronfenbrenner would agree that this retreat stems from several sources, perhaps most immediately the consolidation of the service model–often it seems more accurately described as an insurance company model–of unionism. This legacy of the postwar capital/labor accord devalues member education and mobilization, a tendency reinforced by the powerful inertia that characterizes unions as organizations that combine procedurally democratic accountability and centralized governance. Often it seems that the most incremental changes in union cultures are as difficult and come as slowly as turning an aircraft carrier.

In this context, the sea change in AFL-CIO leadership, while certainly significant, doesn’t get us to where we need to go. Bronfenbrenner accurately describes the limitations of the federation’s new commitment to organizing. It has been much more successful at projecting the imagery of social movement unionism–in large measure, instructively, by annexing the symbolism of women’s and black and brown people’s struggles for civil rights–than at acting as such a movement. This image consciousness gives the appearance at times that the new model is all tactics, no strategy.

As I read Bronfenbrenner’s argument, I was struck by an irony. Through the 1960s and much of the 1970s the orthodoxy was that organizing outside the industrial sector or trades was impossibly arduous. Justifications for this view ranged from the legal restrictions on collective bargaining for public employees to arguments about the logistical and ideological implications of the small, dispersed workplaces common in what were understood as service-sector jobs. Lurking beneath those justifications, it seemed at the time, were assumptions about the limitations, and maybe undesirability, of the kinds of workers who held those jobs–disproportionately women and nonwhites; “service sector” often seemed to be a euphemism for those workers. It is largely the cumulative success in organizing those once widely treated as almost unorganizable that has intensified the demographic disparity between leadership and rank and file that Bronfenbrenner notes as a current problem.

Much of the relative success in organizing outside the industrial sector in recent years has resulted from factors that Bronfenbrenner indicates–perhaps chief among them relative immunity from threats of capital flight. However, another source of that success has lain in the extent to which organizing among women and Hispanic and black workers has been linked, even if only evocatively, to a larger struggle for social justice. Although it is certainly important for union leadership to look more like union membership, that goal is necessary but not sufficient for reinvigorating the labor movement as a broad, working-class-based social movement. It must also tie itself to a larger social agenda, and articulate and struggle for a political program that rests on a vision of what public policies would look like if society were governed by and in the interests of the vast majority of people who live in it. Only the labor movement has the resource base to conduct serious national education and mobilization in pursuit of “practical utopias” such as real national healthcare, removal of financial constraint from access to higher education, commitment of federal support for affordable housing and the many other concerns that are felt most acutely by working people, whether they belong to unions or not. This kind of broad fight for social justice could do more to open up organizing opportunities in all sectors than anything else that can be imagined.

Adolph Reed Jr. is a professor of political science on the graduate faculty of the New School University. His most recent book is Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New Press). He is a member of the interim national council of the Labor Party.

KIM MOODY replies

Kate Bronfenbrenner has hit the nail on the head. Labor has failed to organize because most unions resist change and lack a clear industrial strategy. This situation is all the more alarming because an already dire economic and political context has recently grown even more sour.

As Bronfenbrenner points out, much of the problem comes from the inertia of the unions themselves. Two aspects of that inertia are the lack of democracy–and hence member involvement–in most unions and the confusing social vision that the AFL-CIO and its affiliates present to their own members and the millions who need organization.

Union democracy is important not simply because we value democracy in general. It is, in fact, the only way to consistently mobilize and expand the activist layer of the unions as the major force in organizing the unorganized. Without democratic debate it is also unlikely that unions will develop a coherent strategy that inspires both current and potential union members. Finally, it is the power of an involved and active membership that can help unions regain lost bargaining power and convince the unorganized that it is worth the risk to fight for a union. As long as real decisions and debate are monopolized by the leadership and other “labor professionals,” inertia will remain the dominant force.

Not surprisingly, “pure” examples of the effect of democracy on union practice are all too rare. But there are more democratic unions, such as the United Electrical Workers, that succeed in combining a more open internal political culture with a more effective bargaining practice that produces above-average contracts. Perhaps the best example of the change that union reform brings was the impact of a transformed Teamsters union on the 1997 strike against UPS. Here a union in the midst of a deep, if still incomplete, democratic change conducted one of the most effective strikes of recent years by uniting member initiative from below with solid support from the leadership.

The election scandal that surfaced shortly after and the subsequent return of the Old Guard provided a tragically negative demonstration of what a reversal in democratic direction can bring, as the gains of the strike were later eroded. Still, the advances in democracy produced by the reform movement and its backbone, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, have left a legacy of highly democratized local unions like 206 in Portland, Oregon, and the predominantly Latino TDU-led Local 556 at IBP in Washington State.

Related to the lack of debate in most unions is the confused and blurred vision that most of US labor presents to its members and the working-class public it hopes but fails to organize and influence. The AFL-CIO in particular offers a socially empty rhetoric of “middle class” workers and “working families” that applies to everyone and no one. It has improved its public positions on diversity, immigration and internationalism, but its leaders resist the one concept that can tie all of this together and create the common identity that is the historical basis of unionism–class. The “us versus them” side of class is further obscured by the official language of “partnership” with industry.

Only a broad class vision can unite the ever more diverse millions who compose the working class. While most unions point to the growing disparities in income and wealth, however, only a handful dare name the class reality that underlies these trends. For those suffering the daily effects of stagnant or declining incomes, downsized/intensified work and insecure futures, the unions offer no clear alternative vision.

Capital is at war with labor at home and abroad. What is needed in the United States is not simply bigger unions and improved techniques but a labor movement with dynamic unions at its core drawing on many kinds of working-class organizations and communities. To get from here to there requires open debate within the unions. It demands a class identity that recognizes difference, but defines what we hold in common in society and who the enemy is.

Kim Moody works with the independent labor activist monthly Labor Notes and is the author of Workers in a Lean World (Verso). He is currently teaching labor studies in New York.


I agree with many of Kate Bronfenbrenner’s premises. A dramatic expansion in union organizing is important to everyone in this country who wants to see a more equitable society, and all readers of The Nation ought to actively support campaigns to get employers to respect workers’ freedom to choose a union.

Our union, now the largest in the AFL-CIO, has boosted the number of workers who join us each year from a rate of 20,000­30,000 in the mid-1990s to 70,000­80,000 now–the result of a huge shift in resources at both the national and local levels. We have focused on uniting workers in the three sectors where we represent significant numbers of members–SEIU is the largest healthcare union, the largest building-service union and second-largest public employee union. This year, thousands of janitors who have organized into SEIU from New Jersey to Baltimore have won raises from $5.50 per hour to more than $9 per hour. Thousands of healthcare workers at Catholic Healthcare West, the largest hospital chain in California, have joined us in order to win progress on understaffing and other problems that affect the quality of care.

To take our efforts to the next level, we have started new programs to train hundreds of rank-and-file members and committed young people as organizers. In cooperation with Morehouse College and Cornell University, SEIU has launched an education institute to develop new leaders. Through a variety of initiatives, women and people of color are playing a far greater role in our union at every level.

Yet, as Bronfenbrenner says, the labor movement and its allies need a greater sense of urgency about organizing. Independent public opinion polls consistently show that about 30 million workers who do not have a union would like to have one. The main reason they don’t is that employers use one-on-one pressure from supervisors and other tactics to intimidate workers who try to form a union. Workers are taken aside on work time by their bosses, who control their job security, work schedule and chances for promotion, and are given the clear impression that their future treatment will be determined by whether they steer clear of union involvement. This abuse of power is similar to sexual harassment by an employee’s boss, and ought to be opposed by progressives with the same sustained effort that has made that practice both illegal and socially unacceptable in most workplaces.

It is the responsibility of everyone–from union leaders and members to readers of this magazine–to help reduce employer interference and to let every public official know that they cannot get our support if they don’t stand up for workers’ freedom to choose a union. That’s the only way that we will build a movement in America that can get off the defensive and win real progressive change.

Andrew L. Stern is president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).


Thanks in large part to effective organizing efforts under president Andy Stern, SEIU has become the nation’s largest union. But it hasn’t been uniformly successful, and the uneven progress of different locals and campaigns shows how the key issues that Bronfenbrenner identifies affect actual organizing drives.

Labor’s greatest achievement in years, gaining union recognition for 80,000 Southern California home-care workers in 1999, was achieved using the multifaceted approach that Bronfenbrenner recommends. A lucid leadership and a team of seasoned organizers reached out to rank-and-file workers at 80,000 worksites, developed a close alliance with the clients who depended on their labor, ran an effective public relations campaign and engaged in vigorous targeted political activity.

SEIU’s concurrent healthcare organizing efforts elsewhere in California, on the other hand, reveal what can happen when not all of these components are in place. More than four years ago, SEIU launched an ambitious plan to organize 148,000 employees in 473 California hospitals. The centerpiece of the “Healthcare Action Campaign” was a drive to organize ancillary workers among the 39,879 nonmedical employees of Catholic Healthcare West’s forty-eight hospitals. Yet, four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, the campaign was limping along–partly as a result of its excessive reliance on an aggressive corporate campaign. While the corporate campaign exposed CHW’s poor record of community service, a chaotic, high-turnover rank-and-file worker effort, which relied on young, inexperienced organizers, took a back seat. Only in mid-2001, after putting experienced organizers in key positions and moving toward solid rank-and-file worker organizing, did SEIU experience a series of electoral victories, bringing their new members to 8,000 in twenty CHW hospitals (including 3,000 in four hospitals in May and July). While encouraging, the total represents just 5 percent of SEIU’s goal.

Harder to overcome has been SEIU’s fateful decision to organize not only hospital employees and licensed vocational nurses but also registered nurses, unleashing a quarrel with the California Nurses Association. This jurisdictional battle has evolved into a vicious ground war, with negative campaigning and mutual accusations of dirty tactics undermining both sides. Unfortunately, such conflicts are becoming increasingly common as unions expand their organizing efforts.

Politics is another area where unions can be unnecessarily divided. To their credit, the leaders of the AFL-CIO and SEIU have vowed that in politics they “have permanent issues, not permanent friends.” Personal alliances, however, still too often influence decisions on where to invest financial and human resources. From 1996 to 2001, a dynamic labor electoral machine took advantage of term limits in California and helped wrest the legislature and governorship away from the Republicans. But term limits also forced labor to choose among friends, resulting in a self-defeating scramble: In 2000, several reliable allies in the State Assembly went to battle over Senate seats, and unions that had worked together to elect these representatives spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to defeat each other’s candidates, when labor had no real stake in those confrontations.

A deeper problem is that too little emphasis has been placed on creating district-based organizational structures–otherwise known as the “labor-neighbor” strategy–to provide continuity to labor election volunteers, link politics to organizing, offer political education, nurture new labor candidates and create a vehicle for continuous issue-based political advocacy around programmatic goals instead of relying on individuals elected on the basis of political marketing techniques. In addition to “changing to organize” from within, labor needs to change the political climate in which organizing occurs. And that requires an equally deep and systematic commitment–animated by a broad vision of social justice–to achieving political change.

Jorge Mancillas was until recently Southern California political director for the SEIU California State Council. A veteran of union campaigns in Mexico, England and the United States, he currently works for the California Faculty Association and SEIU’s Local 1983, and is a columnist for the Mexican magazine La Crisis.


The US labor movement’s ability to reclaim its roots as a social movement depends in large part on its approach to immigrant workers. A few unions, particularly on the West Coast, have successfully recruited large numbers of immigrants as both members and leaders. SEIU and HERE are the obvious examples, with others scattered around the country. But for much of the labor movement, immigrant organizing remains a puzzle.

To ask broadly, “What do unions need to do to organize immigrants?” just doesn’t compute. There’s no such thing as the immigrant attitude toward unions. How long someone has been here, how long she plans to stay and her past experiences with unions and activism are all critical factors. Nevertheless, any immigrant-heavy campaign will face common challenges. A few obvious ones: Many newcomers fear deportation and shy away from organizing that puts them in the spotlight. Too many unions still lack the commitment to cultural and linguistic diversity critical to victories in immigrant workplaces. And then there is Bronfenbrenner’s list of why organizing is rough for all workers, a list that hits immigrants equally hard.

How to overcome? My years of work with immigrants have given me a profound respect for what they have to offer to the labor movement: their histories of organizing against dramatic odds, tightly knit communities and determination to build a better life. These strengths are squandered in a vision of organizing that limits itself to winning a union election and negotiating a contract, followed by a lifetime of grievances serviced by union staff. A contract is critical–but it is far from enough. The lesson of the successful union campaigns and independent workers’ centers in immigrant communities is that when organizing travels beyond a narrow economic vision, immigrants can and will join in large numbers–and that their presence can help create a powerful social movement labor hasn’t seen for more than half a century.

One area of opportunity for such a confluence is that of amnesty, a hot topic these days. The 2000 AFL-CIO endorsement of immigrant legalization was historic. On this issue of tremendous importance to immigrant communities, the risk is that the federation will take a top-down approach to winning legalization, with strategists, pollsters and lobbyists calling the shots. To date, member unions have sponsored or supported a few marches, hearings and petition drives, some impressively large. But unions must go beyond mobilizing immigrants to turn out at protests if they want to take advantage of legalization’s potential to build a mass-based movement.

A serious bottom-up campaign that intertwined organizing for amnesty with organizing for workplace representation would draw immigrants into intensive discussions of power, politics and economics, support them as they developed organizing strategies in workplace and legislative arenas, and then use labor’s muscle to carry those strategies out. This movement would be a more attractive starting point for many immigrants than campaigns limited to worksite confrontation. And it has far more potential to develop immigrants’ skills and leadership–not to mention their union support–than a series of protests alone. After a few years, a broad amnesty might be in hand or it might still be a distant goal. But what the labor movement would have created in the process is a network of organized immigrants. And that–among other things–is exactly what it needs.

Jennifer Gordon is the founder and former executive director of the Workplace Project, an immigrant workers’ center in New York. She was awarded a MacArthur Prize in 1999 and is currently writing a book on law, organizing and low-wage work.


Soon after I was elected to the Ohio legislature in 1974, a steelworker told me, “What we win at the bargaining table, you people in Columbus can take away. That’s why it matters who wins elections.” The 2001 version of that might be, “What we gain through organizing and collective bargaining, we continue to lose through trade agreements.” Gains in wages and labor rights, in food safety and even in union membership itself are all vulnerable to the deleterious effects of US trade policy.

Organized labor in the United States has done a good deal to identify the threats and to counter some of the worst initiatives of corporate free traders and their political allies. But my friends in the labor movement need to do a lot more if they are going to turn trade into an organizing issue with broad resonance. To be sure, union members have been dislocated as a result of NAFTA and other bad trade deals. But more often than not, the victims of irresponsible free-trade policies are unorganized workers. Labor needs to make the connection in the minds of American workers that their best bulwark against the uncertainties of globalization is a union card. Educating nonunion workers about trade will not only create the base for defeating trade agreements that harm workers in the US and other countries, but it will aid organizing in sectors of the economy where labor is most vulnerable. Labor leaders need to recognize that the best way to deliver the message is to reach out to all of the communities, groups and individuals–both at home and abroad–for whom trade has become an issue in the aftermath of the anti-WTO protests in Seattle.

The opening is there.

To many of us in college during the early 1970s, George Meany and much of labor represented conservatism–on civil rights, women’s rights and especially the Vietnam War–and we didn’t much like unions. By and large, that has changed. Thanks to the efforts of leaders like John Sweeney and Steve Yokich, and groups like Jobs with Justice and the National Labor Committee, the labor movement has evolved into a proactive force on issues that resonate with young activists. The labor movement is immensely more attractive to college students, environmental groups and human rights activists today. The issues that young people care about–human rights, fair labor standards, the environment–are at the heart of the free-trade debate, and they understand that unions are on their side in that debate. But these promising alliances are still young. And it’s critical that rather than being asked to tame their passions, these newcomers and their energy should be welcomed into the labor movement.

The labor movement is regaining its momentum. Fighting for trade agreements that reflect and preserve the values labor represents can bring us together around an expansive progressive agenda. Rather than allowing globalization to deplete our ranks, we can make use of this battle to revitalize the labor movement. It is both an opportunity and an imperative.

Sherrod Brown, a member of the House Energy and Commerce and International Relations committees, will play a key role in the effort to block passage of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas in the House. The author of Congress From the Inside: Observations From the Majority and the Minority (Kent State), he is writing a book on the myths of free trade.


Organizing millions of new members into unions is the first, second and third priority facing the labor movement on this Labor Day. As Kate Bronfenbrenner points out, success will come only if our short-term gains and victories actually build long-term strength and power. To make that happen, the AFL-CIO and its unions need to change internally and culturally, reorienting themselves toward building an organizing movement–a social movement that focuses the full power of the labor movement on the fight to win a voice at work for all who want to organize. Bronfenbrenner notes the importance of manufacturing unions and workers to this project, but she only scratches the surface of the challenges and opportunities ahead.

At the AFL-CIO field mobilization department, we have devoted our energies over the past five years to developing such an organizing movement. Our Union Cities strategy sets a framework for central labor councils to contest for economic and political power in local communities and to deploy that power to support organizing and build a “voice at work” movement. Examples from across the country show that this strategy has great potential that has barely been tapped. Witness the community support for immigrant workers’ rights in Houston, for Justice for Janitors campaigns in Los Angeles and elsewhere, for packing-house workers in Omaha and for “organizing friendly” local ordinances in California and Wisconsin. As a follow-up to Union Cities we launched the New Alliance campaign, which aims to bring unions together at the state level to develop a long-term agenda, emphasizing the growth of an organizing movement. It also seeks to build new powerhouse regional labor federations with the capacity to carry out an aggressive program. The renewed focus on building a voice-at-work movement has been the key to reinventing these labor councils and state federations.

This fall, Union Cities central labor councils are launching a leadership development initiative to build a more diverse leadership for the emerging organizing movement. And one of the goals of New Alliance is building a labor movement with structures at the state and local levels that are not only for unionized workers but can open up the labor movement to millions of unorganized workers too. Unless the labor movement figures out how to broaden its appeal, both programmatically and structurally, we will never reach the organizing goals we have set for ourselves. Certainly, these initiatives are only one part of the solution–international unions and their locals do the direct organizing–but they are vital. Although the pace of change needs to be greatly increased, the momentum is clearly in the right direction. We would, however, welcome an open and thorough assessment of all these efforts.

Every day, the labor movement is faced with dozens if not hundreds of immediate problems and demands. The real challenge is to stay focused on and committed to building a long-term organizing movement, which is what labor really needs.

Bruce Colburn is deputy director of the Field Mobilization Department of the AFL-CIO. Active in the labor movement for thirty years, he has served as an elected official in several unions, and he led the Milwaukee County Labor Council in the early 1990s.


Although it’s hard to disagree with anything in Kate Bronfenbrenner’s comprehensive analysis, her across-the-board set of best-practice proposals actually deflects attention from the dilemma, and the opportunities, the unions face today. Labor is beating its head against a brick wall of management intransigence, but there are cracks in that edifice that the unions can exploit if they effectively merge their purposes with the rights-conscious political culture that has become such a potent feature of American life since the 1960s.

A bit of comparative corporate history explains why this is so important. During the 1980s, Shoney’s Restaurants still did business in the Jim Crow spirit that had shaped the racial mentality of founder Ray Danner when he opened his first Nashville Big Boy decades before. More than two-thirds of all African-American workers were confined to the kitchen. When Danner found a restaurant in which the dining room staff was too “dark,” he ordered the managers to dismiss the blacks and “lighten” it up. An embarrassing scandal ensued, and in 1992 the NAACP easily won an extraordinary $132 million settlement against Shoney’s. Danner was forced to pay nearly half out of his own pocket, after which his board kicked him out of the company. Thousands of African-American workers took home sizable checks, while Shoney’s promised to “set human resource standards to which other companies aspire.”

Compare all this with what happened to the Latino women who worked for Sprint Corporation’s La Conexion Familiar in San Francisco. In the low-wage world of telecommunications Taylorism, their dignity was under constant assault. By 1994 most had joined the Communications Workers of America, but as they prepared for a National Labor Relations Board certification vote, Sprint shut down La Conexion and laid off all the employees. After CWA protested, the NLRB slapped the company with more than fifty labor law violations, including bribes, threats and firing workers in direct response to the union organizing campaign. The government agency ordered Sprint to rehire the workers and pay them back wages, perhaps as much as $12 million.

But nothing happened. In contrast to the shaming and redemption through which Shoney’s passed, Sprint executives felt no cause for alarm. They successfully lobbied the Clinton Administration for various favors, reiterated their hard-line opposition to trade unions, and got a federal appeals court to throw out the adverse NLRB order. The company even codified its tactics in a “Union-Free Management Guide.”

For the unions to grow again, American political culture has to change. The fears and expectations that framed the Shoney’s settlement have to be brought to bear when companies behave as Sprint did. Given the right set of ideological benchmarks, it does not matter all that much what kind of organizing techniques the unions deploy. In the 1930s and in the 1960s, all sorts of maladroit, stodgy unions did quite well. The challenge, then and now, is to transform management behavior so that executives and public officials calculate that the political and economic fallout from breaking or resisting a union is just too high.

This is daunting, but we are beginning to see the way forward. It starts with the power still retained by a post-1960s sense of rights consciousness. Despite all the conservative assaults, American elites still fear to be seen as hostile to racial or gender-based work rights. This explains why living-wage campaigns have resonated so much more strongly in local politics than efforts to unionize those same minority workers. A living wage is a state-mandated “right” whose benefits flow almost entirely to minority workers. Likewise, the Los Angeles labor movement has made progress because of the symbiosis there between Latino consciousness and institutional trade unionism.

Few Nation readers clean hotel rooms or work at dead-end telecommunications jobs. But we do help frame the issues, and no amount of advice to our comrades in the trade unions will be as important as our effort to tilt the nation’s rights-conscious culture in a more proletarian direction so that the stark division between civil rights and union rights begins to evaporate. To the extent that management foes, as well as labor partisans, understand this reality, the union organizing job will be that much easier.

Nelson Lichtenstein, who teaches history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the author of State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton, January 2002).