The first constitution of the American Federation of Labor, adopted at its founding in 1886, declared the new organization open to the membership of any “seven wage workers of good character, and favorable to Trade Unions, and not members of any body affiliated with this Federation.” Tens of thousands of such groups applied for and received direct affiliation with the national federation–afterward, though sometimes long afterward, typically migrating to one or another international union.
The tactic was particularly prevalent during peak periods of union organization, such as the turn of the twentieth century and again in the 1930s, when workers who did not fit well into their established forms sought to join unions. During these periods another union formation was also widespread: “minority” or “members only” unions, which offered representation to workers without a demonstrated pro-union majority at their worksite. Such nonmajority unions were critical to organizing new sectors of American industry, providing a union presence in the workplace well before an employer recognized a collective-bargaining unit. Most of the early organizing of the industrial trades, for example, and of early industrial unions like the mineworkers and steelworkers, was achieved through such minority unions.
After World War II, however, unions effectively abandoned both “direct affiliation” and “minority unionism” as common practices. Over the past half-century, union membership has come to mean membership in an organization that has demonstrated majority support among workers at a particular worksite, recognized by an employer as the exclusive representative of workers for purposes of collective bargaining. Labor is not as open in its membership, in admitting different configurations of workers, as it was in the past.
We believe this self-imposed limit on the meaning of membership today poses an unnecessary barrier to union influence and growth, and it should be reconsidered. There are tens of millions of nonunion workers–many times the size of the existing labor movement–who want better representation at work or better representation of workers’ interests politically, but who remain cut off from the benefits of union membership. Unions can and should seek to change this by reforming labor law or by increasing their organizing efforts. In addition, however, organized labor should open itself to a wider range of members.
Pro-union workers who do not make up a majority at their workplace are not irrelevant to building a labor movement. They have simply not yet achieved one particular measure of union strength–not even necessarily the most important one. These workers have much to offer labor and much to gain from labor. Today as in the past, nontraditional members in nonmajority settings can give labor an immense boost in its reach, leverage and access to strategic information on employer behavior. Adding nonmajority or otherwise nontraditional workers to union membership need not, moreover, conflict with the goal of traditional majorities-only organizing. To the contrary, such new members would provide natural ballast for the legal and policy reforms and organizing committees that unions need to succeed in such organizing.
Opening up to these new members would entail some administrative challenges. Many unionists will worry about the cost of servicing workers outside union security clauses and regular dues collection by employers. But the economics of the Internet have changed this cost equation in fundamental ways. At essentially zero marginal cost, unions can communicate with an ever-expanding number of new members, and they can deliver all manner of services to them through the Internet.