Opinion: What’s Wrong With Labor’s New Organizing?

Mar 6, 2024 | Labor, Working Mass


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the official position of Working Mass. This article was originally published by MLToday.com.

By Chris Townsend

Despite frequent claims that organized labor – the trade unions – are more popular than ever as measured by all manner of public opinion polls, union membership continues to decline. Many sections of the labor “leadership” repeat this claim of popularity as if by pronouncing it, the labor movement will magically begin to grow again. Well intended leftist writers also author obligatory articles about this phenomenon. When reality returns, however, these feelgood bromides are nice to hear but otherwise are misleading and even destructive. They divert attention from the actual facts of the current crisis of new union organizing. Many a union “leader” or supporter gets ample applause when this sound bite is dropped, all acting to drown out the sounds of a sinking ship.

We have in the U.S. today a battered, shrinking, yet well-liked labor movement that is still undergoing a deep and systematic destruction. The current situation begs an obvious question: What good are positive public opinion polls if the union membership is declining, and union power is falling dramatically? What good is it if the unions themselves by and large have no significant work underway to organize new members and reverse the decline?


Current NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) elections only cover private sector workplaces, but it is the leading indicator of union organizing activity and health. The number of union elections run by the NLRB has declined by more than 70% in the past 50 years, with the number of workers participating falling likewise. Only 980 total NLRB elections were conducted in the entire U.S. in 2021, the worst year of the pandemic; 1,400 were conducted in 2022; and 1482 in 2023. The number of workers involved continues to diminish as well, with elections of more than 100 hundred workers in a voting unit a rare commodity. In recent years — at best – barely 150,000 workers will vote in all NLRB elections combined. And all elections are not won, as some are decertification elections to abolish a union.


It is required to mention that the number of union organizing elections only represents the small slice of all the worker groups who initially set out to join a union. Many thousands of these incipient organizing efforts are destroyed by employer lawbreaking and repression, are bribed into deactivation, dissipated as extreme fear runs riot in the workforce, or are somehow legally delayed by the employer into a bureaucratic abyss.

For those not already astonished by these statistics, it is imperative to mention the ultimate bad news; of those groups who manage to run the employer gauntlet and force an NLRB election – and win it – only half of these units will ever win a first union contract. And for those who manage to somehow win twice, once an election and once a contract, of those, only half will reach a second union contract and actually begin to contribute to the strength of the labor movement.

This is therefore the bottom-line of trade union repression in the U.S. workplace today. For an Empire that wastes no time claiming to be the citadel of “human rights” worldwide, the U.S. workplace remains a repressive and often nightmarish dictatorship. In every union organizing school or class for workers that I conduct I declare with no hesitation that the workplace today is a dictatorship. No one disagrees.


Railroad, airline, and public sector union elections are not tracked by the NLRB. But the news is not much better for unions in those sectors today. Elections in railroad and airline sectors have slowed to a trickle for many of the same reasons as the NLRB. Union organizing elections in the public sector – which for 50 years have backfilled lost private sector members and provided an “optical illusion” of trade union growth and vitality – are now declining sharply.

The effects of the pandemic, combined with massive anti-union political assaults in several states has led to a situation where even public sector unionism has now begun to decline. Florida being the latest state where public sector labor unions are being liquidated with virtually no new organizing underway to replace the losses. See: Tens of Thousands of Workers in Florida Have Just Lost Their Labor Unions. More Is Coming (portside.org) and Florida Public Sector Unions Facing Destruction (MLToday).

Some unions manage to win voluntary recognition from employers without the NLRB processes, but the numbers and sectoral reach of these “card check’ agreements is tiny. Some unions also manage to orchestrate “top-down” recognition for their union from employers, most often in the building and construction trades. But the numbers are likewise small. Overall, these facts paint a stark and alarming picture; without a sharp course correction the prognosis for the unions is continued decline and decay. And as the workforce continues to grow, the shrinking and stagnant unionized garrisons are further isolated, marginalized, and sapped of their strength.


Of all the multiple “crises” besetting the unions today, only a few observers would identify the lack of new union organizing among them. And the unwillingness of the labor “leadership” to seriously confront this disastrous situation also means that the many contributing factors to it go unexamined. As new organizing has receded or even ceased, thousands of experienced trade union organizers have retired, quit, and disappeared, taking with them the precious tactical knowledge of union organizing under today’s conditions. Fewer and fewer rank and file are exposed to new organizing and consequently are un-engaged in its support. In this situation they have almost no opportunities to learn the many new organizing skills. Union organizers are often left to stagger from campaign to campaign, and since organizing institutional memory is often lost – or never collected – this also leaves the employers with a decided advantage on many fronts. Employer institutional memory, combined with a renewed and expanded union-busting industry means that potent bomb-dropping power is deployed oftentimes against hapless unions in their heroic yet feeble organizing uprisings.


Unions increasingly resort to off-the-street hires for all manner of organizing positions, which can sometimes bring valuable recruits, but just as often invites into the union elements unsuited for trade union organizing for a litany of reasons. Critical training for the new generation is also lacking, superficial, or even non-existent, which leaves organizers to essentially “train themselves.” Some land on their feet and make real contributions; some burn out quickly and abandon the task; others dutifully apply social justice models of organizing with mixed results at best; and many work diligently and apply a muddle of old and new methods, and consequently organize few if any new members.

New organizer raw material and immense amounts of money are wasted in this merry-go-round which repeats over and over in today’s labor world. Some unions actually rely on this staffing “model”, strangely trying to justify it. Few programs exist to teach and transition rank-and-file into the new organizing work, reinforcing their exclusion from this critical recruitment process. This decision to essentially twist new organizing into some sort of distinct and outside “profession” has had disastrous impact on the labor movement. Organizing staff are frequently not incorporated into the life of the union by wary or cynical union “leaders”, with real damage being done to the morale and motivation of the staff members.


Business union “leadership” – resistant to serious new organizing in the first place and always seeking justification not to do it – point to union organizing election debacles, their alleged high costs, and the generally “low return” on the organizing “investment”. They point to these things as additional reasons why new organizing is “impossible”, “too expensive”, or must be postponed since “now is not the time”. The highest councils of the unions are frequently uninterrupted – to any serious degree – by serious deliberations regarding of the troublesome new organizing, as the “leaders” dutifully handle internal and administrative matters as their primary preoccupations.

The business union custodians of many of the unions see new organizing as little more than costly and confusing adventures, distractions from the main task of enabling their unchallenged hold on power in the union. Even worse, some consider new organizing as just more interference in their otherwise mindless internal bureaucratic meanderings. In this dense business union fog any development of a serious organizing strategy and program to implement it are nearly impossible. The periodic intoxication with the fantasy of labor law reform – notions such as mobilizing to pass the dead-on-arrival “Pro Act” to legalize union organizing again – act as further roadblocks to real organizing. Valuable resources are diverted into these pie-in-the-sky chases, with outside consultants and much ballyhooed labor “experts” sometimes moving in to sell the slumbering union bigs some miracle potion for their crisis.


In those unions who are actively organizing today, the efforts are relatively small and isolated, found mostly, if not exclusively in “hot” shops where the workers are in brief uproar for some reason or another. And on any given day, fewer than half of all national or international unions are on the battlefield even on a small scale working to win new members. Several industrial sectors are, however, also momentarily and relatively speaking more active owing to different factors. Sectors that employ a higher-than-average number of young college-educated workers, some professional occupations, or African-American workers, are all more active in union organizing campaigns today.

By industry sector, a glance at the past 2 years of NLRB union elections – the first post-pandemic numbers on hand – will show that union elections are most likely to be held and won in the following types of workplaces: coffee shops, non-profit organizations, brewpubs and niche cafes, security guards, all levels of healthcare occupations, entertainment, cannabis retail shops, ground transportation, federal contract employees, all levels of college employment, energy-related construction, retail food and processing, museums and attractions, building services, and some professional scientific occupations. Manufacturing units – once the mainstay of new union organizing – do appear in the statistics but union success is rare, and the size of the units is usually tiny.


In this desolate landscape there are bright spots, little known as some of them may be. The launch and remarkable continued expansion of the Starbucks organizing movement would be one. Launched in 2019 by leaders of the Inside Organizing School (IOS) Inside Organizer School (squarespace.com) in collaboration with the Rochester Joint Board of Workers United/SEIU, this amazing organizing contagion continues to defy the massive union busting machinery of the employer and now approaches 400 NLRB elections won against all odds. Starbucks Workers United (sbworkersunited.org)

The equally remarkable successful organization of more than 25,000 graduate and teaching assistants by the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) would rank as one of the hard-fought examples of 2023 on this front. Top Five UE NEWS Stories of 2023 (ueunion.org). The recent and massive launch of a campaign by the newly-invigorated United Auto Workers (UAW) to renew and dramatically expand serious efforts to organize the open-shop auto manufacturers – primarily in the south – is an early and commendable undertaking. The drive is only in its infancy and has little to build on owing to the previous UAW “leaderships” only token attention to organizing. The advances won in the recent auto strike have however been heard by unorganized auto workers and early results of the drive are promising. The South, Where Automakers Go for a Discount (Labor Notes). On the health care front, The National Nurses United (NNU) organizing program continues to roll-up wins among registered nurses coast-to-coast.

There are also small scale but key examples of unions or sections of unions now engaged in fierce and sometimes successful battles to organize the unorganized, although confined mostly to the sectors reviewed here. As I made clear in my recent article on the bankruptcy of much of the “Organize the South!” sloganeering, Organize the South! Empty Slogan or Real Goal? (MLToday) honest efforts by trade union militants can be effective in pushing into action the otherwise docile trade union “leaders”.


This crisis of new union organizing is a life-and-death situation for the unions. Oblivion and extinction await if the current lame and lazy approaches continue. The responsibility for generating internal pressures on the unions tops will fall primarily to the small and isolated groups of leftists within the unions. No other section of the union possesses the political understanding or the stamina to confront this situation. Legendary labor leader and organizer William Z. Foster spent large sections of his career grappling with this exact situation. See his collected works; American Trade Unionism (intpubnyc.com).

While daunting in its steep climb, huge sections of the membership will instinctively support the needed and expanded new campaigns of organization – but only if they are brought into the work and allowed to participate. Large sections of the existing union leadership will also respond favorably, as they recognize the magnitude of the crisis and are at least supportive of the need to help move the union forward. The disastrous and often corrupt union merger waves of the past several decades have now also evaporated, largely eliminating this excuse to delay new organizing. The existing leadership is now open to wide and new challenge as membership levels fall and the existing problems faced by the unions worsen and multiply. Unrest among the membership is significant in many unions, and the demand to organize is a major part of the solution to their on-the-job problems.

The labor “left” however, will need to re-acquaint itself with new union organizing and its powerful influences in order to generate this political wave. The small left is frequently found to be active, or at least vocal, within every union on every union issue there may be – with the exception of new organizing. Calls to “Organize the Unorganized! Save the Unions!” must be injected into the national and local union leadership councils at every junction. While the left forces are not today sufficient to prevail by themselves, valuable links will be made with the wide strata of members and low and mid-level leaders who are likewise alarmed at the downhill direction and deepening ruination of the unions.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the official position of Working Mass.

Chris Townsend is a 45-year union member and leader. He was most recently the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) International Union Organizing Director. Previously he was an International Representative and Political Action Director for the United Electrical Workers Union (UE), and he has held local positions in both the SEIU and UFCW. He may be reached at: cwtownsend52@gmail.com

This story was originally published by MLToday.com. Featured image from MLToday.com