Seek out the Truth and Have the Courage to Defend it

How to Reverse Labor’s Losing Streak


“The most critical challenge facing unions today is organizing. There is much we can do to strengthen ourselves for today’s battles — but without a massive increase in union membership, we cannot prevail in the long run.” — AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney.

Harry Kelber is the author of several books and booklets on labor issues, including A Training Manual for Union Organizers. His organizing and journalistic experience began more than 60 years ago. As director of the Trade Union Leadership Institute of the New York City Central Labor Council for six years from 1984 to 1990, he conducted hundreds of organizing workshops.

At Cornell University and at Empire State College, part of the State University of New York, he taught college-level courses to hundreds of union leaders and members. He is currently editor of The Labor Educator Monthly Report. More information, as well as a weekly LaborTalk column, can be found at

The AFL-CIO is now budgeting one-third of its income for organizing and encouraging every affiliated union to devote more funds to recruitment. It has also doubled the budget for its Organizing Institute.

International unions are hiring many new organizers — including women and people of color who were often excluded in the past. Organizers are supplied with ample money and resources. They can spend a year or more building a solid group at a worksite before petitioning for a National Labor Relations Board election.

They can play it safe, too, by foregoing an NLRB election until they have signed authorization cards from 70 to 80% of a bargaining unit.

For the first time in years, rank-and-file members are feeling good about their unions’ future. At long last, it seems possible to reverse the disastrous plunge in membership, from 23% of the nation’s workforce in 1980 to 13.9% today. True, union density in the private sector has fallen to 9.4%, its lowest point in nearly 65 years, but finally there are some signs that unions have started growing again.

So Why the Huge Defeats?

Most members probably don’t realize that unions lost more than half of the NLRB representation elections held in fiscal years 1995-98 — 5,907 out of 11,131. In fact, unions haven’t won more than 51.2% of those elections in any single year since 1980.

During the same 1995-98 period, the figures for decertification elections, in which unions were thrown out by their own members, were even worse. Unions were defeated in 1,268 out of 1,834 such elections, resulting in a 31% win rate and the loss of 47,358 members.

Surely, these figures should have set off alarm bells, but AFL-CIO leaders haven’t even acknowledged them. Instead, they point out that organized labor gained 265,000 members in 1999 and claim that unions have finally turned the corner after decades of decline. But 65,000 of those 265,000 were new members of the National Education Assn., not affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Another 74,000 joined the Service Employees International Union after it won a statewide card-check victory for California home care and nursing home workers.

In their speeches and official publications, AFL-CIO leaders only talk about victories and never mention defeats. Since critics are usually suppressed, members are kept in the dark about issues that directly affect them. The only way they find out about defeats and leaders’ misbehavior is from the media, which only reinforces their cynicism. The public and the rank-and-file are left with the impression that organizing is proceeding apace and there’s nothing to worry about.

More Losses in 1999

In fact, there’s plenty to worry about. A new report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics says: “The number of union elections, the union win rate and the number of eligible voters in elections won by unions all decreased in 1999 from the totals in 1998.” And 1998 was hardly a great year for organizing.

In elections involving 500 or more workers, unions won only 24 of the 62 held in 1999, a win rate of 38.7%. Is that the best we can do?

But there’s more. The billion-dollar union-busting industry supplies employers with hundreds of consultants to promote “union-free environments.” Their first priority is preventing unions from collecting the 30% of signed authorization cards required to petition for an election. When they succeed, as they often do, the organizing campaign is crushed or left spinning its wheels.

In August 2000, the AFL-CIO Executive Council set a goal of one million new members a year (for an annual net gain of 500,000, after layoffs and retirements). But it left the task of recruiting them to its affiliated unions — without offering any new assistance or material support.

Can the unions attain that goal using current organizing techniques? According to the AFL-CIO’s Work in Progress, which tallies union victories every week, unions gained a total of 114,499 members from Jan. 1 through Oct. 2 of this year. By Labor Day, they should have organized about 700,000 in order to meet their annual goal.

Where Are the Organizers?

Most unions have never had all the qualified organizers they need, but the problem is especially acute today. Too few organizers means too few non-union workplaces can be targeted. If unions can’t target more workplaces, they’ll never achieve significant growth.

Several unions are now using neutrality agreements and card-checks to organize instead of relying solely on NLRB elections. Unions should make their own decisions as to which strategy is preferable, but ultimately, card-check certification should be a guaranteed provision of any decent labor law reform — as it used to be in the early days of the NLRB. But in either case, more skilled organizers are needed to overcome employers’ innate resistance to unions.

The AFL-CIO’s official training center, the Organizing Institute, offers three-day courses, usually on weekends, for those who wish to become community or union organizers. For many of them, this is the only formal preparation they receive before being sent out on an actual organizing campaign. They get their “on-the-job” training when they encounter the employers’ “hired guns” and have to improvise quickly.

Training and Standards

I have conducted workshops with four groups of organizers who were trained by the Institute. Playing the role of “management consultant,” I had no difficulty posing questions and suggesting scenarios that demolished their collective attempts to defend unionism.

What organizers, especially novices, need is rigorous training in how to deal with the specific problems they will encounter. Classroom training is worthwhile, but field work under the guidance of seasoned instructors is far more important.

AFL-CIO leaders have spurned suggestions that the O.I. program needs to be transformed in light of current organizing goals. Their response to mounting evidence of its inadequacy is to increase its budget, as though throwing money at problems will solve them.

Union organizers have the most difficult and challenging job in the labor movement. In addition to special skills, they must possess leadership qualities that can attract non-union workers to the cause. With so much invested in organizing campaigns, unions can’t afford to have incompetents in charge.

Shouldn’t some basic standards be imposed before one is considered fit to lead an organizing drive? After all, any professional training program uses objective standards to certify the competence of its graduates.

Why do some organizing campaigns last for years and even then, end up as losers? What goes on, day by day, during a two-year campaign? Are organizers required to keep a daily diary, so that their efforts can be evaluated? And who decides when a faltering campaign should be terminated?

Needed: An Inspiring Theme

What the AFL-CIO still lacks is a unifying theme that can galvanize a broad cross-section of the public on behalf of common goals. That was the key to successful organizing for CIO and AFL unions in the 1930s, when millions of workers first learned they had a legal right to join a union and when President Roosevelt told them: “If I went to work in a factory, the first thing I would be to join a union.”

In the early ‘90s Sweeney tried to stir interest with “America Needs a Raise,” but the slogan didn’t catch on. It sounded more like a vague yearning for economic justice than a resolute call for action. Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO passed up a golden opportunity to emerge as the champion of society’s underdogs when downsizing hit millions of workers and they needed help badly.

Here was an issue that cut across economic, social, racial and political lines. Whether they were skilled or unskilled, young or old, white or nonwhite, Republican or Democratic, union or nonunion, our brothers and sisters were all getting axed and ripped off. Instead of intervening, unions remained on the sidelines and permitted ruthless job cutting, often by profitable companies, to go uncontested. They could have challenged the size of the job cuts, suggested alternatives, seen that laid-off workers got all the benefits to which they were entitled, and made sure those who remained at work weren’t subjected to speedups and other mistreatment.

A serious campaign against downsizing could have prepared the groundwork for massive organizing campaigns, but the AFL-CIO wasn’t up to the challenge.

Health and Livable Wages

There is probably no issue as pressing to working Americans as the crisis in health care. If the AFL-CIO hopes to organize millions, it must address this and other issues that will resonate with all working families.

We’ll never escape the grip of greedy insurance companies and HMOs until we have a system of universal health insurance, similar to Canada’s or those in Western Europe. Universal health insurance can become the next milestone in the struggle to improve our country. We’ve seen how “moderate” forces can be mobilized to protect Social Security from the ravages of corporate profiteers; why not take the next logical step and get behind a single-payer health insurance plan that can benefit everyone?

Similarly, a nationwide campaign for a “livable wage” — in behalf of millions of workers who play by the rules yet can’t earn a decent livelihood — would reestablish labor as the leading defender of the powerless.

Why should the AFL-CIO play cheerleader for a proposed minimum wage increase to $6.15 an hour by 2002? Working a 40-hour week for a year at that rate, one would earn $12,792 — substantially less than the $13,290 a family of three needs to rise above the poverty line, or the $17,028 a family of four needs.

Wherever union activists speak up, livable wage proposals invariably win them friends and influence politicians. Close to 50 cities, towns and counties already require government contractors to pay higher wages and benefits. Why can’t the labor movement promote the principle that workers are entitled by law to a livable wage in the richest country in the world?

New Organizing Strategies

Unions frequently lose organizing campaigns because they play by the employers’ rules. An employer is allowed to warn employees against joining a union any time he wants to — individually or in a group setting — while an organizer is lucky if he can meet a few pro-union workers outside the workplace. Thus, the employer controls the terrain and the workers are his prisoners, under constant surveillance.

Why not adopt another strategy, where the union has the advantage? How about reaching out to non-union workers where they live rather than where they work? The community should become the organizers’ base of operations. It’s never easy to persuade all of the constituent groups that the workers’ cause is worthy — but the effort must be made.

Sympathetic organizations and individuals can generate pro-union contacts; assist with house calls; provide venues for campaign meetings, and hold parties and other gatherings for those who want to form a union. With the whole community watching, the employer may be pressured to accept the results of a “card-check” vote conducted by respected citizens. If enough union authorization cards are signed, he might be compelled to grant immediate recognition. If he fires pro-union employees, he’ll risk a confrontation with the broader community.

After decades of neglect, the AFL-CIO has finally recognized that central labor councils can and should play a key role in everyday struggles. Reinvigorated CLCs have become potent forces in Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Seattle, St. Louis, Kansas City, New York City and elsewhere. The Sweeney administration’s “New Alliance” is an attempt to restructure and strengthen hundreds of CLCs, while eliminating poor performers.

The Global Challenge

Unions have to develop new strategies to deal with multinational corporations that pull up stakes here and move to places that guarantee non-interference with the exploitation of human and natural resources. These business behemoths who squeeze us for givebacks on wages, benefits and work rules, lest we “price ourselves out of the market,” must be stopped.

To meet this challenge, unions have to forge close ties with labor organizations around the world. In the era of the Internet and E-mail, there’s no excuse for failing to maintain contact with our union counterparts around the world.

As globalization spreads, unions will need organizers who are fluent in Spanish, French, Russian, German, Korean, Chinese and other widely-used languages. People who can read and speak more than one language and are familiar with various cultures and customs should be made available to any union chasing after runaway corporations. After all, the common aim of unions the world over should be to reject the inevitability of a “race to the bottom” and to raise living standards everywhere.

Unfair Labor Laws

Compelling Congress to amend the 65-year-old National Labor Relations Act to restore its original purpose — full protection of the legal right to choose a union — ought to be a constant concern for the AFL-CIO.

During organizing campaigns, employers fire an estimated 10,000 workers each year. Millions of others quickly get the message: Beware of Unions! Unscrupulous lawyers can keep us tied up in litigation over unfair labor practices for years, while union supporters become disheartened and promising campaigns gradually disintegrate.

Labor law is now so lopsided in favor of employers that unless it is rewritten, the we’ll never achieve dramatic gains in membership. Even when a union wins an election, it can’t compel an employer to negotiate a first contract. Congress should impose a hard deadline in such cases (45 or 60 days has been suggested) for a contract to take effect.

‘7 Days’ Is Not Enough

AFL-CIO leaders know all this, yet they refuse to sponsor legislation to rectify defects in the law. For the past three years, they have set aside “Seven Days in June” for rallies, parades, picketlines, workshops, candlelight vigils, etc., all designed to dramatize the grief workers face when they try to form unions.

Had they also endorsed and promoted a labor law reform bill, petitions could have been passed out and signed at hundreds of those June events. Speakers and activists could have conveyed a much more positive message than simply bemoaning the plight of mistreated workers.

What were union members supposed to do after the “Seven Days?” Wait until next year for a repeat performance? Why not carry on a year-round campaign for a specific bill?

AFL-CIO leaders say the time isn’t right because conservatives and Republicans dominate Congress. They know it takes years to get legislation through Congress — so why not get the right bill introduced right away?

The Feedback Shortage

Organizing campaigns always run more smoothly if lots of volunteers are pitching in. But people won’t volunteer unless they feel they’re wanted and are told what’s going on.

Unions that seize the initiative and establish training programs for volunteer organizers are likely to reap immediate and long-term dividends. On the other hand, if the AFL-CIO keeps the rank-and-file in the dark about its organizing plans, it will never inspire them to become volunteers or mobilize them when they are needed.

In addition to your comments, I’d be grateful for contributions to help defray the costs of printing and mailing this report. Checks can be made payable to The Labor Educator and mailed to:

Harry Kelber
75 Henry Street, Apt. 14K
Brooklyn, N.Y. 11201.

If you would like additional copies of this report, I’d be happy to supply them.

Like all human beings, labor leaders are highly fallible. They need feedback from members to help them decide if they’re on the right track. Unfortunately, most members provide little or no feedback, simply because their leaders have never established a forum for the expression of their views.

Last year, the AFL-CIO launched a new Web site, Some of the content is pretty good, especially during the recent “Online Labor Day Festival,” but there’s still no message board or other mechanism for input and responses.

A well-maintained Web site with easy access for all would allow members of different unions to exchange ideas. The absence of lively interaction on an Internet labor forum provides some union leaders with one more excuse to ignore all criticism that doesn’t originate within their inner circle. If leaders mess up, no one hears about it — because only a select few are aware of their mistakes in the first place.

AFL-CIO leaders are doubtless sincere in their desire for workers to have a “voice at work,” but rank-and-file voices are still muffled within the labor movement itself. No movement dedicated to inclusion and empowerment should allow this situation to continue.

In Conclusion…

I decided to publish this report because I felt an obligation to expose some of the AFL-CIO’s serious problems and to suggest remedies. I believe it’s healthy, constructive and, most of all, necessary for all of us to be involved in this dialogue. I hope many readers of The Labor Educator and others will send in comments on the issues raised in this report. — H.K., 10/20/00

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