LaborTalk for January 2, 2008

If Unions Are So Good for Workers,
Why Aren't Millions Rushing to Join?

By Harry Kelber

We're starting the new year with a headline riddle that will haunt us until it is frankly and convincingly solved. If we don't find real answers to this paradox, we'll never rebuild the labor movement, no matter how many more millions we pour into organizing campaigns or how many new organizers we hire.

Why shouldn't workers want to join unions? They can earn higher pay. The benefits are usually better, especially on health insurance and pensions. They have the protection of an organization that is dedicated to improving their lives through legislation and collective bargaining. They don't have to be at the complete mercy of the boss. No question: belonging to a union is a good deal.

So why aren't workers joining in big numbers? What's bothering them about today's unions? Why are labor's organizing messages to them not resonating? Surely, we ought to get some answers, or at least some clues, from the hundreds of organizers around the country, who spend year after year trying to persuade them to become union members.

The problem is that we're getting too few answers from our organizers. Their candid views about organizing failures are rarely made public. They talk only to their superiors, most of whom have never led an organizing campaign. It's rare that they have anything sensible to say on those infrequent occasions when they express their views on the subject. They are reluctant when it comes to self-criticism, which could put their jobs in jeopardy.

Consider the number of conferences, seminars and workshops that are held each year on organizing. Imagine the cost of the tons of materials on organizing that are published by unions. Think of all the training programs and classes conducted by unions and labor educators. And what about the high-level discussions of organizing strategy that occupy the attention of top labor leaders and delegates at conventions and elsewhere?

What has been the payoff for this colossal expenditure of money, time, resources and effort? The results speak for themselves. Unions still represent barely eight percent of the workers in the private sector. American labor has the lowest density rate, compared with every major industrialized nation and many of the developing ones. And we are shrinking in size and economic power.

Labor's Survival Requires New Organizing Strategies

Before we decide on new approaches to organizing, we ought to have a thorough review of current strategies and why they have failed to produce many major victories. We will examine the attitude of top labor leaders in both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win toward recruiting new members and the training they provide their organizers. We will analyze the content of labor's organizing messages to determine how they can have a better appeal to unorganized workers.

When we have completed this essential research, we shall unveil an entirely new approach to organizing that eliminates many of the risks and contributes to the opportunities for success.

We welcome participation by labor leaders and activists, whose knowledge and experience about organizing can be very helpful.

Our next LaborTalk weekly column, which will be posted here on Monday, January 9, will have much to say about labor's strategy for 2008.

Happy New Year.

Harry Kelber

Our weekly column, "The World of Labor," reports the struggles and victories of unions in countries around the globe. Check our web site: