I started in the labor movement in the mid-90s, when the fall in union density from 23 percent of the workforce in 1980 to 15 percent in 1994 had created a crisis at the top. In response, the “New Voices” slate led by the Service Employees’ John Sweeney defeated heir apparent Thomas Donahue in the first contested election in AFL-CIO history.
The incoming team were evangelists for organizing. They argued for applying to the entire labor movement the militant tactics of campaigns like the Service Employees’ (SEIU’s) Justice for Janitors and the organizing methodology popularized by the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute.
The idea that unions needed to organize new shops in order to survive became universally accepted. Several large campaigns were launched; unions hired hundreds of recent college graduates to staff them, and codified a specific methodology for organizing.
Many of these tactics (and certainly their essence) had been around since the dawn of the labor movement, but in the 1990s they were polished, distilled, and disseminated widely among a growing corps of “professional” union organizers.
This detailed and methodical practice — the structured organizing conversation, house visits, hard inoculation, workplace mapping, careful assessments of support with numerical ranking of workers, building large and representative organizing committees — has proven incredibly effective (when properly applied) in uniting workplace majorities to win a union in the face of intense employer opposition.
It seemed to many (or at least to me) that training more people in good organizing tactics would only lead to positive outcomes for unions. And it did, to a degree. Membership has grown slightly in a few unions with more aggressive organizing programs, particularly in health care.
But we’ve seen no overall growth in union density, the percentage of the labor force that belongs to a union — today just one in ten workers overall, and in the private sector, 6.2 percent.
The problem is that even great tactics can’t overcome the social, political, and economic forces of capitalism, which combine to make organizing a gigantic challenge. In a free-market system, employers are under intense competitive pressure to resist workers’ demands — there’s no generous “high road” for them to take; they won’t willingly give in to a union drive. And employers are compelled to come together as a class to exert power over the government, passing laws and using the courts to challenge unions on all fronts.
In addition, organizing tactics are labor-intensive. In a model where paid staff do the lion’s share, they are expensive. And they were crafted to do something that labor history shows has rarely if ever been done: grow unions incrementally, outside of an upsurge.
Rather, as shown by authors like Dan Clawson in his 2003 book The Next Upsurge, unions tend to grow in spurts, as part of working-class uprisings that pose a deep challenge to the powers that be.
The upsurges in the private sector from 1934 to 1939, when the CIO organized industry-wide, with sitdowns when necessary, and the AFL tried to catch up, and in the public sector from 1962 to 1972, when a wave of illegal strikes established the right to bargain, were rooted in militant worker action. The system began to lose legitimacy and workers got a sense of their collective power. Similar dynamics played out during the 1897–1904 upsurge in the United States, 1910–1914 and 1933–1940 in the UK, in France 1935–1937, in Italy in the early 1970s, in Brazil in 1978–1979, in South Africa 1982–1985, and in Korea in 1987.
During an upsurge, new possibilities emerge: what was inconceivable yesterday is suddenly possible today.
As the system seeks to stabilize in response, reforms become possible that allow unions to grow and consolidate. For a period after the upsurge, union membership may stay constant or even grow. Inevitably, though, at some point post-upsurge, membership begins to decline as employers resume their attacks.
Organizing between upsurges can produce incremental growth for some unions at some points, or at least slow the decline. But it doesn’t lead to substantial increases in overall union density.
SEIU, for example, grew by 183 percent during the 1934–1939 upsurge. In contrast, it grew by around 8 percent from 2009 to 2019 despite spending a large portion of its budget on organizing. The structural challenges facing unions are such that only the big numbers brought in through an upsurge can move density rates by double digits.
What Could’ve Been
What does this mean for our organizing strategy? While many strategists have studied the conditions leading to an upsurge, most would agree that they are difficult to predict and even more difficult to manufacture. However, it’s also true that before and during each upsurge, union militants took specific actions that helped to spark, build, and sustain it.
There are all kinds of moments in history where the right combination of forces could have moved in a way that caused an upsurge, but didn’t. Even in the past twenty years there have been such moments. On March 10, 2006, a half-million immigrants took to the streets of Chicago to protest a proposed anti-immigrant law, shutting down hundreds of workplaces. Soon millions of people across the country flowed into the streets too.
Like most protest movements, these so-called “mega-marches” eventually dissipated (though it took a few years). But what if a network of activists, rooted both in workplaces and in the struggle for immigrants’ rights, had been able to use the momentum of the walkouts to sustain those strikes for economic or political demands?
What if organizers in strategic workplaces throughout the country had started to spread the strike movement to other sections of the working class? What if the march participants had had a map of the logistics chokepoints in Chicago and decided to disrupt commerce? What if insurgent teacher unionists had joined the effort? Who knows what could have happened?
The financial crisis in 2008, Occupy and the mass worker pushback in Wisconsin in 2011, the Red for Ed strike wave in 2018–2019, and the uprisings for Black lives this year all presented similar opportunities. And the people in the streets during those events? Few of them got there because they’d had a structured conversation with an organizer.
The point is that moments like this come and go all the time, historically speaking — but they aren’t sustained and multiplied, because the forces aren’t aligned to make that happen.
Spark Into an Inferno
Working-class upsurges often happen in the context of deep changes in society as a whole, such as abrupt and widespread economic dislocation, a profound loss of legitimacy by ruling elites, or abnormal political instability.
Many of the factors contributing to an upsurge are not under our control, but some are. If we’re ready at these moments, we can turn a dust-up into a strike, one strike into several, one plant occupation into five, into ten. And then maybe that spark turns into an inferno.
What does being “ready” mean?
While upsurges look different across times and countries, certain common elements increase the possibility that an isolated labor struggle will spark the sort of upsurge where unions grow dramatically. Certain of these elements can be affected by union activists.
1. More strikes: Dramatic growth in unions is almost always linked to a strike spike, both before and during the upsurge.
The 1934–1939 upsurge was kicked off by several large and militant strikes, including by teamsters in Minneapolis, auto workers in Toledo, longshoremen in San Francisco, and textile workers throughout the South. These came after several years of bitter strikes, such as the 1931 miners’ strike throughout Appalachia and the 1933 strike at the Briggs auto parts plant in Detroit.
The public sector organizing wave of the 1970s included hundreds of illegal strikes, such as the postal workers’ national strike in 1970, and the routine defiance of injunctions.
The willingness of at least part of the labor movement to take risks in the form of sustained, militant, and sometimes illegal action appears to be a necessary component in turning a “moment” into an upsurge.
2. Large numbers of workplace leaders ready to move: An upsurge can’t be driven by union staff. You need politically conscious working-class leaders who have experience in militancy (see #1) and a view that the existing system is illegitimate.
We saw this in the 1960s and 1970s, when the civil rights, women’s, and anti-war movements were all challenging the core of the system. Much of this movement organizing was then reflected in the booming public sector as rank-and-file teachers, state employees, and municipal workers built unions.
3. Independence from the mainstream: It’s unlikely that large, established unions will support the type of militant, risky action that characterizes the beginning of an upsurge.
Many union officials simply aren’t willing to run open-ended, majority strikes, outside of rare circumstances. Others don’t want to risk legal sanctions.
So where does organizing capacity come from in an upsurge? Historically, three places: a) the minority of unions willing to take militant action, b) new formations that come together during the upsurge, such as the new CIO industrial unions in the 1930s, and c) people fighting for profound changes in society, such as the civil rights movement of the 1960s, socialists in the 1930s, or anarchists in earlier periods.
Waging more strikes and developing thousands of new workplace militants will take a lot of work, and at times will require exactly the type of sophisticated organizing methods discussed earlier. But it will also require something else: a labor movement with a class-struggle orientation.
What if the tactics needed to spark or fuel an upsurge aren’t the same as those needed to win a tough private sector union election during a low period in working-class consciousness? If they’re not, how many potential upsurges have passed us by while we were grinding it out in organizing efforts that only resulted in marginal gains?
What if the key to union growth isn’t simply more “smart organizing” but an entirely different strategic approach?
While some of the tactics honed in the 1990s and 2000s had their roots in earlier labor upsurges, they were largely divorced from a class-struggle strategy. A string of valiantly fought but ultimately losing strikes, running from PATCO in 1981 to the Detroit Newspapers in 1995, had convinced many unions that the strike tactic was futile.
So union campaigners often stressed “comprehensive” strategies that focused on developing pressure outside of the workplace: convincing supportive politicians to pressure an employer, media campaigns designed to impact a firm’s brand, or leveraging union pension funds to change a company’s behavior — rather than developing worker organization.
If these strategies employed workplace militancy at all, it was often in the service of producing “content” to be used in media campaigns, rather than to actually affect the employer’s operations.
Within a few years, the early energy of the New Voices victory ran headfirst into the realities of business unionism. Affiliates were interested in growing their numbers, but less interested in taking risks. The most ardent apostles of organizing were marginalized and eventually cast aside, as the whole project devolved into meaningless goal-setting. The AFL-CIO announced a goal of 1,000,000 new members per year starting in 2000, a number that proved well beyond its reach.
The push to organize in the 1990s–2000s never seriously challenged the post–World War II status quo adhered to by most labor leaders, which was cemented by the purges of the left-leaning CIO unions in 1949–1950. Unions improved in other areas: race, gender, even foreign policy, but the core goal to rebuild the ranks of labor ultimately washed up on the rocks of business unionism.
Outside of the few unions with left histories, few in the labor movement at that time spoke of alternatives to capitalism. The Democratic Socialists of America, now at 70,000 members, was then a small organization with strong ties to mainstream labor leaders, and Bernie Sanders was not a name on the national scene.
Unions must do what’s necessary to survive. But we need to be doing a lot more to lay the groundwork for turning the next moment into an upsurge.