What Should Unions Do Now?

What Should Unions Do Now?

Fight for 15 protest in Pittsburgh, April 15, 2015 (Mark Dixon / Flickr)

For U.S. labor, this is a moment of great peril but also great potential, unmatched since the New Deal era. The potential lies in the extraordinary attention now focused on working people’s core concerns: flat wages, economic insecurity, rising inequality, and growing corporate influence in both elections and lawmaking. Collective action by workers, led by SEIU through Fight for $15—which began among fast-food workers but has spread widely—has played a key role in forcing these issues to the top of the political agenda. This past May, a New York Times/CBS News survey found that 65 percent of respondents believe that the gap between rich and poor is a problem that needs to be addressed now. Almost three-quarters believe that large corporations have too much influence, double the number who say the same about unions. There is a growing sense of imbalance, but little sense of what might right it.

At no time since the mid-1950s, when the percentage of workers represented by unions began to decline, has the possibility of making the case for the importance of labor organization been greater. Scholars, most notably Jake Rosenfeld in his book What Unions No Longer Do, are detailing the corrosive effect of that long decline on our economic well-being and political democracy. Despite being hedged in legislatively since the Republicans took control of the House in January 2010, President Obama has spoken more openly about the importance of unions than any president since Franklin Roosevelt—and Obama’s advocacy of union membership, unlike Roosevelt’s, extends to the public sector. The president told Congress in his 2015 State of the Union Address: “We still need laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions.” And he told working families on Labor Day last year: “If I were busting my butt in the service industry and wanted an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, I’d join a union. If I were a firefighter or police officer risking my life and helping to keep my community safe, and wanted to make sure I came home safely to my family, I’d join a union.”

The labor movement should seize the opportunity of the present moment to persuade people of good faith that raising the minimum wage is not enough, vibrant organizations of working people, that is, unions, are critical to the economy and to a democratic polity.

Making the case that unions are a vital part of fixing what is troubling working people requires both unity and focus. The solution is not strengthening any single union but revitalizing the movement as a whole. Yet, the organized labor movement has been fractured at the national level since 2005 when six unions representing over a third of the AFL-CIO left the federation.

Like the rupture of 1938 that led to the formation of the CIO, the 2005 exits were the results of shifts in the economy that altered the balance of power in the federation, impatience with inherited structures, the hope that a dramatic break might jump-start innovation, and a few outsized personalities. But unlike 1938, the 2005 break has not led to as serious a rupture, or, sadly, a surge of organizing. In fact, three of the six unions have returned to the AFL-CIO, leaving only SEIU, the Teamsters, and the United Farm Workers outside the federation.

There are no differences of principle that divide the unions that belong to the AFL-CIO from the trio that remains outside it. They often cooperate, but the division has led to duplication and inefficiency that unions can ill afford in an era of diminishing resources. More important, the split leaves over 3 million union members outside of a democratic structure in which differences can be aired, disagreements debated, and consensus forged. Without an inclusive institution, the enormous pressures unions face are likely to lead to self-defeating fragmentation, as each organization seeks to defend its particular interests.

And nothing illustrates the illogic of such narrow focus more vividly than events in Wisconsin: the drop in private-sector union membership from close to 40 percent in 1959, when the state adopted its public-sector collective bargaining law, to less than 7 percent in 2012, when Governor Walker gutted the law, which lead to a dramatic decline in public-sector membership; the subsequent adoption of a right-to-work law further undermining private-sector collective bargaining last spring; and the current effort to repeal prevailing wage laws that prevent governments from undermining construction workers’ pay.

By contrast, two recent incidents illustrate the importance of labor unity at the national level. This past June, the AFL-CIO Executive Council forged a coalition of all unions that succeeded, at least temporarily, in stopping the president and the leadership in both houses of Congress from pushing through fast-track trade negotiating authority. Two years before, in March 2013, after an extended process initiated by then AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and led by former Labor Secretary Ray Marshall produced a common position on immigration, labor was able to reach an agreement with the Chamber of Commerce that cleared the way for Senate passage of a comprehensive reform bill, which would have allowed 8 million undocumented workers to exercise their right to organize without fear of retaliation and placed 11 million immigrants on a path to citizenship and the vote. For now, both efforts are stymied, but they nevertheless illustrated the potency of even a cobbled-together labor unity.

I am not suggesting that placing the letters AFL-CIO (or any other letters) after all unions’ names would alone unify the labor movement or advance the interests of working people. Rather, the umbrella institution of the labor movement needs to evolve to produce economies of scale in such basic areas as data collection and management, and to rationally coordinate and mobilize affiliate unions’ diverse assets in organizing, bargaining, and politics. But rather than advancing the evolution of the federation that began with the election of SEIU’s own Sweeney as AFL-CIO president in 1995, the continuation of the 2005 division has retarded it as dynamic parts of the movement have opted for exit instead of voice or loyalty (to borrow Albert Hirschman’s famous triad).

Yet even with national unity, the strength of the labor movement would still lie in the over 22,000 local unions spread out across the country that represent over 16 million workers, and it is in cities and states where progress is possible in the short term. Each of those locals has elected leaders. Nearly all the revenue of the labor movement, approximately $18 billion annually, is collected at the local level; over 70 percent stays there. Most locals also maintain union halls where members and others in their community can meet, plan, and take action. Both in size and scope, that human and physical infrastructure dwarfs that of other non-governmental, non-corporate, secular organizations. It represents the true strength of the U.S. labor movement.

But it also represents a weakness. Many local unions are only loosely connected to a broader labor movement and even the structure of affiliation that exists is not unitary. On the one hand, locals are affiliated with national unions, once craft- or industry-based but now increasingly amalgamated, which require their locals to participate in state and regional bodies. On the other hand, locals are also affiliated with a state federation of labor and one of the almost 500 AFL-CIO city or regional councils. Notably, that includes SEIU and Teamsters locals representing in excess of a million working people, which remain affiliates at the local level under “solidarity charters” created after the national split.

These cross-union regional bodies have played a decisive role in local elections. They recently helped pro-labor mayoral candidates get elected in Boston and win the Democratic primary in Philadelphia. They have boosted labor standards, as in Los Angeles’ recent adoption of a $15-an-hour minimum wage. They have also created a culture and environment conducive to organizing, as in Oregon, where the percentage of workers represented by unions actually increased in the last decade as the state federation created an organizing roundtable and adopted a state-wide plan to achieve targeted, annual growth.

These central bodies should be strengthened and made more effective, most importantly through the affiliation of the over one-third of locals that do not currently participate. That work should begin in key cities like Columbus, Houston, Dallas, Orlando, and Miami, where a unified labor movement, in partnership with community allies, can not only lift standards for working people locally but develop leaders who can seek state-wide office and, eventually, secure swing states and turn red states blue.

When effective local labor movements build out from key cities and meet a unified national movement, it may be possible not only to convince people that vibrant unions are part of the solution to what troubles working America, but to actually make good on that promise.


Craig Becker is General Counsel to the AFL-CIO. Before that, he was a member of the National Labor Relations Board from March 2010 to January 2012, and previously served as Associate General Counsel to both the SEIU and the AFL-CIO.

This article is part of  Dissent’s special issue of “Arguments on the Left.” Click to read contending arguments from Erica Smiley and Rich Yeselson.

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