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Unions’ Month of Wins Obscures Challenge of Gaining New Members

Nov. 9, 2021, 3:46 PM

Workers at Deere & Co., emboldened by a tight labor market, turned down a 10% raise to stay on strike. Kellogg Co. workers have now been on picket lines since early October; 60,000 TV and film workers threatened to walk out, too.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans now approve of unions, as the wealth gap widens between corporate executives and the rank-and-file. The Biden administration is seen as the most friendly to organized labor in more than half a century.

But while October’s strikes rode a moment of renewed strength for unions, reversing the decades-long decline of organized labor will require more than a few successful walkouts, union advocates say. Unions have suffered a string of high-profile losses in organizing efforts in recent years, labor-law changes that unions had hoped to get through a Democrat-controlled Congress have stalled, and the explosion in part-time and gig-economy work has created entire classes of employees who are difficult or legally impossible to organize.

Unions lost more than 300,000 members in 2020, a decline of 2.2%, as Covid-19 sunk its teeth into the economy. Only 10.8% of the U.S. workforce was represented by unions last year, compared with nearly 35% at the peak in 1954, according to Pew Research Center.

“There is no historical basis that growth relates to militancy around contracts,” said Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union. “If workers, because of good contracts, came and joined the union, I used to say I’d be standing out in front of my building with a stick telling everybody to get in line.”

Organizing is a touchy subject for union leaders. The late AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka became a source of frustration for the left wing of the labor movement, which felt that he prioritized political causes over attracting new members. Several unions, including the Teamsters and SEIU, split with the AFL-CIO in the mid 2000s and formed Change to Win, a competing federation that emphasized organizing new members.

Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama overwhelmingly rejected a union in an April election, though a federal labor board officer has recommended a do-over due to possible tampering by the company. Workers at Nissan and Volkswagen rejected bids in 2017 and 2019, respectively, to be represented by the United Auto Workers. The International Association of Machinists got clobbered in an election to represent Boeing workers in South Carolina in 2017. Those high-profile employer victories have taken place in Southern states—a historically anti-union bloc where laws against union security agreements have proliferated.

Organizers seeking to grow their ranks are confronting a new kind of 21st-century worker, one more prone to frequent job changes and part-time work that doesn’t fall under the traditional definition of an “employee.” Workers who don’t intend to stick it out at their current place of employment have few incentives to organize for a change in working conditions or benefits. Gig workers or part-time warehouse employees are less likely to participate in organizing efforts, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“If unions can’t figure out how to organize those workers, the numbers are just going to go down further,” said Ileen DeVault, director of the Worker Institute and a professor of labor history at Cornell University. “This is the future. They know how to organize people working in grocery stores; they don’t know how to organize automatic checkout lines.”

Amazon, Starbucks Moves

Progressive employers responsible for that changing definition of work have stuck to a decades-old strategy of quashing organizing efforts early. Amazon spent millions on a highly concentrated campaign to discourage organizing at a single Alabama warehouse earlier this year. Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz personally delivered a similar message over the weekend to a small group of western New York coffee shops that won the right to hold an election for union representation.

Those examples illustrate an emerging strategy for organizers: Pressure big corporations by targeting hyper-local issues that affect just one factory or storefront in a single U.S. city. Similar independent unionizing efforts at a group of Staten Island Amazon warehouses have proved effective at cutting through the company’s stance against third-party worker negotiations, DeVault said.

Winning in contract battles can, in theory, be useful to union organizers, giving them free public exposure and a basis to persuade employees.

“If they’re successful, people see the value of collective action,” said Wilma Liebman, a former Democratic chair of the National Labor Relations Board.

At the same time, unions need to expand their organizing staffs and aggressively organize new workplaces to capitalize on those victories, even if it means losing elections in the short term, said Bruce Raynor, a former president of UNITE HERE and founding member of Change to Win.

“Unions have to be willing to take risks,” Raynor said. “It’s kind of like the nature of the beast.”

Counting on Democrats

Worker advocates warn that little will change unless Congress adopts sweeping changes to labor law. Union proposals have gained little traction so far, aside from a still-unresolved push to create monetary penalties for labor-law violations in the Democratic social-spending package being considered in Congress.

Meanwhile, the U.S. lags behind most of Europe and other developed nations in terms of union density—evidence, labor advocates say, that the law is tilted in favor of employers.

Historically, workers have been more likely to strike when their jobs seem more secure after a period of economic decline or a string of layoffs, according to Priscilla Murolo, a Sarah Lawrence College history professor who specializes in labor movement studies.

“Employees rise up to strike or organize when people can see a way to make things better,” Murolo said. “They learn that things need to change, but they wait for an opportunity to make that change. This moment could be another one of those opportunities.”

The PRO Act the House approved in February would effectively overturn “right-to-work” laws in 28 states and expand the definition of union eligible workers to include gig workers and more part-time employees. It could put an end to coercive techniques employers have used to undermine organizing efforts. The bill faces an uncertain future in the closely divided Senate.

“To the extent that there are inspiring stories of workers organizing, walking off the job and getting a better deal from their employers, that’s helpful to the overall atmosphere,” said David Rolf, founder of SEIU 775 in Washington state. “What I’m skeptical of is whether that translates into growth at the scale that would be needed to replicate the union strength of the mid 20th century.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Ian Kullgren in Washington at; Austin R. Ramsey in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at