Bloomberg Law
Feb. 27, 2023, 10:15 AMUpdated: Feb. 27, 2023, 7:56 PM

Worker-Led Organizing Efforts: Independent Unions Explained (1)

Daniel Moore
Daniel Moore

Labor organizing was on the rise in 2022—with union election wins reaching a 17-year high—marking a celebratory moment for larger unions battling a decades-long decline in the US workforce.

But a deeper look at the data tells a different story of an undercurrent of activity: More than 24,000 workers joined unions outside the direct reach of the AFL-CIO, the largest labor federation, which includes 60 unions representing more than 12 million workers. This organizing was also separate from wins notched by major non-AFL-CIO unions, including the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union.

Many workers opted to create their own independent union, reflecting a growing trend driven by grassroots efforts popping up at retail and food service locations owned by big corporations like Inc., Trader Joe’s, Home Depot Inc., Starbucks Corp., Lululemon Athletica Inc., and others, labor experts said in interviews. One of the biggest wins came when Amazon Labor Union, an independent union, organized about 8,000 workers at the online retail giant’s Staten Island, N.Y., fulfillment center.

But are the independents truly on their own? And are they here to stay?

Here’s what you need to know:

1. What is an independent union?

An independent union has no formal ties to a national or international union, like those that make up the AFL-CIO. Traditional unions have gigantic structures that often include local chapters serving specific workplaces or regions.

Union members pay dues to their local union, and the local unions fund their national unions. The AFL-CIO, for example, charges affiliated national unions a membership fee to fund shared resources such as organizers, policy experts, communication tools, and labor movement infrastructure.

Independent unions decide to organize without access to those resources, preferring to control their campaign as a direct democracy, often around specific stores or workplaces. They largely perform the same function as established unions, though, and are recognized by the National Labor Relations Board.

In fact, the label can get mushy as headlines tout campaigns and strikes. The Starbucks workers’ union, for example, is part of Workers United, which is affiliated with the SEIU. The first Apple store to unionize, in Towson, Md., did so under the International Association of Machinists, an AFL-CIO member. The Amazon Labor Union received guidance from a handful of established unions.

Many independent unions have long represented security guards and health-care workers, and are relatively established organizations themselves, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, a senior lecturer and director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

“The change,” she said, is that retail and food chain employees were buying into the idea to unionize—"workers that haven’t been organized by independent unions before.”

2. Why are more workers choosing to organize independently?

Workers organizing independently have decided to reject, for now, what they see as the “timidity and risk-averseness and overt cautiousness” of established unions, John Logan, a professor of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University, said.

They draw on the “dynamism of rank-and-file organizers, workers who are in the stores and the warehouses,” added Logan, who said he regularly speaks with independent union leaders. The movement could “play an enormous role in trying to revive unionism to inspire interest among young people in organizing the right workplaces,” where the traditional hierarchy of big, established unions could be a barrier to entry.

Broader pandemic-fueled economic forces have given some workers leverage and hindered other organizing efforts.

Employers faced a tight labor market as the economy rebounded, and workers organized independent unions to demand more health and safety protections at places such as New Seasons Market, a Portland, Ore.-based grocery chain. But fears of a recession have hampered organizing efforts in the tech sector, where major companies have cut tens of thousands of jobs in recent months.

“The labor market is still pretty tight, which gives workers leverage,” said Susan Schurman, a labor professor at Rutgers University. “That emboldens workers to try to organize.”

The independence of those workers means that “unions are figuring out they have to change” their organizing approach, Schurman said. “They can’t do it the way they did in the 1990s or even the 2000s. They have to adapt to where the jobs are, what they’re like, how the industries are organized.”

3. What do established unions think?

The AFL-CIO disputes the notion that its affiliated unions can’t oversee a true worker-led campaign.

“I don’t think there’s a ton that’s happening in the independent union space that’s really that different strategically,” said Christian Sweeney, the AFL-CIO’s deputy organizing director. The affiliated union organizers can provide guidance and resources, but they evolve their organizing strategy based on local worker feedback, he said.

Sweeney cited the experience of faculty at the University of California, where he taught in the 1990s, who initially tried forming an independent union but realized they needed help. Last year’s UC strike showed the power of being part of the United Auto Workers, he said.

The AFL-CIO is open to lending support to—and eventually welcoming in as affiliated members—independent unions, Sweeney added. “We’re 100% for all the organizing and open to more affiliations.”

4. Will independent unions keep up the momentum?

Whether the Amazon Labor Union’s success can be widely replicated will hinge on whether independent unions can achieve a favorable deal for its members—a task that requires enormous resources, even for small workplaces, labor experts said.

“Workers aren’t waking up to change the world; they’re waking up to get a good contract,” said Jane McAlevey, a union organizer and senior policy fellow of the University of California, Berkeley Labor Center. “And you need to help them win it—soon—or they’re going to walk away.”

That likely depends on resolving the fundamental mismatch. Independent unions have the raw energy, and the established unions have the deep pockets and know-how to win contracts, McAlevey said.

“It’s good to challenge the existing unions,” McAlevey said. “It’s good for them to see how much energy there is out there right now, and it would be really great if they embraced it more.”

Read More:

(Updated with additional context in paragraphs 15 and 16. )

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Moore in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Genevieve Douglas at