Two Reasons Why Most Unions Don’t Do Large-Scale Organizing

Source: Shaun Richman, New Labor Forum, Vol. 25 no. 3, September 2016
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In 2005, the labor movement split, ostensibly over a disagreement about the institutional priority of organizing for membership growth. A number of unions seceded from the AFL-CIO to form a rival federation, Change to Win, only to (mostly) quietly return to the fold. Other unions merged, only to attempt to divorce shortly thereafter. There have been trusteeships and membership raids, and some very good comprehensive campaigns for new members and new bargaining units. But as the dust settles from this period of union conflict, the decline in union density has not been arrested. Moreover, significantly fewer unions seem to be engaged in large-scale organizing, and the broad consensus within labor on the need to prioritize organizing has faded.

The story of labor’s wars could be thought of as a tug of war between competing institutional interests within the existing union framework—actually, a twin set of tensions. The first is between keeping decision-making and financial resources at the local union level versus pooling resources and concentrating power at the international union level. The other tension is between devoting resources and attention to organizing the unorganized and focusing on winning better pay, working conditions, and rights for existing union members. These twin tensions are closely related, but worth evaluating separately…..

…..Internal Organizing versus New Organizing
Positing internal organizing against external organizing is a false choice, borne out of prioritization forced by labor’s declining resources. Both kinds of organizing are vital to labor renewal. But in the rush to find new money for new organizing, many unions targeted the vast sums that are spent on grievances, arbitration, business agent salaries, and shop steward training—expenses that do not tend to build union power, absent a meaningful member mobilization plan……