Could the US Labor Movement Lose 3 to 5 Million Members Under Trump?

Sheffield   Visiting with a British union organizer in touch with colleagues in the United States, I was shocked, though perhaps I should not have been, when he told me he had been hearing of worst-case scenario meetings of labor strategists meeting after the election estimating that the American labor movement could lose 3 to 5 million members based on policies and initiatives that might be unstoppable at every level under a Trump Administration. Needless to say, such a mammoth disgorging of union membership would be crippling, not just for existing unions, but for the entire array of progressive forces throughout the country.

In the last 35 years, union membership density in the US has already fallen from slightly over 20% of the organized workforce to barely 11%. There are somewhere around 14.5 million members of unions, so a loss of even 3 million would deplete membership by more than 20%. A loss of 5 million would rip away over one-third of US union membership. The private sector membership of unions is now less than 7%, and even without Trump, organizing strategists for 20 years have warned that without major restructuring of organizing programs and significant organizing initiatives and policy shifts, labor was on a path to only 5% density or one in twenty American workers enjoying union membership. The current jet fueled conservative assault is likely against the more than 35% public sector membership that remains in unions.

We already can see the attack unfolding on several fronts. Republican-controlled legislatures and statehouses have already eviscerated union security provisions in Kentucky and Missouri is likely to fall with the house already having acted and the senate approving after current contracts expire with the governor’s signature seemingly inevitable. Other states are on the list. A bill was offered in Congress and then withdrawn, but certainly close at hand. The other major front already manifesting itself is more broadly aimed at public sector workers. Memorandum attacking paid union leave time in the federal sector for grievance handling and contract enforcement is already proceeding. The defeat in Wisconsin, which had been the birthplace of public unionization, provides a road map for other states to follow, but as we have seen elsewhere home health care and home daycare membership won by executive orders can easily be withdrawn.

Antonio Scalia’s death provided temporary relief when the Supreme Court split on the issue of withdrawing union security provisions for public workers in California and one or two Trump nominees, barring another miracle, means that even in staunch labor redoubts public union membership at the city, county, state, and educational level could be devastating, as we have seen in Wisconsin. Powerhouses of progressive labor like the teachers, service employees, government workers, and even industrial and private sector unions like the communication workers, auto workers, and teamsters which also represent significant bargaining units of public workers would all be hit hard.

Some unions are reportedly taking steps to prepare for these losses, both in their organizing and servicing programs, but lessons from not only Wisconsin but also from the British labor movement where union security was lost under Prime Minister Thatcher, indicate the losses under any reckoning will be severe. Never make the mistake in believing this will be a crisis only for American workers and their organizations. Conservatives know well what progressives should never forget, crippling institutional labor will have a seismic impact on all progressive organizations and capacity.


Anti-Union Forces Leaving the Courts and Statehouse to Hit the Doors


Freedom Foundation Campaign Ad

New Orleans   The assault on unions is getting very personal. The legislative and legal attacks are part of the environment of constant struggle between unions and companies of course. People try to talk about America as a classless society, but when it comes to the labor-management tussle at work and in community, the class struggle is still part of the everyday experience.

Recently this has been politicized more crisply, especially after Citizens’ United and the surge of money into politics, when mega-rich, hyper-conservative gazillionaires realized that unions were one of the few institutions on the other side of the political divide that had the base and motivation to cobble together the dollars to meet them partway. What started with hate then morphed into strategy, and from there the tactical targets were clarified.

The right realized that the deep labor union pockets were still in the public sector since the industrial and private sector membership was falling like a rock towards 5% membership, if not below. If public sector unions and their membership could be eroded, then there was an almost open field for the right. So we’ve had Harris v. Quinn that broke union shop for homecare workers starting in Illinois. We’ve had near misses for union shop for school teachers with Justice Antonio Scalia’s death allowing us to dodge the bullet. And, thanks to the Koch brothers and their allies with ALEC, we’ve seen one statehouse and legislative chamber after another go right with new right-to-work campaigns and successes even in states like Michigan, an evisceration of public employee unions in Wisconsin, withdrawal of recognitions for lower wage workers in homecare in Michigan and Ohio, and more.

Now, they are engaging in hand-to-hand combat with teams of canvassers going door-to-door to attempt to convince union members to drop their membership and leave their unions. The Wall Street Journal reported on this new alarming anti-union tactic. A group called Freedom Foundation has raised a budget of more than $3 million in 2015 to employ hundreds of outreach people to work the list of union members in Oregon and Washington, available through public information, and do home visits with the sole purpose of getting home health and home childcare workers to withdraw from their union, which is the Service Employees International Union in this instance.

Tom McCabe who heads the Freedom Foundation claims that they have “knocked on the doors of about 15,000 home health-care and child-care workers out of about 50,000 overall in Washington state since July 2014.” He also claims he is targeting about 35,000 workers in Oregon. He also claims “the number of unionized child-care workers has fallen by 60% since he started the effort.” If true, they might have done 4000 or so home visits and convinced a couple of thousand workers to drop their membership at a cost of about $1500 per drop. That might make his program too pricey even for the mega-rich. Putting even more cold water on his claims, the head of the union in Washington, David Rolf, was quoted as saying that McCabe, “talks a big game, but they just aren’t having the impact they claim to be having.”

I’m sure Rolf is right, but that doesn’t mean this is any less painful for the union. This is about money. This kind of door-to-door, hand-to-hand combat means that a good part of the money the union might have spent on “offense,” in expanding rights, wages, and benefits for its members or new organizing, is now having to be spent on “defense,” to put organizers and others in the field to offset withdrawals and increase membership percentages. The objective of the conservative forces is to reduce labor’s expenditures on politics, and a field program like this has to be met in full and in force, allowing conservatives to win at either heads or tails if they reduce the level of contributions unions can make to advance their members’ interests.

The article in the Journal was obviously sales-and-promotion for McCabe and his so-called Freedom Foundation. He says he wants to take this door-to-door attack to California, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. We better hope he doesn’t succeed, but in the meantime, his advertisement, needs to also be our call to action.

Freedom Foundation Door Knockers

Freedom Foundation Door Knockers


Latest Report on Union Density Finds a Finger Hold on the Cliff

16-union-difference-chart-frontNew Orleans   The top-line numbers from the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report on union membership density in the United States for 2015 indicate little change, sort of a “no news is good news” kind of story. Private sector density continued to suck at 6.7% of all private employment, but that was a slight improvement over an even worse figure in 2014. Public sector density was over one-third of all public workers at 35.2%. Membership was slightly higher in absolute terms in the private sector with both over 7 million workers, and the total union membership was almost 15 million members, which isn’t what any of us would want, but is still something to work with. Half-empty or half-full, that’s where we stand.

A closer look at the numbers continues to be disheartening. The states beating the averages are still bi-coastal with some hunkering down in the Midwest with the south east and south central states all below the median numbers with many of them at the bottom of the barrel. Five states had total union membership rates below 5.0 percent in 2015: South Carolina (2.1 percent), North Carolina (3.0 percent), Utah (3.9 percent), Georgia (4.0 percent), and Texas (4.5 percent). Arkansas and Louisiana for example were both in the 6% range for total union membership density. Nationally the rate is over 11%. None of that is encouraging.

Union workers continue to make considerably more than non-union workers, but that does not seem to drive robust recruitment. The BLS figures have non-union workers making about 79% of union rates.

Adding to their list of challenges, part-time workers are still stepchildren in the labor movement. The union membership rate was 12.2 percent for full-time workers, more than twice the rate for part-time workers at 5.9 percent. Such workers are being gigged hard.

If you are looking for opportunity and challenges there are some sectors that are literally crying for unions. Low unionization rates occurred in agriculture and related industries (1.2 percent) of course, finance (1.3 percent) which is also hardly a surprise either, food services and drinking places (1.5 percent) despite the extensive fight for $15 effort, and professional and technical services (1.7 percent) where Silicon Valley types, doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs all get a free ride. Leisure and hospitality in general went down to 3.6% which really hurts since there are more than 12 million workers in that sector. Healthcare and social services, where there are 17 million employed, almost held its own at 8.3% which is close to 1 of every 12 private sector workers in are union members. Retail and wholesale trade where there are more than 18 million workers was even worse with barely over 5% in unions, so there’s a lot of opportunity there at least on paper.

Commentators pointed out the obvious on this year’s numbers, though that didn’t make it less painful to hear as they moaned that time – and money – were running out. Loss of union shop protections for public sector workers could drain the coffers of many unions and decimate organizing resources. As the Service Employees have demonstrated, campaigns like the McDonalds and Fight for $15 effort where they have spent millions for years without the realization of any membership gain, require huge capital being spent now hoping to find the interest later. Few unions are willing to do that, and the 2015 numbers indicate that even fewer every year may be able.

We still have a finger hold, but we’re hanging by a hair and dangling over a cliff. Don’t look down!


AFL-CIO’s Membership Expansion Largely Symbolic

flag0145New Orleans  By a voice vote the AFL-CIO delegates in convention approved a resolution to expand the membership to other groups.   The measure appears to be largely a symbolic gesture about buildinga larger coalition for political issues and defense against attacks against working families, rather than a real effort to reverse the long decline in union membership and strength.

 In 2012 statistics indicate that union membership in the private sector continues to move towards the worse case 5% density that some experts have predicted.   The 2012 number fell to 6.6% among the privately employed and 36% membership in the public sector for an overall decline to 11%.

The latest measure, heralded recently by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, as a bold new direction seems to have stalled at the starting line.   Reports are that some of the initial groups in discussion with the AFL-CIO about potential membership of some sort in the body have seen the federation’s proposals significantly scaled back during meeting over the summer.  Predictably some of the old guard unions have bristled about how much power and voice in governance of the body any of these new non-labor groups might have.

            Quotes from labor leaders now range from calling it a case-by-case situation to ongoing concern about whether some of these new groups such as the National Council of La Raza, the Sierra Club, NOW, and the NAACP would be able to convert memberships into the AFL-CIO.  Terry O’Sullivan of the Laborers in a revealing quote about the internal debate said, “We were never against partnerships.   We were against direct affiliation….”   Whether such affiliation was in the resolution or not, clearly this had been Trumka’s earlier expressed intention.  Lee Saunders, head of AFSCME, as tellingly indicated that some of the “groups don’t want to be members.”

            Given that they seem to be offered little more than a chance at more meetings and buffet dinners where they are part of the window dressing, rather than any real new voice or different direction, I have to wonder why they would want to join, especially if it meant paying dues, at least until labor finally gets its act together.   The old maxim is still true.  Groups join to borrow power, not to loan power, and until labor can offer the opportunity to join strength to strength, we seem lost in the isolation of our own company and declining membership.



Non-Standard Workers are the New Informal Workforce in Japan

informal workers

New Orleans   Casual, temporary, irregular (Korea), part-time, and informal are all terms of art in different countries describing everywhere essentially the same global workforce phenomena in the race to the bottom for public and corporate employers sweating labor from workers on a come-as-you-are, no benefits, we-will-call-you-whenever-we-need-you basis.  We learned from hours of intensive dialogue with a delegation of labor researchers from Tokyo visiting with ACORN International, Local 100 United Labor Union, and A Community Voice representatives yesterday in the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse Common Space and later in our offices in the 9th Ward, that in Japan this growing phenomena translates to “non-standard” workers, as opposed to regular workers who are referred to as “standard” workers.  In the cutbacks to the public sector, most of the new hires are now non-standard workers who work largely part-time hours with no benefits confronting long traditions of more secure conditions for Japanese workers.

A delegation headed by Dr. Ken Yamazaki, a senior researcher at the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training, and including graduate students, other researchers, Professor Koshi Endo from Meiji University, and Professor Tsutsui Miki from Hosei University, all from the Toyko area visited with us most of the day, and it was an education for everyone involved.  Our friends from Japan were trying to better understand community organizing models and methodologies and how such organizations, for which there seem to be no ready equivalents in Japan, are also essential in building community-and-labor based organizing strategies.  The corporation-based labor union and labor relations system in Japan creates strongly corporatist organizing and representation philosophies which seem to have made responding to new, non-standard and more informal work situations and practices, especially difficult adaptations.  Union membership is over 10,000,000 (compared to over 12,000,000 in USA) and density is closer to 20%, which is much more robust than the USA, but nonetheless declining and presenting an impending crisis according to most of the comments made by the delegation.  We talked a lot about our “majority unionism” strategy and whether or not such a strategy might work in Japan, but this was one of many impossible to answer questions.

In 2009 a delegation had visited from Japan that was interested and involved in living wage campaigns.   We learned that the national minimum wage is closer to $9.00 than our $7.25, and that there have been isolated regional “living wage” successes at establishing levels over the national minimum, but these efforts were foundering in legal problems.  There was a lot of interest in “community benefit agreements,” the “transactional” rather than “transformative” relationships between labor and community partnerships, and other issues that kept the conversation flying!

Our friends from Japan, when asked about the UAW fears that Nissan would covert the workforce in Canton, Mississippi (yesterday’s blog) to a temporary or non-standard crew, thought it unlikely.  They discounted the possibility because they saw no signs of Nissan doing any such thing in Japan despite some of these other trends in the country.

Ken and Miki had been involved in a book and research involving community organizing and its history so were especially interested in a decade by decade history of community organizing in the United States, which took all of us down memory lane.  We learned that Saul Alinsky had also detoured through Japan on his Far East tour that touched with lasting impact on our friends in Manila and Seoul, but disappointingly Ken still had not been able to find any legacy of his visit in Japan.  Saul may have been simply changing planes in 1971 or so during the visit or been a tourist for a day, all of which would have been understandable to all of us as well.

workers looking for jobs in Japan



Union Density Continues Slip and Fall

New Orleans   I went by the gala reception on St. Charles Avenue last night to celebrate the fact that the SEIU International Executive Board was in town to see old friends and comrades.  Past the music, food and short speeches, it was hard to find much evidence of good news for unions and organizing even from the union that has been categorically the single biggest success story over recent decades.  The bloom is off the rose.

Part of the story is in the numbers which continue to slip and fall.

Bureau of Labor Statistics announced another slight drop last year of union membership compared to the overall non-farm workforce from 11.9 to 11.8%.   Steven Greenhouse in the Times reports that union membership is now 14,760,000.  The public sector percentage was 37% and about 7,560,000 and the private sector percentage is now only 6.9% with about 7,200,000.  Private sector membership is clearly heading towards 5%, unless something serious and drastic happens.

The numbers could have been worse.  There is speculation that the AFL-CIO is claiming 3,000,000 members from its Working America unit as part of their membership totals, which would be wild, since these are “canvassed” members rather than “real” dues paying members in local unions around the country.  There are still scars on the ears of AFL-CIO staffers from 2008 who did phonebanking to the call list with that group and heard in no uncertain terms from many of these “members” that they had no idea they were part of a union?!?   The BLS numbers come from the Current Population Survey of 60,000 households taken on a monthly basis so those are much more reliable indicators than those reported by unions themselves.

But, I’m grabbing at straws in saying that it could have been worse.  This is plenty bad, and there’s no sign of anything being done in the labor movement to make it much better.  Counting on the economy to make the numbers look a bit better is not a strategy!