Union Membership Continues to Tank in USA, Time for “Majority Unionism”

Labor Organizing
Picture from the latest issue of Social Policy, available at socialpolicy.org

New Orleans               The Bureau of Labor Statistics has released the figures on union membership and density for 2014 and for workers in general.  The good news is that there are more jobs and more people are working.  The same ol,’ same ol,’ bad news is that the weakening labor movement in the United States has fallen behind even farther, since growth in jobs no longer equals increasing membership.

The USA numbers are frightening.  There are now 14.6 million union members.  7.4 million are in the private sector, where most of the jobs are.  7.2 million are in the public sector which is under assault.  The density of union membership for public employees is 35.7% even in the face of massive resistance in Wisconsin and elsewhere with more predicted on the horizon as Republican controlled legislatures settle into their new power.  The density in the private sector is now down to 6.6% giving credence to the handwringing of the past when union organizing directors for the AFL-CIO would warn the troops that without work we would soon be at 5%.  Sounds like we’re knocking on the door now.

In These Times reported on a recent conference in DC called “American Labor Movement at a Crossroads.”  Reading the report the only encouraging news was that finally more leaders and organizers are embracing the notion of organizing workers into unions outside of the obsession with “exclusive representation,” in what I continue to call a “majority unionism” strategy, and others refer to as “minority” unionism.  There’s traction now, as we’ve argued, following the UAW’s effective strategy with Local 42 in Chattanooga where they are well on their way.  Other unions are being forced to learn how to operate in this way increasingly in the wake of the Harris v. Quinn decision hammering homecare worker agency shop payments for our sister union in Illinois.  The rising tide of so-called “right to work” legislation is also going to force the issue of whether or not something is better than nothing and any union is better than no union at all.

The In These Times story underlined a dispute in the conference between labor strategist Rick Yeselson who seems to have argued that we should build a “fortress” around existing labor strongholds and hope something good emerges in the future and David Rolf of SEIU 775 in Seattle who rejoined that “adaptation is the lesson of species survival.”  No doubt, Brother Rolf scored on the riposte, but sadly Yeselson’s argument seems what most unions, including SEIU, are doing in many regards when it gets down to money spent and boots on the ground.

It’s hard for me not to drink deeply of my own Kool-Aid when I review reports from our Local 100 United Labor Unions organizers on our year-to-year struggles to grow and hold on to our 2000 members in Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana, and talk to Suresh Kadashan, ACORN International’s organizer in Bengaluru where we have seen our unions grow to 35,000 members in the five years we have been concentrating on this strategy.  My comrades at our recent Year End/ Year Begin meeting were taken aback when I recounted my conversation with the organizing director of the 3rd largest union in the United Kingdom on their program to try to move as many of their 500,000 members as possible from dues checkoff to bank drafts and direct debits so that they could recast their organization around their members, rather than their employers.

The universal law of organizations has always been that you either grow or die.    For me it’s not enough to be right.  I want to see our work survive and our members thrive.  There really isn’t much choice anymore.