Unions Working Outside the Headlines


            Baltimore        I hope I’m not grasping at straws, but I’m hearing some encouraging reports of union organizing progress, as we move from city to city on the East Coast.  I don’t know if this is enough to turn the tide, but at least some unions have fists and feet in the dike to hold off the steady erosion of recent decades in union membership.

I can remember being on the board of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), when the Committee of Interns and Residents (CIR) affiliated.  Yes, I’m talking about wannabe potential high-dollar doctors in waiting.  I don’t remember exactly, but I think their membership then was somewhere around 8000 or so, not huge certainly, but a piece of the healthcare workers ecosystem that made sense for the SEIU family of organizations.  Talking to an organizer after one of the Philadelphia organizing workshops, he told me that in recent election victories of big units, CIR was winning with over 90% yes votes, which is wild.  With pending elections with huge filing majorities, they would have just under 30,000 members.  That’s very interesting!

An organizer with the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), based in Washington, DC., listed a string of victories in elections and successful job actions in the metro areas, including Baltimore, where he was working.  The ATU doesn’t have a reputation as a big organizing union, but he made a strong case that it was changing.  Another organizer in Philly, working with Workers’ United, the SEIU affiliate that has gotten so much attention for organizing Starbucks, where 300 or more stores have been fighting for a first contract, told me a how a secondary coffee chain of more than a half-dozen stores had won a good contract.  A seasoned organizer in Boston with close ties to the Teamsters and Amazon organizing walked me through a walkout of delivery drivers in southern California, which pushed the company to the wall, and might also position the NLRB into determining that all the hundreds of thousands of their subcontracted drivers aren’t at arm’s length from the company’s control, but in a joint employer status, which would be an organizing breakthrough, if it comes to pass.  All of this is very, very encouraging.

Of course, you can’t get labor organizers together in a group or in ones and twos without Starbucks and Amazon coming up in the conversation these days.  One organizer saw both campaigns featuring elections as already lost.  Another couldn’t see how 300-Starbucks stores could achieve the leverage for a national contract and didn’t understand why organizers weren’t focusing regionally on markets where they could pick up smaller chains, not able to hold out.  Another organizer talking about Amazon thought a regional or metro strategy made sense, especially since Amazon has reportedly changed its logistics process to speed deliveries by amassing more in regional hubs and warehouses.  Everyone worried about the impact on organizing of the torrent of press about internal problems within the Amazon Labor Union and its difficulty in making progress on a first contract from their one successful election.

These are organizers, so everyone has an opinion.  That’s the nature of the trade.  But, where there’s this much good work and deep discussion and debate, there’s still solid hope for progress and a real turnaround.