We Are Failing
The first step to building a better labor movement is being honest. Numbers don't lie.
In the early 20th century, the steel industry was one of the most critical and difficult targets for American unions. Repeatedly, major steel strikes crashed on the rocks of employer violence and government hostility and economic desperation. The Great Depression only increased the urgency to organize the steel companies. In 1936, the union leaders who were impatient with waiting around—and determined to meet the obvious demand of workers for unions—founded the CIO. The CIO unions launched the Steelworkers Organizing Committee (SWOC), a combined effort to crack the intransigent industry. Here (from “Labor’s Giant Step” by Art Preis, check it out) is what the SWOC launched with: 433 full and part-time organizers, 35 regional offices, and its own newspaper. All of this was fully funded by other existing unions. No steelworkers would pay dues until they actually had a union contract.
There were many bloody battles to come, but the SWOC worked. The steel industry was organized, and today the United Steel Workers union exists. Why am I telling you this story? Because today, in 2024, the names have changed, but the overall situation has not.
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Do we have any major industries that are staunchly anti-union and that it is absolutely vital to organize if the working class is to maintain a toehold on its power in the context of the wider economy? Yeah. The tech industry. The gig economy. Hell, we can even get more narrow: Amazon. For example. It has been clear for more than a decade that Amazon must be organized, not just for the sake of its current workers, but because of the enormous influence it exerts on the entire world of work. It sets a standard for everyone and without a union the standard that it sets is low. In all those years, there have been two significant one-off attempts to unionize Amazon warehouses, one of them successful, though that union is nowhere even close to getting Amazon to negotiate a first contract. The Teamsters have recently started pursuing Amazon organizing nationally, but without any major wins yet. For all practical purposes, Amazon is as free of union influence today as it was a decade ago. In that decade, the value of Amazon has risen by about a thousand percent, to $1.6 trillion.
Do you know what would be a good way to start a legitimate effort to organize a $1.6 trillion company? Four hundred and thirty three full and part time organizers, 35 regional officers, and a dedicated media outlet, funded by a coalition of existing unions who recognize that a non-union Amazon is a long term threat to the power of the working class, including their own members. That would be a good start. Have unions today done that? No. Not only have they not done that for Amazon, there is nothing comparable to the SWOC today. Almost 90 years have passed since the CIO was launched, industrial organizing drove America’s union density to all time highs after WW2, and then we entered a half-century long decline that continues to this day. In terms of union power, we’re right back where we started. It’s been bled away.
This is not about the details of labor history. This is about today. In the big picture, the labor movement has one job: To build the power of working people. It has been failing at that job for so, so long. Yes, there are many thousands of great, heroic union leaders and members across the country always waging noble battles, and yes, labor law is tilted against us, and yes, corporate power has been working systematically for decades to bust unions. Yes. We can stipulate all that. And, with all of that understood, what is the job of the labor movement? The job is: to build the power of working people. The situation around us changes, but the purpose of organized labor does not.
Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual report on union membership in America. This is the day, each year, when we measure our failure. In 2023—with the public opinion of labor unions at generational highs, and with a union-friendly president in the White House—America’s union density did not rise. It stayed essentially flat, at 10% overall, and a paltry 6% in the private sector. With all of the wind at our back, we did not make progress on the single most important measurement of union strength. Who shall we blame? We must blame ourselves.
Many people dislike the idea of casting this as failure. They prefer to focus on the many, and very real, triumphant individual stories. Last year saw successful Hollywood strikes, a successful auto industry strike, myriad strikes across Los Angeles, and countless heroic actions by countless workers who unionized their workplaces and won contracts and undertook great personal sacrifices in the name of solidarity. These things are constant. These are the things that fuel us. But if we cannot look in the mirror and honestly measure the status of our movement, we are failing the 90% of workers who still do not have unions. Until we are pushing union density up every year, we are failing. We need to say it out loud. We need to own it and taste it. If it tastes bitter, that’s good. It should. It should be devastating. It should make us change for the better.
It’s not a fucking mystery what needs to be done. They did it a hundred years ago! Multi-union coalitions, funding big, systematic efforts to meet the worker demand for unions in new industries. The SWOC was seeded with a $700,000 fund when it was launched. That’s about $15 million in today’s dollars. In 2022, the AFL-CIO announced the launch of a new “Center for Transformational Organizing” with a starting budget of about $11 million a year. That was a year and a half ago. Has the AFL-CIO pulled together a multi-union coalition to open 35 regional offices and hire hundreds of new organizers and launch a new publication to drive enthusiasm to seize this moment of opportunity? No. None of that has happened.
All that really separates great leaders from forgettable ones is the ability to see the world not for how it is, but for how it should be. Great leaders do not acquiesce to the failures of the world; they push the world towards progress. Despite the fact that a revival of worker power is central to solving the deepest problems of this country, there is no evidence that the leadership of the labor movement (to the extent that such a thing exists) have a vision that extends past the horizon of where we are now.
The labor movement is a movement. Millions of us are a part of it. I am a part of it. Our successes, and our failures, are collective. So I have failed too. I wish that I could hire 433 full and part time organizers to launch a national union drive to help make up for my failures. But in lieu of that, I will try to do a better job at what I can do: Urging you to organize your workplace this year. For those of you who already have a union—convincing all of you to ask your union how much it grew its membership last year and why it is not spending more money on organizing all of our brothers and sisters who do not have a union. For those of you who run unions—get our national institutions to meet this moment, or build better institutions that will. Push them and push them more. Accepting our slow and steady decline is the poison that will kill this movement.
Related: Ambition, Yall
Everything We’re Doing Is Not Enough
The AFL-CIO’s Official New Goal: Continued Decline
My book “The Hammer,” which will be published on February 13, is also about this topic (but in a lively and interesting way!). You can preorder it here.
One of my favorite labor researchers, Chris Bohner, has a deeper dive on the annual union density numbers here. For those of you interested in following this topic on Substack, I highly recommend his work, as well as Eric Blanc’s.
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