How Do Unions Win Organizing Campaigns? Let’s Look at the 20 Year Old Data That Told Us

Eric Dirnbach
8 min readDec 4, 2018

An analysis of NLRB data from decades ago showed unions how to win elections against even tough employer union-busting campaigns. Is this still relevant today?

The Labor Movement Acknowledges its Crisis

After finishing graduate school I went to work in the labor movement in 2000 as a researcher and have spent the last 18 years doing union research, organizing and bargaining campaign work, policy analysis and similar projects.

That was a time when unions were in the middle of a renewed conversation about organizing, prompted by the election of the “New Voice” leadership at the AFL-CIO in 1995. A consensus had emerged that the labor movement was in a crisis due to falling membership and union density (the percentage of all workers who are union members). Many unions pledged to devote more resources to organizing and improve the way they ran organizing campaigns.

This issue became a focus of new research and many labor academics published probably dozens of books from 1995–2005 on unions and organizing, and I read most of them. One chapter of one book stuck in my mind all these years and I recently went back to reread it to see if it still offers lessons for today.

A Union Election Analysis

The first chapter of the 2004 book Rebuilding Labor: Organizing and Organizers in the New Union Movement, was “Changing to Organize: A National Assessment of Union Organizing Strategies” by Cornell professor Kate Bronfenbrenner and then-graduate student Robert Hickey. It featured an analysis of 412 NLRB union certification elections with over 50 eligible voters from 1998–1999. What was particularly interesting about this study is that they surveyed the union organizers who were involved in these elections to find out about union and employer tactics during the campaigns. They analyzed the data to see what factors mattered most for union wins. The authors noted that unions needed to engage in more strategic campaigning:

While the majority of unions today run very weak campaigns with no underlying strategy, the majority of employers run very strategic campaigns, taking full advantage of the range of effective anti-union tactics available to them, and adapting and tailoring those tactics, depending on the organizing environment and the union’s campaign.

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Eric Dirnbach

Labor Movement Researcher, Activist, Campaigner, Organizer, Educator, Writer & Socialist, based in New York City. @EricDirnbach