If We’re in a Labor Upsurge, Unions Have to Act Like It

Some thoughts on how unions need to step up in an era of tremendous interest in organizing.

Student Workers of Columbia union on strike in 2021, photo by author.

A few recent articles highlighted for me a particular and serious problem unions have responding to the huge need for organizing right now.

Workers in Michigan recently organized the first union at a Chipotle store with the Teamsters. They started self-organizing at first, and then looked for a union to affiliate with.

Another article about non-profit workers organizing at the National Iranian-American Council said something similar.

And another article about the recent growth of independent unions had the same theme.

Unions Need to Step Up

From UE

It’s unclear how often workers contact a union for help and get no response or no help. But it should never happen. Currently unions aren’t structured to take on every campaign they hear about, but there’s no excuse for never getting back to folks. Every worker deserves some assistance in their organizing and finding the right union to work with. Every union should have someone assigned to handle these calls or emails that come in. A minimal level of assistance could be — talking through their issues, offering encouragement, connecting them to organizing information and training, and helping them find a union to work with. Also, workers can start organizing themselves and form their own union right now, but they may not realize that.

One reason why unions aren’t able to do this is reduced staffing. A recent report on labor movement finances found that unions employed over 20,000 fewer workers in 2020 compared to 2010, a 19% decline. That’s much larger than the 3% decline in union members in that decade. Many of those missing folks are the organizers that we need.

Ideally, unions would open up their membership to many more workers who want to organize, but don’t yet have recognition and a contract. I’ve proposed this before, and the idea is that any worker who commits to organizing can get ongoing help from a union and be eligible for membership. This would take much more staffing to handle, which is where the second innovation comes in — teaching union members and retirees to help new workers organize. This would enable a vast expansion of union mentoring, and union staff organizers would shift partly toward coordinating all these efforts rather that intensively staffing fewer priority campaigns.

This would admittedly be a big change for most unions and make them more of an open worker membership organization rather than a collection of specific bargaining units with a contract. There are precedents for this, as a few unions like the United Electrical workers and the Communications Workers of America have campaigns involving workers who are members and have been organizing for many years but don’t have recognition or a contract. And the Industrial Workers of the World has always had open membership for workers.

We need big changes to meet the moment. There’s a tremendous need among non-union workers for organizing assistance. Unions have a 71% approval rating, the highest since 1965. And surveys show that about half of unorganized workers want to be in a union — that’s tens of millions of workers. The number of NLRB election petitions has increased over 50% from last year. Strike activity is up. And we have a friendlier National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) at the moment, but how long will that last?

Unions have to build the capacity to provide much more organizing assistance. If we want to increase the union membership rate, now at a low 10%, we need to organize over one million workers per year. Current levels of organizing in recent years about been less than 1/10 of that.

Helping Every Worker

That’s why I’ve been really excited about the work of the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC). Founded at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to help non-union essential workers fight for safer working conditions, it has evolved into an all-purpose organizing and training resource for any worker. I’ve been a volunteer organizer with EWOC for the last two years, and there have been over 1,000 volunteers in the network over time.

When workers contact EWOC, they always get a call back within a few days. EWOC organizers will work with them to create an organizing plan, which generally involves setting up an organizing committee, helping them map their workplace and talk to coworkers, framing common and deeply felt demands, and then taking action. EWOC also offers regular organizing trainings and has an organizing guide.

EWOC organizers will also help connect workers to a union if they want a more formal campaign for voluntary recognition or an NLRB election. Some workers are setting up independent unions as well, an exciting development, but which is also an indicator of how hard it is to find unions to work with.

All of this is desperately needed. The interest in organizing is there, but most workers need help, and shouldn’t be left on their own to google “how to form a union.” The labor movement owes any worker who is interested this basic level of solidarity, which involves helping them start organizing and offering training and assistance.

We may be at the beginning of a possible labor upsurge, and they don’t come around that often. Let’s make it happen!



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

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Eric Dirnbach

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