Labor’s Big Challenge

Last year was a tough year for organized labor.

Despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the presidential race, John Kerry lost to George W. Bush.

On the membership front, labor’s share of the work force continued its relentless decline. The segment of all workers in unions dropped to 12.5 percent, from 12.9 percent in 2003. In the private sector, only 7.9 percent of workers belonged to unions, falling from 8.2 percent in 2003. Even in the public sector — labor’s last stronghold — membership dropped, falling to 36.4 percent, from 37.2 percent in 2003.

As bad as 2004 was for unions, 2005 is shaping up to be even worse.

For all practical purposes, airline-industry unions have been broken. Republican governors in Indiana and Missouri have eliminated collective bargaining for state employees. President Bush has proposed new personnel policies for the massive Department of Homeland Security that would significantly curtail the power of government unions. And he has made it clear that he wants to extend these policies across the federal work force.

In the face of these unprecedented assaults, the AFL-CIO is again in the midst of its once-a-decade effort to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. While a coalition of six unions threatens to bolt the AFL-CIO, both incumbents and dissidents agree on one thing: Unions need to organize more members.

The goal is for all labor to emulate such unions as the leading dissident union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and earmark at least 30 percent of revenue for organizing.

There’s only one problem with this proposed solution to labor’s ills: It won’t work. Even if unions devoted 30 percent of their revenue to organizing — a huge “if” — they would add only enough new members to replace those they lose every year. In other words, if AFL-CIO President John Sweeney could move mountains and get unions to finally commit themselves to organizing, the unionized percentage of the U.S. labor force would continue to fall until it finally stabilized at a level even lower than today’s.

More organizing is certainly necessary. But it’s not enough. Unions need to consider better organizing. They need to find a way to increase their win rate, so that the new money they devote to organizing is used effectively.

Before considering a suggestion on how unions might achieve this, it’s good to review the dynamics of a typical organizing campaign. Reduced to its core, an organizing campaign comes down to choosing between which group better represents employee interests: company management or the union.

Employees know company managers, working for and with them every day. In most cases, the only thing they know about the union is the professional organizers they meet or see during an organizing campaign. These union staffers, often young and inexperienced, are the union to those whom they try to organize. Very hard-working and well-intentioned people, professional union organizers can be highly theoretical in their approach, often viewing _ treating _ individual recruits as part of an almost magical force they call “the workers.”

So the decision about whether to vote for the union comes down to a choice between the managers — whom employees know, and know will still be at the work site after the union election — or the union staffers, who will check out of their hotels and return their rental cars the day after the election. Of course, managers play on this imbalance, telling employees in no uncertain terms that there will be negative repercussions for siding with the union staffers.

Make no mistake: Managers often make life difficult for those who support a union. That they can is a major scandal. It is simply incompatible with democratic norms that a person can lose his or her job, or otherwise suffer, for exercising the right to act collectively. Reforming the laws to limit this illegal managerial behavior is a major goal of organized labor, and rightly so.

But until America’s labor laws are reformed, unions need to change those things they control. One change they should explore is new ways to develop leadership among those who will reside in a workplace and community over the long haul. This would mean de-emphasizing the role of professional organizers.

No longer would the energetic, often-charismatic organizer with the nice rented car and expense account serve as the “star” of the organizing campaign. As effective as these people can be, they are a fleeting presence in the life of a workplace and community.

If the organizing campaign were led by employees themselves, backed by friends, family and other community members, the choice would be stark and much more compelling: management or my colleagues and friends.

I participated in numerous organizing campaigns in which professional organizers repeated over and over again that the campaign was about “the workers” _ that “the workers” were the union. Very few people were taken in by this sales strategy. Union staffers made all the important decisions. Union staffers coordinated with union headquarters, community groups and other organizations. Union staffers confronted management in “debates” and other staged events.

When workers truly run the union, the entire dynamic changes. Some years ago I worked for a building-trades union, where I helped put together a comprehensive training program for union apprentices. The goal was to equip these new and often young union members to organize non-union building sites from within. The idea was to slowly build a core of union supporters and continue building support until the workplace was organized before a union vote even took place. Apprentices were assisted by professional union staff, but they ran the show.

It was a very far-sighted and long-term approach to changing the culture of workplaces. Because of union political changes, it was never fully implemented. But it contains some vital ideas, which other unions would be wise to consider.

(John Jordan, who runs a public-relations firm, was for 10 years a labor strategist and organizer.)