US: Organized Labor in Crisis

"More than 50 million [U.S.] workers don’t have a union but want one. Few workers are able to join unions and their strength is divided … into separate unions instead of building their strength in numbers in particular industries, employers, or markets" (New Unity Partnership founding document).

An anxious debate has opened up among top labor leaders in the U.S. Many of them worry that union membership has fallen so much that it is approaching a point of no return, and that unions will continue to shrink until they disappear.

Strength in numbers

The tactical basis of union power has always been strength in numbers. When enough workers in a workplace, industry, area, or even an entire nation can organize and unify enough to control their own labor, seriously threaten to stop working, and by doing so stop production and delivery of goods and services … then workers have real power. Alone or in small, isolated groups, workers are powerless against big business and the government that big business controls.

Unions in the U.S. have survived for over 100 years because enough workers fought, risked and sacrificed their lives to join together in labor unions. Unions, in limited but extremely important ways, have proven to be one of the most effective tools for workers to gain and hold onto better pay, benefits, and working conditions.

Even now, with a weak labor movement in the U.S., there is a 27% difference between the median weekly earnings of union ($760) and non-union ($599) workers (Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 2004). Add in benefits, and the advantage of being in a union is even more evident.

The numbers now

In 2004, the percentage of workers in unions dropped to 12.5% (15.8 million workers), down from 12.9% in 2003. Only 7.9% of the private sector (non-government workers) is in unions, down from 8.2% in 2003. So, less than 1 in 10 private sector workers in the U.S. are in unions now. The percentage of union members in the public sector (government workers) is falling, too, with a loss of 57,000 union members last year to 36.4% (

Also, in terms of future trends, if this general decline in union membership continues it will likely be made worse by the fact that the highest rates of unionization are among the oldest workers who are closest to retirement (16.8% of 55-64 year olds are in unions). On the other end of the spectrum, the youngest section of the workforce has the lowest percentage of union membership of any age group: only 4.7% among 16-24 year olds (down from 5.1% in 2003) and 10.6% among 25-34 year olds (

Many other statistics could be listed to show similar trends of decline in union membership from different angles such as individual companies, industries, and different sectors of the workforce.

Response to the crisis?

In 2003, an internal memo from the leadership of the largest union in the U.S., SEIU, was published on a website of Carpenters Union members who are trying to reform their union. From there, the SEIU memo made the rounds of other websites concerned with union issues and got exposure in the corporate media. The memo was called "Multi-Union Growth Partnership," and it called for a "New Unity Partnership".

It turns out that this memo represented the crisis-analysis of an alliance between the top leaders of five unions: SEIU (Service Employees), HERE (Hotel workers), UNITE (Textile workers), and the Laborer’s and Carpenters unions. This grouping set up an SEIU-sponsored website called "UnitetoWin", and through that site, public interviews, and private meetings at the top of the AFL-CIO, the New Unity Partnership (NUP) pressed its case.

"Organize or Die" and "Union Density" were the main slogans of the NUP. They pushed for the AFL-CIO to:

  • double the amount of money spent on organizing non-government, private sector workers into unions;
  • merge all the smaller unions into larger ones and create clear boundaries for which unions would organize different types or sectors of workers;
  • develop "Capital Strategies" to put more money into union treasuries;
  • start a $25 million-per-year campaign to organize Wal-Mart; and
  • spend more money on lobbying politicians and not be so tied to the Democratic Party.

In their memo, this included "meet jointly with moderate Republicans" and also "meet with Karl Rove" (a top Bush Administration, right-wing strategist).

And as these demands were pressed at the top of the AFL-CIO, mainly by SEIU President Andy Stern, there were also threats made about the NUP-led unions splitting from the AFL-CIO if they didn’t get their way.

NUP a symptom, not a cure

With the exception of the demand to put money into organizing Wal-Mart, the NUP program is not the antidote for a weakened labor movement. The leaders of the five NUP unions are simply trying to inject a more virulent form of business unionism into the leadership of the AFL-CIO.

This is a strange cure, since the root of Labor’s sickness is business unionism itself. As SEIU’s President Andy Stern elaborated the NUP vision in public interviews, it became clear that they see unions needing to suck up even more to corporations through "jointness" schemes and political alliances with companies and employer associations.

Also, instead of talking about a workers’ party to represent workers, Stern and the NUP heads like to talk about their new friends in the Republican Party, like those in the Republican Governors Association who got $500,000 from SEIU.

The whole NUP strategy, a reshuffling of resources at the root of it, continues the top-down, staff-driven approach to both organizing and the running of unions that is used by the current crop of AFL-CIO leaders to stay in power. Nowhere in the proposals of the NUP, or similar plans now on offer from other top union leaders, are union members mentioned in terms of their key role in organizing, running their own unions, or mobilizing to fight against corporate attacks. There was no attempt to have union members hold an organized debate or vote on the policies that the NUP leaders were proposing.

Recently, the NUP leaders dissolved their alliance, dropping their threats to leave the AFL-CIO. Most workers, unionized or not, never heard of the NUP or its proposals.

The socialist alternative

The leaders of the AFL-CIO refuse to acknowledge that the crisis of capitalism is creating the crisis in labor. The limited, shortsighted "social partnership" between many unions and the corporations in the years of the post-World War II upswing are no longer seen as necessary or possible by big business.

The corporations no longer fear the militancy and radicalism of the ‘30s and ‘40s that built the AFL-CIO into a mass force. Decades have now passed where union leaders have refused to mobilize union members with socialist methods and programs, the only way to effectively fight back against big business.

AFL-CIO leaders accept layoffs, outsourcing, and companies closing down; socialists do not. Socialists organize with tactics and solutions like publicly exposing the systematic greed and injustice of the big corporations, using mass picketing, workplace occupations, and public ownership under workers’ control of businesses that threaten to close down, in order to save jobs. AFL-CIO leaders accept the rules, values, and vision of big business. Socialists do not.

We organize to break the dictatorship of big business with class struggle, member-run unions, building a workers’ party, international organizing, and the vision of a democratic socialist society where workers control their own lives. U.S. unions still have around 15 million members and from this core of members a real debate and struggle can emerge, especially if socialist methods and programs are put forward.

From Justice, journal of Socialist Alternative, cwi in the US

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February 2005