Countering Labor's Decline

This upcoming Labor Day should not be an occasion for celebration &emdash; at least by those for whom the holiday is named. Fewer than one in ten private sector workers are union members. The political impact of organized labor appears even weaker. Mainstream Democrats have long since discarded union concerns about labor law reform and striker replacement legislation even as they take labor's money and electoral resources. If Labor Day is to become more than an occasion for another three-day weekend, unions and their friends need to adopt a new vision and strategy.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. With the election of John Sweeney as president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, the federation promised a renewed commitment to organizing. Nonetheless, despite some commendable high profile wins, such as state homecare workers in California, the percentage of enrolled union members continues to shrink.

Against this background, two labor scholars, Richard Freeman of Harvard and Joel Rogers of the University of Wisconsin, suggested in the June 24 issue of The Nation that labor revitalize an older organizational tradition. During earlier decades of union growth, such as the Progressive and New Deal eras, union membership was not confined simply to workers in those firms where unions had achieved majority status. The original (1886) constitution of the American Federation of Labor declared that the federation would extend membership to any group of seven or more laborers who supported its goals. In a similar vein, many unions also historically allowed minority representation. Pro-union workers in firms where a majority wished to remain non-union could still affiliate with the international union.

"Open source unionism" offers advantages both to the union and to its affiliated members. Freeman and Rogers point out that minority and nontraditional members can "give labor access to strategic information on employer behavior." Such information is especially vital in an economy where corporate mobility and lack of access to information place workers at an increasing disadvantage.

For their part, minority and nontraditional union members would also stand to gain from such a relationship. Regular contact with unions that had organized some workplaces could provide a knowledge base on which future success in nonunion shops could be built. In addition, in an era when most workers change jobs many times in a lifetime, a broad-based union movement can keep its members apprised of new vocational and employment opportunities. It could also play a kind of accrediting function beneficial to workers and even enlightened employers.

Over the long haul, the largest benefit of such arrangements might lie in redressing unions' debilitating catch 22. Unions today have difficulty playing a significant role as long as employers can crush organizing efforts with impunity, as current law allows. The legal status quo, however, won't change until unions and their supporters achieve enough coordinated mass to force political leaders to take labor law reform seriously.

Despite its potential advantages, there is no denying that open source unionism would represent a sea change for labor. "Outsiders" who support the broad right of workers to organize and to receive fair compensation and a real voice in their workplaces may not share every political and economic priority of current union leadership. A strong and effective union may be one where some differences in immediate goals and priorities amidst areas of agreement must be tolerated. There are risks to any effort to build a broader and more inclusive union movement. Nonetheless, it may well be the case that unions are unlikely to survive without accepting risks.

Historically, major industrial unions have lost ground not merely because employers mounted a sustained challenge to their legitimacy. During the post-World War II period too many unions became narrow interest groups, carbon copies in many ways of the corporations they fought. Women and minority members were confined to a lesser role, and broader social concerns, such as war and environment, were rejected in the interest of immediate economic gain. As Freeman and Rogers put it: "All great surges in organizing have been preceded by fears that the new members will be different from the old, and confusion about the right form of union &emdash; craft versus industrial, general versus narrow jurisdictions, public-sector associations versus "real unions." What we know from this history is that forms must adjust to workers and the broader economy, and nobody knows in advance which new forms will turn out to be enduring."

However bleak organized labor's current plight, it is worth remembering that US workplaces are not the contented places portrayed in our mass media. Survey research consistently shows that large majorities of workers seek some organizational vehicle to counter employer power. Accounting and pension fund scandals only deepen those concerns even for many professional workers. Unions have a chance to survive by fashioning new vehicles to address the concerns of a changing workplace.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. He invites comments at

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2002 The Progressive Populist