Where Are the Workers?

One sparkling day about 10 years ago, I drove from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara to deliver a talk at a nationwide staff retreat of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE). I can't recall exactly what I talked about, but I remember distinctly whom I was talking to. The HERE staffers -- there were about 70 of them -- were all corporate researchers, most of them from HERE's locals.

This was something new. For some time, locals in America's more vibrant unions had employed organizers, but no union I knew of -- until that day -- had embedded corporate researchers in their locals as well. The researchers I met that afternoon were preponderantly young and uniformly bright. But HERE's decision to create a cadre of corporate campaigners was based on the grimmest of facts: Traditional private-sector union organizing -- signing up workers who want to join a union, winning a certification election conducted by the government, and securing a collective-bargaining agreement in negotiations with the employer -- had become a dead-end.

I discovered that day in Santa Barbara that HERE had concluded there was not a single hotel that could be organized absent a campaign to bring so much financial, political, and community pressure on the employer that it would agree not to oppose unionization. The mere desire of workers to form a union no longer sufficed.

By the 1990s, 30 percent of American employers routinely discharged employees during organizing drives, 49 percent threatened workers with the prospect of closing up shop if they voted to go union, 91 percent compelled workers to attend one-on-one meetings with their supervisors, and many delayed certification elections interminably and refused to agree to a first contract even if the union was legally certified. Employer willingness to violate the terms of the National Labor Relations Act (and suffer the negligible penalties it imposed on them) rather than let their workers unionize had become the norm in American business.

Accordingly, the very act of organizing has gone through a sea change at the nation's better unions and has been all but abandoned by the rest. With employers delaying elections and unions avoiding them, the number of National Labor Relations Board-supervised elections has declined steadily for several decades and has dropped by 41 percent over the past decade alone. One factor not standing in the way of union elections is employees' desire to belong to a union, which has been increasing for the past 15 years. Recent polling shows that 53 percent of nonunion workers would like to have a unionized workplace.

The only option open to unions seeking to organize private-sector workers has been to reach agreements with employers that sidestep the NLRB process altogether. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the now-merged union of clothing and hotel workers (UNITE HERE), the Teamsters, and a few others continue their work to build union support among rank-and-filers but now supplement that work by waging so-called "corporate campaigns," bringing financial or political pressure on corporate employers to compel them to not oppose unionization efforts. Beginning in the 1980s, these unions created corporate-strategy offices. They began asking elected officials to devise laws and rules that helped friendly employers and hurt union-busters. And they hired community organizers to build support for unionizing campaigns among churches and other potential allies.

Of necessity, many of these campaigns are conducted in arenas far removed from the workplaces the unions seek to organize. Some require the intense involvement of the workers seeking union status. Some don't. What sometimes emerges is a kind of top-down, "let's make a deal" unionism that results in an agreement covering workers who may not even have been aware that the unionization campaign was under way. It's a far cry from bottom-up organizing, but its proponents make a plausible case that given the erosion of the protections that labor law once provided workers, bottom-up organizing no longer works.

Labor and business are set to square off in the coming congressional battle over the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would create new legal protections for workers seeking to join or form a union by enabling them to attain recognition if a majority of them sign union-affiliation cards (a method known as "card check"). The bill is essential to any sustainable economic recovery, as unions offer the nation its best chance to attain broadly shared prosperity. (After all, the only period in American history in which productivity gains were widely shared was also the only period of high unionization -- the three decades after World War II, which saw the creation of history's first middle-class majority.)

EFCA is an essential step toward simplifying organizing and restoring workers to the center of the process. It wouldn't eliminate the need for the corporate researchers or the community organizers or global campaigns. But it would give workers who want to form a union in their workplace a shot at doing it without the kind of years-long, worldwide struggles that are now necessary to enable workers to bargain collectively.


The most successful union-organizing efforts of recent decades have all been complicated campaigns in which worker mobilization was just one part of a larger canvass. HERE's most celebrated campaign was that of its Las Vegas local to organize the city's hotel workers. The effort resulted in contracts with virtually every major hotel on Vegas' Strip, and the local grew from 18,000 members in the late 1980s to nearly 60,000 members today -- roughly 90 percent of all major Vegas hotels' employees.

The growth of the Vegas local can be attributed to both bottom-up and top-down organizing. No local has more active worker committees, and its members have a legendary ability to sustain a strike -- most famously, their strike against the nonunion Frontier Hotel, which lasted more than six years in the mid-1990s, without a single worker crossing the picket line, until the owners capitulated. But the growth of the union is also a function of the economic and political power it has wielded to either help or pressure owners, as circumstances dictated.

In the late 1980s, when casino-magnate Steve Wynn was building the first of his gigantic themed hotels that would transform the Vegas Strip, the local struck a deal with him to ensure his new hotels would be open to organizing. HERE offered simplification of its work rules, and its political assistance in killing a pending Internal Revenue Service rule to withhold the casino winnings of non-citizens, which would have damaged Vegas' trade in global high-rollers. In return, Wynn agreed to card-check at his new hotels.

Over the past two decades, no union has grown nearly as much as SEIU, which has seen its membership increase by at least 700,000 since Andy Stern became its president in 1996. The union's best-known organizing campaigns, those of the janitors who clean the office buildings in America's downtowns, have combined brilliant worker-mobilization efforts with full-court financial pressure on the employers. Even in anti-union Houston, SEIU successfully organized 5,300 mostly immigrant janitors in 2006. Over several years, SEIU built a strong base of support both within the city's janitorial work force and within the city's political and religious institutions.

But winning a contract took more than worker marches and media attention. The reason the 2006 drive succeeded where its mid-1990s predecessor failed, says Stephen Lerner, the chief strategist for the union's Justice for Janitors campaign, is that by the mid-2000s, many of Houston's office buildings were owned by global investors, and the five cleaning contractors that employed the majority of the city's janitors were either national or global companies. Where the union had little leverage over local contractors and owners, it could apply real pressure to national and even global institutions. Union pension funds were investors in the national real-estate investment trusts that owned much of downtown Houston, and they prodded the building owners to settle.

Indeed, in their efforts to organize American workers, unions have increasingly found themselves having to organize the world. Last year, SEIU used its global leverage to win the right to organize Wackenhut security guards. It began the campaign in 2002, but three years later, Wackenhut, a historically anti-union company of 35,000 U.S.-based security guards, became part of the immense British conglomerate G4S, which is second only to Wal-Mart as the world's largest private-sector employer. The only way to organize Wackenhut in the U.S., SEIU determined, was to organize G4S globally. SEIU launched an ambitious campaign with its international affiliates, which included efforts to keep Wackenhut from receiving the security contract for the 2012 London Olympics; lawsuits in British, Indian, Indonesian, and Panamanian courts; and strikes by G4S employees across Africa.

Awash in a global sea of troubles, on Dec. 16, 2008, G4S signed a groundbreaking agreement with the global network of unions, agreeing to obey national labor laws in each of the 115 countries where the company has a presence and honor a neutrality pledge during most unionization campaigns. As part of that pledge, SEIU won the right to run card-check campaigns for Wackenhut employees in the nine-largest American cities. "No global agreements have come about with this kind of company through this kind of process before," says Christy Hoffman, SEIU's director of global organizing.

The implications of SEIU's Wackenhut campaign are both inspiring and alarming. Even though it marks the most concrete example yet of workers of the world uniting for mutual gain, consider what it says about organizing within the United States. It's easier to seek legal relief based on the global guidelines for multinational corporations than to obtain protection from the National Labor Relations Act, which was written to promote union organizing in America. Then there's the most sobering lesson of all: If you want to organize security guards in Chicago, you have to organize the whole damn planet.

Not every campaign in this new era manages to strike a real balance between worker organizing and corporate pressure. Some of SEIU's other campaigns have proceeded more top-down than bottom-up -- and illustrate the trade-offs that the union has made in order to keep growing. Four years ago, SEIU negotiated an agreement with a nursing-home chain in Washington state in which the chain agreed to let SEIU unionize some of its homes in return for SEIU's help in getting the state government to authorize higher Medicaid payments. Under the terms of the agreement, which became widely controversial within SEIU, it was up to the chain, not the union, to designate which nursing homes would go union. One year later, SEIU and UNITE HERE entered into similar arrangements with the global food-service companies Sodexho and Aramark, though they have subsequently compelled Sodexho to lessen its role in the selection process.

Critics charge that "let's make a deal" unionism leaves no real role for workers in the organizing process and minimizes their involvement in negotiating their contracts. In addition, they argue, the employers' ability to maintain unorganizable, nonunion workplaces depresses the wages and benefits of the workers in the unionized facilities. SEIU officials, while privately conceding that top-down contracts are less than stellar, argue that their critics offer no plausible alternative to this organizing model. Given the current state of labor law, these half-a-loaf arrangements are both the best that can be achieved for workers and the only way the union can gain a foothold to win better contracts in future years.

The absence of the worker from the organizing process is a direct consequence of the lack of legal protections currently afforded American workers -- a hole in our democracy that the Employee Free Choice Act would patch. Today, even if workers themselves express a desire to organize, virtually every American union feels compelled to tell those workers that their effort will fail absent an all-out corporate campaign against their employer. Worker self-organization in America is as dead as the dodo unless EFCA is passed.


If the Employee Free Choice Act is enacted, will unions be able to downscale their corporate campaigns and dismantle their global alliances? Not really.

"Corporations will continue to employ union-busters," says Stewart Acuff, the AFL-CIO's director of organizing, "and they will do it earlier." The ferocious anti-unionism of American employers is unlikely to abate, and corporate campaigns will still be necessary, particularly to win contracts that cover large numbers of workers. As more American businesses become part of global conglomerates, more global union alliances will be necessary, too.

But Acuff sees two kinds of changes coming if EFCA is passed. "First," he says, "more unions will feel an incentive to organize knowing they can win. They'll invest more in organizing. It will be a quicker process, and we'll begin to grow in the growing sectors of the economy that are largely unorganized today."

"Second," he says, "there will be a level of worker self--organizing that we haven't seen in generations. I don't think unions will be targeting workers at small establishments: It doesn't make sense to organize a 12-person hardware store when there's a 400-person department store down the street. But in places where there's significant worker anger, the workers will feel freer to circulate a petition or to ask a union for a stack of cards and then go to the union and say, we want you to represent us. It may not lead to a significant increase in the number of new workers who get organized, but it will lead to a significant increase in the number of establishments where new workers get organized."

What EFCA will do, in other words, is create more opportunity for large-scale organizing, which will continue to rely on corporate campaigns. But it will increase the opportunities for mom-and-pop worksite organizing as well. For both the American economy and American democracy, that should come as very welcome news.

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