Unions Are Getting Smarter by Returning to Old-School Organizing Tactics

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A new wave of union activism has swept the country in recent months with workers at Starbucks, Amazon, and even Apple pushing to organize. The unions claim it’s because of a grassroots fervor for economic justice, but there’s another factor at work: The labor movement has gotten smarter about organizing.

For years, unions mounted aggressive campaigns to pressure corporations into unionizing their workforces. They failed because they were top-down efforts that lacked actual grassroots support from workers. Unions are now reverting to older forms of grassroots organizing that, while slower, are better at building that grassroots support.

The recent union successes have been numerous but piecemeal. Starbucks is being organized one café at a time, with some places boasting as few as dozen workers. Amazon has contended with organizing bids at individual warehouse facilities in Alabama and New York. The National Labor Relations Board, the federal entity charged with monitoring union elections, reports that petitions to hold union elections one were up 57 percent so far this year.

The unions appear to be using “salts,” an old practice where labor activists apply for a job at the targeted company, then try to work from the inside to build union support. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) prohibits companies from firing workers for union-related activity, thus protecting the union activist.

An April story in the progressive journal Labor Notes highlighted Staten Island Amazon worker Tabitha Wilson who “was part of SEIU’s fast food workers campaign when she worked at McDonald’s.” SEIU is the Service Employees International Union. Labor Notes added, “The union supporters at Amazon include many, like Wilson, who have been part of a union before,” SEIU being the most prominent. Labor Notes added that the Amazon labor unions’ “efforts are now backed by the institutional heft of the labor movement.”

The union organizing has been helped by an extremely tight labor market that has helped drive up wages and benefits, emboldening workers to ask for more. Places that strived to stay open and functioning throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, such as Starbucks and Amazon, pushed workers many workers to their limits, so unions are finding more receptive audiences.

For all of the headlines the unions have gotten from these wins, the number of workers that have been unionized is small compared to the thousands of people employed. The Wall Street Journal reports that workers at 240, or less than 3 percent, of Starbucks’s 9,000 U.S. corporate stores have filed to unionize. Nevertheless, its 3 percent more than unions managed in the previous decade and something to build on.

Until recently, the labor movement was thinking much bigger. Organizing one location at a time was seen as penny-ante stuff compared to getting whole major corporations to sign over their entire workforce in one fell swoop. And, yes, a company can legally do that. Under the NLRA, management doesn’t need to ask its workers if they want a union.

The SEIU and United Food and Commercial Workers poured tens of millions of dollars each over a decade into PR campaigns attacking Walmart for being nonunion. SEIU subjected McDonald’s and other fast food giants to a similar media campaign, spending at least $90 million to pressure corporations into meeting them at the negotiating table.

This explains why unions and their allies, beginning in the Obama administration, were so keen to expand the “joint employee” doctrine, the legal standard by which one company is considered to have control over the workforce of another. Expanding the doctrine’s reach would have been crucial to making this all-at-once corporate strategy work. Major corporations that are franchisors are usually not directly responsible for their franchisees or the franchisees’ workers, but under an expanded joint employer doctrine they would be. Unions could thus pressure the parent corporation into accepting collective bargaining.

Neither the Obama nor Biden administration were able to get that expanded joint employer standard firmly established. Congress wouldn’t budge and administrative rulemakings kept getting overturned or rolled back. The unions’ corporate pressure campaigns didn’t work either. After several years of claiming that Walmart workers were rising up in revolt every Black Friday, reporters began to notice that reality was not matching union press releases. The nation’s overall union membership declined from 11.8 percent  a decade ago to just 10.3 percent today.

Biden’s administration has been unable to get Congress to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, legislation intended to make mass-scale organizing easier. Instead, it is trying to do so through rulemaking changes, all of which can be undone the next time a Republican gets the White House.

So the switch to smaller-scale organizing appears to be an acknowledgement that the all-or-nothing approach isn’t feasible. Instead, unions are trying to just chalk up some wins, however modest, and hope they can build on that. It isn’t a bad strategy for them.

For management, the best counterstrategy remains the old Henry Ford model: Pay your employees well, keep the communications lines open, and listen to complaints. Do those things and the workers won’t see a need for a union.