CHICAGO — Organized labor is no longer in denial about its dwindling numbers and diminished political power: Unions lost 400,000 members last year, and states like Indiana and Wisconsin have clipped the organizing rights of state employees and others. These changes are driving traditional unions toward innovative, but potentially risky, new approaches.
The new ideas being explored are rooted in the belief that many more workers than the 14.4 million who currently belong to labor unions would organize in some way if they had the opportunity. Jorge Ramirez, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, said the fact that 60 million workers say they would join a labor union today if they could often gets lost in the public dialogue about labor’s future. “They write the obituary and they throw out these numbers as if this is really what the state of labor is,” he said. “But what they don’t say is how many people want one.”
Labor leaders see the largest growth potential in the private sector — the overwhelming majority of the country’s workforce — where union membership as fallen further and more quickly than in the public sector. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, only 6.6 percent of private-sector workers belong to a union, compared to 35.9 percent of public-sector workers.
The trend of declining union membership in general over the past 20 years continued in some states that passed right-to-work laws last year allowing workers to decide whether they want to join or financially support a union. Total union membership in Indiana declined by 2 percent in 2012, from 11.3 to 9.1 percent of all workers. Similarly, Wisconsin saw a 2 percent decline in union membership in 2012, following major restrictions on collective bargaining rights championed by Gov. Scott Walker in 2011.
Labor leaders see reason for hope in the growth of nonunion groups that are finding unconventional ways to represent workers in difficult-to-organize industries, such as warehouses, retail and restaurants, and are exploring ways to partner with and support those efforts.
“(These groups) work with a big portion of workforce that is underrepresented and exploited and potentially could represent a renaissance in the labor movement,” said Bob Bruno, director of the University of Illinois Labor Education Program. “Those workers are being served by a lot of organizations that aren’t unions but are working for the empowerment of the working class.”
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, was blunt about labor’s challenges at a conference here last month that brought together key labor leaders, academics and community groups to discuss “New Models of Worker Representation.” The AFL-CIO is a federation of 57 labor unions that represent more than 12 million private- and public-sector workers.
“This subject, new models and ways to represent workers, carries an implicit criticism of the model the labor movement uses today,” Trumka said. “Some people think accepting criticism is a mark of vulnerability, but I’m really not concerned about appearing vulnerable, because working people and labor unions have been vulnerable for years. No amount of bluster or head-in-the-sand insistence that everything is fine will change that reality.”
AFL-CIO leaders have launched a 6-month-long planning effort to come up with more viable union models. New approaches will be discussed and finalized at its convention in September.
The industry sectors that are most difficult to organize using traditional methods have high turnover rates, a high proportion of temporary workers and often involve large corporations. They are also growing far more quickly than historical organized labor strongholds, such as manufacturing and construction.
Organizers of these unrepresented groups are encouraging workers to exercise their rights under the National Labor Relations Act, even if they can’t secure formal collective bargaining rights. According to some at the conference, it has become almost impossible to get the National Labor Relations Board to certify a new bargaining unit, especially since the board is so understaffed. Therefore, they argue, it makes sense for workers to pursue more immediate forms of representation. On Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to freeze all NLRB decisions until a legal dispute over President Barack Obama’s recess appointments to the board, which he made in January 2012, is resolved.
“While there are gains to be made using the current system, ultimately we need to figure out a way to build worker power outside of the current system of labor law in this country, which is broken,” said Mark Meinster, campaign director for Warehouse Workers for Justice, a nonprofit group that works to promote better conditions for employees who work in the supply chain of major retailers, including Walmart.
“Change is going to happen by workers coming together in the workplace and taking action to hold their employers accountable, and we’re starting to see that,” Meinster said.
Some are hopeful that the labor movement might be able to harness the energy of these groups by persuading the National Labor Relations Board to affirm “minority” or “pre-majority” unions. Under that framework, warehouse workers or retail employees would sign up members and bargain on behalf of a smaller group until they reached the 50 percent threshold and went through the traditional certification process.
Charles Morris, a professor emeritus at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law, supports requiring employers to bargain collectively with unions representing less than half of workers. “From the beginning, their organizing cry will be ‘union now,’ rather than ‘union maybe, if we have an election,’” he said. Any negotiated agreements would apply only to members.
Morris argues that minority unions are allowed under the National Labor Relations Act and were commonly used in the 1930s and 1940s to organize autoworkers, steelworkers and other groups. They went out of favor only because unions chose to rely on elections instead.
Morris told Stateline he was impressed by the efforts of Walmart retail and warehouse workers. But he believes his approach is the only way these workers could achieve meaningful change.
Pathway to union membership?
Percent of all workforce represented by unions in 2012:
• National average: 11.3 percent
Top 5 states
• New York: 24.9 percent
• Alaska: 23.9 percent
• Hawaii: 23.2 percent
• Washington: 19.5 percent
• California and Rhode Island: tied at 18.4 percent
Bottom 5 states:
• Arkansas: 3.7 percent
• North Carolina: 4.3 percent
• South Carolina: 4.6 percent
• Georgia: 5.4 percent
• Virginia: 5.5 percent
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics/U.S. Department of Labor