Organizing the unorganized

There is an important and lively debate going on the need for a much larger trade union movement. From rank-and-file organizers to executive boards of the major unions – everyone is brainstorming, comparing experiences and studying labor history – searching for a breakthrough strategy. In response, at its August executive board meeting, the AFL-CIO decided to call a national conference on organizing, early next year.

On Aug. 17-18 the Communist Party’s Labor Commission also held a conference on problems and trends in organizing the unorganized. Our conference decided to sponsor an on-going discussion in the pages of the People’s Weekly World/Nuestro Mundo as part of our contribution to the debate.

To help kick it off we print below an article inspired by the Labor Commission discussion. We are excited to inaugurate such a discussion on Labor Day 2002. We hope you will respond with articles and letters that give your ideas, suggestions and reactions.



Not since the massive drives to organize the basic industrial unions of the CIO in the 1930s, has there been such general agreement about the need to bring millions of new members into unions. We won’t go into all the facts and figures; we don’t have to. The big business media constantly blasts us with the declining union membership numbers and declining union density figures.

The truth is that labor has begun to reverse the trends, but it is slow hard work. For sure, recently, there have been significant large break-though experiences to encourage us all – home health care workers in California and Washington State, Cannon Mills in North Carolina, Justice for Janitors, to name a few. But the pace is just not fast or massive enough.

Organized labor and the AFL-CIO do a tremendous job with the numbers they have. American labor has a progressive impact far beyond its membership rolls. Just look at the role labor has played in the last few election cycles, where union members and their families turned out voting blocks for progressive candidates far beyond their numbers as a percentage of registered voters.

Still and all, the labor movement needs to grow in a massive way to fully carry out its historic responsibility to defend the interests of workers and their families. Consider what a labor movement with twice its current membership would have meant in the 2000 elections. Most likely George Bush would not have been able to steal the election.

So why isn’t it happening? What will it take? Many have noted that most dramatic organizing gains have been historically linked to big mass movements. The organizing upsurge around the eight-hour-day movement is one example. The fight for industrial unionism, coming, in part, out of the depression era fight of the unemployed, is another. These were nationwide movements, mass movements, that drew millions into the streets and into struggle. Both were movements that captured the imagination of rank-and-file workers and propelled them into action.

Yet both examples also had in common a labor organization that was championing the issues involved – the Knights of Labor and the CIO, correspondingly. In both cases there were long years of militant agitation by labor activists of their day for the eight-hour day and for industrial unions, respectively. Also, in both cases the issues were in even sharper focus because of changes taking place in the underlying economy. In the case of the eight-hour day, it was the widespread introduction of mass production methods and systems. In the 1930s, besides the economic crisis, it was the monopoly consolidation of whole critical industries into huge factories of tens of thousands of workers under one roof.

Some have suggested that the fight for national health care might be the burning issue of today, around which such a mass movement to organize workers might grow. It certainly has that weight and urgency. In addition, the underlying economic situation is changing. Capitalist globalization and technology are rapidly changing the workplace. The large factories of industrialization are being replaced by a new division of labor that atomizes the workplace into departments spread all over the globe. Yet, at the same time, huge new monopoly concentrations of wealth, superprofits and corporate power are held by fewer and fewer transnational capitalists.

This is not a call to “make” health care the issue. If a new mass upsurge in organizing does emerge around an issue, that issue won’t be decided by committee or by proclamation alone. Ultimately it will be decided by masses moved to fight around a burning issue of such consequence that it cannot be ignored. But raising this example does help focus attention on the bigger picture of searching for an overall strategy that can move millions into action to organize.

Without a bigger strategy we are left with what is emerging in too many cases as a strategy by default. It might be called the ‘general workers union’ strategy. Essentially this is the survival strategy of a growing number of unions who find themselves and their industries in crisis. But union power is not just numbers, it is also sufficient concentrations of members in a given sector of the economy. When 40 or 50 percent of the workers in a given sector are organized it, gives leverage, or “critical mass,” to set standards and to further organize in that sector.

Lastly, big upsurges in organizing often have meant structural changes in labor. For the CIO, change was from craft to industrial unionism. Today labor may have to consider new forms of unions that are not just centered around collective bargaining agreements or individual workplaces. Unfair labor law, poorly enforced, makes for an uneven playing field on corporate turf.

A union contract is an important way to measure strength, but it isn’t the only way. Concerted action of workers can improve conditions, build unity and teach unionism, even when a contract is not possible. For example, the hundreds of local “living wage” campaigns. Taking the AFL-CIO’s “associate member” idea to the next level, wouldn’t permanent union forms, built around the workers and activists who fought for living wage laws, be a great addition to the house of labor? Or what about organizations built around the thousands that are being robbed of pensions and health care by corporate corruption, like the Enron and WorldCom workers? You get the picture.

Scott Marshall is a vice chairman of the Communist Party and the chair of its labor commission. The author can be reached at scott@rednet.org