By Harry Kelber | January 9, 2007

First in a series of six articles

With all the millions of dollars that unions spend each year on organizing, why does the labor movement continue to decline in numbers and strength? Why aren’t droves of unorganized workers flocking to union halls to sign up and achieve the advantages of higher pay, substantial benefits and better working conditions that union members enjoy?

In the past 10 years, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s "New Voices" team has tried just about everything to turn things around, but the results have been disappointing. They’ve hired hundreds of young, smart people from diversified backgrounds and trained them as organizers at great expense. They’ve published and distributed tons of literature on organizing. They’ve held top-level strategy sessions, assigned task forces, conducted seminars and workshops. At conventions, the rhetoric on the need to organize is free-flowing, and strongly-worded resolutions receive unanimous approval.

So what’s wrong? Why do we keep failing? Why haven’t we found a formula that will enable us to organize the nation’s major non-union corporations, each of which employs thousands of workers?

The conventional response by union leaders to this riddle is to put the blame for labor’s failures squarely, and almost exclusively, on the employers, who use a variety of well-documented methods, to harass and intimidate their workers from joining a union. Of course, employers will use every means, including illegal ones, to maintain a "union-free environment." But is that the only reason for our failures?

In the 1930s, thugs, hired by employers, used brass knuckles, baseball bats and rifle butts to attack picket lines; police used nightsticks and tear gas to break up rallies. That did not deter hundreds of thousands of workers from joining unions. Today’s unorganized workers are not basically different from the millions of workers who joined unions over the years; the problem is they are not getting the proper aggressive leadership. In fact, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win coalition are constantly reminding unorganized workers how powerful their employers are. Is that a sensible organizing strategy?


In these articles, we shall try to demonstrate that an army of volunteer union organizers is the best‹and perhaps the only‹way whereby millions of workers can achieve their "dream" of a decent job with a livable wage and the chance for a better life. We will consider "union democracy," not merely as a worthy ideal, but as an essential ingredient of successful organizing.

Let’s start with some harsh facts: our national labor leaders have demonstrated they have neither the competence nor the will to get us out of the current mess that they themselves have largely created. Even though we represent only 7.8 percent of workers in the private sector and are being clobbered at the collective bargaining table, there is no sense of urgency or alarm at AFL-CIO and CTW headquarters in Washington.

Why should they be concerned? In the past ten years, they have been re-elected four times by unanimous convention votes, without competition, debate or criticism, even though they had a dismal organizing record and suffered serious legislative defeats.

Since our leaders rarely appear on television, don’t talk on radio, avoid giving interviews and prefer a low profile, it’s understandable why the labor movement is an unknown quantity to millions of workers who say they want to join a union. We don’t have a TV channel, radio network or national newspaper to reach out to that vast multitude of non-union workers; so if we can’t talk to them, how are we going to organize them?

Since we can’t depend on our leaders to rebuild the labor movement, we, the millions of rank-and-filers, will have to undertake that job ourselves. That calls for a grass-roots, bottoms-up movement that begins with the workplace and local union in every city and town across the country and aims to involve every union member to share in the rebuilding process.

That’s how our forefathers did it. In those early local unions, every member had a voice in policy decisions. They could see and talk to their leaders. They received periodic financial reports. They participated in the direct election of their officers. They shared responsibility for organizing non-union establishments. They provided us with a model of union democracy that is still relevant.

There is a wealth of knowledge, skills and organizing experience within the labor movement that has been largely untapped. The thousands of labor activists in unions around the country can play an important role in building the army of volunteer organizers. Extensive use would be made of the Internet for facilitating various functions of the "army."


In the five subsequent articles, we will respond to those union members who may question the possibility, practicality or desirability of creating a volunteer army. (Any there any better ideas to mobilize the membership? Send them along.)

Why should members join? (Because it is in their self-interest to join. They need a militant organization that will defend their rights, on and off the job.)

What exactly will volunteers do that will make it worthwhile? (You’ll be surprised. Lots to do for everyone, both interesting and rewarding.)

How will it be financed? (Several ways. And remember, volunteers won’t be on the payroll.)

Who will be the "generals"? (They’ll undergo training and be democratically elected by the "troops.")

What can it accomplish? (At the very least, we’ll find ways to command the attention of the public and the political leaders in Washington. We’ll be able to launch major organizing campaigns and we’ll fight to reclaim our unions. That’s more than we are getting from our current labor leadership.)

We gladly welcome comment and suggestions from leaders and rank-and-filers.

Article 2 of ‘Building an Army of Volunteer Organizers’ will be posted here on Thursday, January 11, 2007.

Harry on Facebook

Publications