Multinational Monitor

JUN 2003
VOL 24 No. 6


Winning is Possible: Successful Union Organizing in the United States — Clear Lessons, Too Few Examples
by Kate Bronfenbrenner and Robert Hickey

Biotech Food Flacks: Canadian Consumer Group Goes to Bat for Biotech
by Aaron Freeman


Countering Privatization: Defending the Public Sector in an Era of Privatization Run Amok
an interview with Bobby Harnage

Workers at Risk: The Dangers on the Job When the Regulators Don’t Try Very Hard
an interview with Margaret Seminario


Behind the Lines

The Grand Plan

The Front
Biotech Food Fight - Tobacco Treaty Triumph

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News


Winning is Possible: Successful Union Organizing in the United States — Clear Lessons, Too Few Examples

by Kate Bronfenbrenner and Robert Hickey

The U.S. manufacturing sector, and the U.S. labor movement, are in a state of crisis.

Not only did overall employment in manufacturing industries fall by 1.8 million jobs between January 1997 and December 2001, but a disproportionate share of those employment losses were concentrated among union workers. In just five years, the labor movement lost nearly 10 percent of its manufacturing sector membership, and there is no end in sight.

Never before have unions in manufacturing faced such large, powerful and globally connected corporations opposed to organizing. Not since the 1920s have unions faced such unfettered government support for corporate interests and disregard, if not outright antipathy, for the rights and interests of workers and unions.

This crisis goes beyond any individual industry or union. Instead it is one that impacts the entire labor movement. Membership gains by service and public sector unions have been nullified by membership losses in manufacturing. These losses translate into the continuing decline in union density, and the decrease in both political power and bargaining power that union density provides, for all unions, not just those in the manufacturing sector.

Despite the urgency of the crisis, industrial unions have yet to make the organizing gains necessary to stem the rising tide of de-unionization in the U.S. manufacturing sector.

Across the manufacturing sector, the number of elections, the percent of elections won and the percent of workers in organized units continue to decline. By 2001, there were only 501 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections in the manufacturing sector for the whole year, involving 76,438 workers, of which only 12,813 workers, 17 percent, were in units where the election was won. Unlike their counterparts in communications, construction, hospitality, laundries and building services, almost none of the unions organizing in manufacturing are gaining new members through card check recognition outside of the NLRB process. So there are only a small number of newly organized workers from non-Board campaigns to add on to those organized under the NLRB.

Juxtaposed against the 615,000 union manufacturing jobs lost since 1997, including the 164,000 jobs lost in 2001 alone, the 13,000 workers who gained union representation in 2001 under a first contract made an almost insignificant dent in the burgeoning union membership losses in the manufacturing sector.

Unions in other sectors have done much better. While unions organizing in the service sector have made relatively small gains in the context of the massive employment increases in those industries, at least they continue to grow.

The bar is higher for unions organizing in manufacturing for multiple reasons.

First and foremost, they are organizing among the largest, most mobile and most powerful multinational corporations in the world. These are firms that have the resources and the sophistication to stop union campaigns before they even get off the ground, the global capacity to shut down, sell off, contract out or move operations out of the country to remain "union free," and the kinds of ownership structures that are least vulnerable to public pressure and regulatory restraint.

Although more diverse than in the past, the majority of manufacturing workers continue to be white, male and native born, the demographic groups least receptive to unions in the more hostile private sector organizing environment.

And, with new massive layoffs and plant closings being announced each day, these are the workers who are most vulnerable to employer threats of discharge, layoff or plant shutdown.

Unions win recognition elections in the manufacturing sector only 29 percent of the time [a 29 percent "win rate"], even in those relatively rare instances where there is only minimal employer opposition to the union campaign. The very nature, structure and culture of the majority of private sector manufacturing firms today send an unspoken anti-union message even before the employer has a chance to send out supervisors to fight the union head on.

But for all the difficulties in organizing new workers, even in manufacturing, some unions in all sectors of the economy have been able to win even against some of the nation's most formidable anti-union employers. While some private sector industries may be easier to organize than others, unions employing comprehensive, innovative, rank-and-file-based strategies are able to succeed much more frequently than those that do not.

The majority of manufacturing unions are failing to employ these comprehensive organizing strategies, however. Instead, they continue to have the same staff and officers, and run the same type of weak, understaffed and non-strategic campaigns that they did 30 years ago.

The Comprehensive Approach

A survey of union organizing tactics shows that, for unions to make any significant organizing gains in the private sector, they will have to mount organizing campaigns that are more aggressive, comprehensive, creative and strategic.

This survey examines the key data on election background, bargaining unit demographics, employer behavior in union organizing campaigns, union tactics and election outcomes, among other factors, for 412 of a random sample of 600 NLRB election campaigns held in 1998 or 1999. The data is drawn from a number of sources, including in-depth surveys of the lead organizer in each election campaign.

The data show that certain strategic elements, each comprised of clusters of key tactics, are essential ingredients for union organizing success. Some of these comprehensive organizing tactics are individually associated with higher win rates and in some cases have statistically significant positive effects on election outcomes when controlling for the impact of election environment, company characteristics, bargaining unit demographics and employer opposition.

However, in the hostile climate in which unions must operate, the isolated use of even these more comprehensive tactics is not enough. Union gains depend on multi-faceted campaigning utilizing as many of the 10 comprehensive organizing tactics as possible.

These tactics are: 1) adequate and appropriate staff and financial resources; 2) strategic targeting; 3) active and representative rank-and-file organizing committees; 4) active participation of member volunteer organizers; 5) person-to-person contact inside and outside the workplace; 6) benchmarks and assessments to monitor union support and set thresholds for moving ahead with the campaign; 7) an emphasis on issues which resonate in the workplace and in the community; 8) creative, escalating internal pressure tactics involving members in the workplace; 9) creative, escalating external pressure tactics involving members outside the workplace, locally, nationally and/or internationally; and 10) building for the first contract during the organizing campaign [see sidebar on page 10 for a full description of each].

Each of these 10 tactical clusters, or comprehensive organizing tactics, enhances the union's organizing power in a unique way. Unions that allocate adequate staff and financial resources, for example, make an institutional commitment to be more intensely engaged in the campaign, recruit an organizing staff that is demographically representative of the workers they organize and to run more campaigns. Unions that engage in strategic targeting tend to approach organizing as a means to build bargaining power within certain sectors and industries, in contrast to the non-strategic "hot shop" organizing model.

Perhaps the single most important component of a comprehensive campaign is an active, representative committee that gives bargaining unit members ownership of the campaign, allows the workers to start acting like a union inside the workplace, builds trust and confidence among the workforce and counteracts the most negative aspects of the employer campaign.


The use of member volunteers to assist in organizing campaigns reflects a combination of greater institutional integration of current and potential new members, and an emphasis on a worker-to-worker approach to organizing.

Person-to-person contacts made inside and outside the workplace enhance the union's organizing power. They provide the intensive one-on-one contacts necessary to build and sustain worker commitment to unionization both at home and in the increasingly hostile election environment at work.

The combination of benchmarks and assessments allows unions to evaluate worker support for the union at different stages of the campaign. This enables organizers to better adjust their strategy to the unit they are trying to organize and to set thresholds to determine when, and whether, they are ready to move on to the next stage of the campaign.

A focus on issues that resonate with the workers and the community, such as respect, dignity, fairness, service quality, and union power and voice, is essential both to build worker commitment to withstand the employer campaign and to gain community support.

Internal pressure tactics allow the union to start acting like a union before the election takes place, building solidarity and commitment among the workers being organized and restraining employer opposition.

External pressure tactics, which exert leverage on the employer both in the local community and in their national and/or international operations, are essential to organizing in the increasingly global corporate environment.

Finally, building for the first contract before the election helps build confidence in the workers being organized. It shows the workers what the union is all about and signals to the employer that the union is there for the long haul.

The Comprehensive Record

Each of the individual elements in the model are associated with win rates that average between 4 to 28 percentage points higher than in campaigns where they are not utilized. Most dramatic are the win rates associated with adequate and appropriate resources (64 percent when present, 41 percent when not present), active representative committee (56 percent when present, 41 percent when not present), and benchmarks and assessments (66 percent when present, 38 percent when not present).

Manufacturing elections have the most dramatic differences in win rates between campaigns where tactics are used versus campaigns where they are not used.

Most notably, the win rate in manufacturing campaigns where adequate and appropriate resources are used is as high as 70 percent but drops to 26 percent in campaigns where the union did not use adequate and appropriate resources.


Similarly, the win rate is 65 percent when the union uses benchmarks and assessments but drops down to 25 for campaigns in which benchmarks and assessments are not used.

The win rate increases dramatically with the use of additional tactics, and win rates are much higher in elections where unions use a comprehensive organizing strategy incorporating more than five comprehensive tactics, compared to campaigns where they use five or fewer tactics. In manufacturing, the win rate averages only 20 percent in campaigns where unions use no comprehensive organizing tactics, increasing only slightly to 29 percent when they use between one and five tactics, but then jumping up to 63 percent in the campaigns where they use more than five tactics.

When unions run comprehensive campaigns, win rates increase across all wage rates and demographic groups in the manufacturing sector, including units with or without a majority of women, workers of color, women workers of color and/or immigrant workers. The increase in win rates ranges from 8 percentage points in units where workers of color are in the minority, to 43 percentage points in units where women are in the majority, and 76 percentage points in units where workers average less than $8 per hour in wages. In units where the majority of workers are women of color, win rates average as high as 68 percent in campaigns where the union uses five or fewer tactics but then increase to 82 percent in campaigns where the union does use a comprehensive organizing strategy.

Comprehensive organizing tactics can overcome aggressive anti-union campaigns by employers -- indeed, they are the only remedy to the very effective tactics used by employers to defeat union organizing efforts. A union's use of a comprehensive organizing strategy is associated with significantly higher win rates in elections where the employer ran a moderately aggressive or aggressive campaign. In elections with moderately aggressive employer campaigns, when the union runs a comprehensive campaign, win rates average 93 percent overall and 75 percent in manufacturing. However, win rates drop to 35 percent overall, 29 percent in manufacturing, when the union fails to run a comprehensive campaign.

Even in campaigns with aggressive employer opposition, win rates in manufacturing double in elections where the union ran a comprehensive campaign (50 percent) compared to campaigns where the union failed to run a comprehensive campaign (25 percent). The pattern is similar in the service and other sectors.

Same Old Song

Despite the clear benefits, unions do not make frequent use of comprehensive organizing tactics. Overall, only 14 percent of all the union campaigns devote adequate and appropriate resources to the campaign, only 19 percent engage in person-to-person contact inside and outside the workplace, and only 17 percent engage in escalating pressure tactics outside the workplace.

Fewer than 30 percent have active representative committees or effectively utilize member volunteer organizers, while fewer than 25 percent use benchmarks and assessments, or focus on issues that resonate in the workplace and broader community. The highest percentages are found for strategic targeting (39 percent), escalating pressure tactics inside the workplace (37 percent), and building for the first contract before the election is held (35 percent).

Few unions, especially in the manufacturing sector, employ a significant number of comprehensive tactics. In the manufacturing sector, 11 percent of all union campaigns use no comprehensive organizing tactics, while 83 percent used between one and five tactics and only 6 percent used more than five tactics. However, nearly twice as many of elections won (13 percent) use more than five comprehensive tactics.

Even where employers are aggressively using anti-union tactics, organizers rarely run comprehensive campaigns. They do so in only 20 percent of elections with aggressive employer opposition, 7 percent of elections with moderately aggressive employer opposition and 5 percent of elections with weak employer opposition. In the manufacturing sector, unions are running comprehensive campaigns in just 9 percent of elections with aggressive employer opposition, 6 percent of elections with moderately aggressive employer opposition, and none of the elections where there is weak employer opposition.

Categorized by use of comprehensive organizing tactics, the unions most actively organizing in manufacturing and the three unions most actively organizing in the service sector (AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), HERE (hotel and restaurant workers), and SEIU (service employees)) fall into three tiers.

The first group includes HERE, SEIU and UNITE (textile workers). Each averages four or more tactics in all of their elections.

The second group, which includes AFSCME, CWA/IUE (communications and electrical workers), LIUNA (laborers), UAW (auto workers), UBC (carpenters), UFCW (food and commercial workers), and independent unions, averages three tactics per campaign.

The third group, including GCIU (printers), IAM (machinists), IBEW (electrical workers), IBT (teamsters), IUOE (operating engineers), PACE (paper, allied and chemical workers), SMW (sheet metal workers) and USWA (steelworkers), averages two or fewer tactics in each campaign.

(One important note: These figures probably understate the use of comprehensive organizing tactics by those unions whose primary organizing efforts are outside of the NLRB election process. If non-NLRB campaigns were included, unions such as CWA, HERE and IBEW would likely display a higher average use of comprehensive organizing tactics.)

The overall win rate for unions that consistently run organizing campaigns that combine at least four strategic tactics is 63 percent, the highest for any group, increasing to 74 percent when they run comprehensive campaigns using more than five comprehensive tactics. These unions, SEIU, HERE and UNITE, have gained national reputations for effective organizing. Yet even for these unions, only 30 percent of their campaigns average more than five comprehensive organizing tactics.

The second group of unions, on average, uses fewer tactics and is less likely to combine them into a comprehensive campaign. Unions in this group average three comprehensive tactics per campaign, and have an overall win rate of 44 percent. Only 8 percent of campaigns run by unions in this group used more than five comprehensive organizing tactics. The win rate for those campaigns is 55 percent.

The third group of unions uses comprehensive campaigns even more rarely. Unions in this group average two or fewer comprehensive organizing tactics per campaign, and, not surprisingly, have the lowest average win rate (38 percent) for all three groups. Half of the unions in this group, including unions such as IBEW, IUOE, PACE and GCIU, did not conduct even a single comprehensive campaign in an NLRB election. Again, the win rate is much higher (67 percent) for the 3 percent of elections in this third group in which unions used more than five comprehensive organizing tactics.

Unions Can Win

In combination, the survey data confirm that the use of a multi-faceted comprehensive campaign plays a much greater role in determining election outcome than individual union tactics and many other election environment variables such as company characteristics, bargaining unit demographics and even employer opposition. The more comprehensive tactics used during the campaign, the greater the odds that the union will win the election, even when controlling for industry, corporate structure, bargaining unit demographics and employer opposition.

Unions organizing in manufacturing face much greater challenges than unions organizing in other sectors. However, manufacturing unions as a group also tend to run extremely weak, inconsistent campaigns, failing to take full advantage of the bargaining leverage, union resources, membership power and commitment, and labor and community alliances that could overcome these challenges.

As difficult as organizing in manufacturing may be, these findings suggest that unions could dramatically increase the odds of winning the election if they ran even slightly more aggressive campaigns using three or four more comprehensive organizing tactics.

Kate Bronfenbrenner is director of labor education research at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. Robert Hickey is a Ph.D. student in labor studies at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, where he is focusing on union bargaining strategies and the global economy.

The Components of a Comprehensive Union Organizing Strategy

The comprehensive union organizing tactics discussed in the accompanying article are:

1. Adequate and appropriate staff and financial resources -- defined as employing at least one organizer for every 100 eligible voters in the unit; one woman organizer for units with 25 percent or more women; and one organizer of color for units with 25 percent or more workers of color.

2. Strategic targeting -- defined as researching the company before the start of the campaign or organizing a company that was part of a union targeting plan and the union represents other workers at the same employer or in the same industry.

3. Active and representative rank-and-file organizing committees -- defined as having at least 10 percent of the unit represented on the committee, and including at least one woman on the committee if the unit is 10 percent or more women, and at least one person of color on the committee if the unit is 10 percent or more workers of color; and committee members meeting with workers one-on-one in the workplace and engaging in two or more of the following actions during the campaign: spoke at house meetings, spoke out at captive audience meetings, spoke at community forums, conducted assessments, assisted with preparing board charges, or helped organize job actions.

4. Active participation of member volunteer organizers -- defined as using at least five member volunteers from other organized units and their engaging in one or more of the following: meetings outside the workplace, one-on-one conversations in the workplace, leafleting outside the workplace, speaking at community forums, or assessments.

5. Person-to-person contact inside and outside the workplace -- defined as instances where the union housecalls the majority of the unit or surveys workers one-on-one about what they wanted in the contract and conducts at least 10 small group meetings or house meetings.

6. Benchmarks and assessments to monitor union support and set thresholds for moving ahead with the campaign -- defined as using written assessments to evaluate membership support for the union and waiting to file the petition for representation with the National Labor Relations Board until at least 60 percent of the unit signs cards or petitions.

7. Issues which resonate in the workplace and in the community -- defined as focusing on two or more of the following issues during the campaign: dignity, fairness, quality of service, power, voice or collective representation.

8. Creative, escalating internal pressure tactics involving members in the workplace -- defined as using two or more of the following workplace tactics: five or more solidarity days, job actions, rallies, marches on the boss for recognition, petitions rather than cards, and union supporters joining employee involvement committees.

9. Creative, escalating external pressure tactics involving members outside the workplace, locally, nationally and/or internationally -- defined as involving one or more community groups during the campaign and doing at least one or more of the following: corporate campaign, cross-border solidarity, involving other unions, using either paid or free media.

10. Building for the first contract during the organizing campaign -- defined as doing one or more of the following before the election: choosing the bargaining committee, involving workers in developing bargaining proposals, or surveying at least 70 percent of the unit one-on-one about what they wanted in the contract.

-- K.B & R.H.


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