This is both a wonderful and terrifying time for American
unions," said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research at
Cornell University. "Never before have we faced such effective and powerful and
globally connected opposition," said the former organizer. But not in a long time
have unions grasped the necessity of massive organizing or had such an opportunity to
rebuild and regain a sense of purpose, she suggested.
Drawing from her own extensive research, Bronfenbrenner outlined the steps
unions need to take to prevail in organizing that will allow for the substantial growth
the labor movement needs to survive. Much of her advice sounded familiar to UE delegates.
Unions must "organize smart," using research and strategic
targeting, she said. Unions must commit enough staff and resources to organizing.
But most importantly, building a union requires "a grassroots,
rank-and-file intensive, bottom-up strategic campaign." In-shop leadership is vital,
Bronfenbrenner said. "Union success depends on building active and representative
leadership within the unit being organized." Success also depends, she stressed,
"on active participation by member volunteer organizers. You cant do it with
just paid staff."
Success also depends on organizing not just to win an election but also to
secure a first contract, focusing on issues of justice in the workplace and building
alliances with the community, Bronfenbrenner argued.
"There are no silver bullets," the researcher cautioned. One or
more of these tactics by themselves will not guarantee union success. But research shows
that when unions employ all of these tactics the chances of success dramatically increase.
"In fact, they move above 64 percent," Bronfenbrenner said. "If they
dont do these tactics, or do one or two piecemeal, win rates average below 30
These tactics are important, the former organizer stressed, "because
workers who want to organize today in the private sector literally have to jump through
successive rings of fire."
Too few unions are hiring women and people of color as organizers,
although these are the majority of the new workers labor is successfully organizing. Very
few unions are making use of this grassroots approach, Bronfenbrenner said. Thats
not altogether bad news; "if we were doing everything right and still losing,
wed be really stuck. But were doing everything wrong and losing, which means
we have a great opportunity."
Her research indicates that unions have a long way to go, Bronfenbrenner
advised. "But it also tells us we sure cant give up. We havent even given
it our best effort."