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63rd National
UE Convention

Union Organizing:
We’ve Only Just Begun

Kate Bronfenbrenner
Cornell University

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Kate Bronfenbrenner


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 can’t 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 don’t do these tactics, or do one or two piecemeal, win rates average below 30 percent."

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. That’s not altogether bad news; "if we were doing everything right and still losing, we’d be really stuck. But we’re 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 can’t give up. We haven’t even given it our best effort."

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