Detroit Free Press

By Margaret Levi and John S. Ahlquist

Last week, thousands of union members, organizers, and leaders from across the U.S. met in Los Angeles and embraced AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s plan to recruit millions of non-union members — including members of environmental, immigrant, civil rights and other advocacy groups. It’s a bold plan. But organizational details may well determine success or failure. Michigan, long the home of some of America’s strongest unions, has much at stake.

Like a fishery that crashes when its population is too small to effectively reproduce itself, labor unions find themselves in a downward spiral. Membership is declining. Political attacks on unions have become fierce, even as employers circumvent or ignore labor laws with near-impunity. Matters have reached the point where it is effectively impossible for existing unions to reverse their decline — if we imagine that workers must be organized into conventional unions for the sole purpose of collective bargaining.

The labor movement needs new kinds of action.

Workers must find new organizational forms that free them from the bureaucratic and legal restrictions on collective bargaining and conventional strikes. Future gains in labor protections and worker clout will usually come from social movements that combine a quest for labor improvements with efforts to further human rights, immigrant standing, the environment and other broad public goods. This is why Trumka’s initiative makes sense.

To succeed in the future, existing union members and leaders will need to see their own welfare and leverage as increasingly bound up with a broader “community of fate” that includes other people and organizations. The challenges involved are difficult but not impossible to meet.

Some unions have done it. By researching the strengths and weaknesses of political mobilization in labor unions over many decades, we determined some of the crucial ingredients for success:

  • Leaders can point the way, within bounds: Union leaders can successfully ask members to contribute to broader projects on behalf of others. But to succeed, they must first address their unions’ own needs — and explain why their members’ interests are aligned with others and what union contributions can realistically be expected to accomplish.
  • Leaders must limit their own perks: Leaders who ask members to contribute to political causes or efforts on behalf of nonmembers lack credibility if they themselves earn far more than rank-and-file members and enjoy excessive perks. Unions turning to mobilization must reform compensation structures.
  • Inspire members, but respect critics: Our research shows that asking union members to contribute to larger campaigns can help members learn about public issues and realize they can make a difference. But not everyone will agree with a political project. Leaders should respect, not coerce, persistent opponents.
  • Follow transparent, democratic rules: Sound union governance can enhance leaders’ credibility. Following fair rules and making decisions out in the open allows members to witness one another’s engagement and enhances leaders’ capacities to persuade members to contribute to big undertakings.

To gain clout and credibility, tomorrow’s unions must have the leadership and organizational capacity to work effectively and visibly on behalf of broad cross-sections of workers and American citizens. Getting there will be challenging, but the only alternative is continued union decline.

This article was originally published in the Detroit Free Press