Reviving the U.S. labor movement requires a fundamental shift in how we build organizations in which working people can exercise power. Pope, Bruno, and Kellman frame some of the most critical questions unions face in their struggle to maintain relevancy and reverse decades of decline. Are unions today structured to fight for the interests of working people in the face of consolidating corporate power? Are they able to harness the recent shift toward class-based political consciousness? What would it look like for the labor movement to lead with bold vision and new approaches?
Workers don’t have to formally unionize to organize, build power, and challenge the economic instability that corporations have created.
As organizers with long histories of working on innovative campaigns within unions—and now building an independent organization, OUR (Organization United for Respect)—these are familiar and imperative questions. Pope, Bruno, and Kellman argue that unions as they exist today cannot succeed, and we agree. In our view the most exciting developments are happening outside traditional labor, where an ecosystem of organizations and campaigns are embracing flatter, more nimble forms while harnessing the power of technology and social media. The central focus of these efforts is not to become formally recognized unions under the NLRA, but rather to build worker power and challenge corporations to structurally address the profound economic instability they have created.
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Today, tens of millions of people in the United States work for corporations in jobs that do not pay them enough to take care of themselves and their families. About 20.6 million people (30 percent of hourly wage earners over the age of eighteen who are not self-employed) work in jobs considered “near–minimum wage.” These jobs increasingly have unpredictable schedules, high turnover rates, and are often filled by part-time and temporary staff.
People are angry at these conditions. Yet this anger is not translating into increasing rates of unionization—even as recent polls show that a clear majority of working people want to be part of organizations that fight to make their jobs and lives better. What we see is a stark disconnect between what people want and what seems to be available: working people want the support of organizations that will fight for them, while at the same time unions are weaker than ever.
We started from the premise that we didn’t need anyone’s permission to build the organization we wanted.
While we agree with Pope, Bruno, and Kellman that part of the solution is for the labor movement to focus more on strikes and rights-based organizing, we first need to speak to people’s economic pain and offer a compelling, aspirational vision. Because most unions play under the rules of the NLRA, focusing on winning and defending gains for their members in the workplace or firm, they struggle to provide vision for the vast majority of unorganized workers.
We are inspired by organizations and campaigns with broad, transformation goals. The National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), for example, is not just fighting for better pay for caregivers, but for a complete shift in how we, as a country, conceive of the care economy. Silicon Valley Rising, a union–community effort, is challenging the entire tech sector around service sector jobs. The Committee for Better Banks connects workplace pressures facing bank workers to a broad agenda for changing the banking industry’s exploitation of consumers. We built OUR Walmart’s platform for change with leaders who did deep listening with tens of thousands of Walmart workers. We then shared these results with organizations in the women’s rights, racial justice, and environmental movement and campaigned together, reflecting a broad vision of changing the country’s largest corporate employer.
To accomplish our vision, we need to build organizations that can wield power but are not restricted by the current regulations and constrictions of the NLRA. Collective bargaining agreements are not the only way to change working conditions and NLRB/RLA certification is not the only way for workers to organize. We grew up in SEIU’s Justice for Janitors movement, and always understood that a contract with janitorial companies was meaningless without an engaged membership willing to take creative direct action challenging building owners.
Approaching Walmart has presented a related challenge: the company is simply too large to be organized through the NLRA process. If workers run and win an election in one store, Walmart would do what is has before and close the store. Running an election for 1.5 million workers across the country under current labor law would be a fool’s errand. Instead of pursuing an NLRA process, we asked our base, people who work at Walmart, what kind of organization they wanted so we could build it with them from the ground up. The crucial distinction is that instead of organizing to win the right to have an organization, we started from the premise that we didn’t need anyone’s permission to build the organization we wanted.
Today OUR is an organization of retail workers spread throughout the United States. The organization’s members did the impossible and won what is the single largest corporate minimum wage increase in history when Walmart raised its base pay to $10. After this decision, Walmart was soon followed by other retailers, ultimately redistributing over $2 billion to working people. This increase was won through a battle in the court of public opinion, leveraged through direct action.
Too often, union organizers dismiss online organizing as a poor substitute for in-person organizing, but online and on-the-ground strategies work well together.
Finally, we believe that building new forms of organization requires that we relearn how to organize in a radically new context. Most unions use an organizing methodology that centers on professional staff who develop deep place-based relationships with individual workers and then bring them into relationship with others to form workplace committees. This painstaking, staff-intensive, tightly held organizing model grew out of a need to build strong majorities in individual worksites or firms in order to win NLRB elections. Corporations, however, have changed how they are structured. Corporations such as Uber have no worksites. Walmart has more than 5,000 separate worksites. Third-party warehouses serve multiple corporations within each worksite.
This fragmentation has changed the relationships people have at work and changed how people connect and get support. Today people go to Facebook, Reddit, and other social media platforms instead of break rooms to talk to each other and get information. They develop and maintain connections with each other across a range of shared interests and identities, including their shared employers. Search for Uber on Reddit and you will find a huge community of workers talking about the challenges of being a driver. These social media spaces present an unprecedented opportunity for workers to find each other and organize. In this context, organizers play a supportive role, focused on helping to connect these communities and offering additional resources for building campaigns and organizations.
By necessity, with a small staff and a massive base of workers under Walmart’s iron fist, we turned to online outreach and organizing. We learned from people who work at Walmart how to turn social networks into communities of support and action. Leaders work together with staff organizers to then translate those online relationships into real-world networks that have carried OUR Walmart to every state. These networks have been the foundation for small-scale but impactful direct actions, strikes, and civil disobedience. To further this work, we have built a digital platform, WorkIt, that brings together volunteer rank-and-file leaders to provide instant phone-based support around workplace policies and local laws to any Walmart employee anywhere in the country.
Too often, experienced union organizers dismiss online organizing as a poor substitute for in-person organizing, but we have found that online and on-the-ground strategies can work together to build power. Online organization can offer the advantages of being bottom up, led by a broader base of community members, and requiring a far less intensive staff operation than conventional face-to-face union organizing.
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The labor movement is in crisis but we choose to be optimistic. No one can predict the exact form labor organizations will take in the future. What we do know is that clinging to old models is not the answer. Despite its decline, organized labor holds the largest concentration of financial resources in the progressive movement. Imagine if it invested these resources toward catalyzing new forms of organizing.
Organization United for Respect (“OUR”) is an organization that focuses on improving working conditions in the retail sector. The organization was previously formed and known as OUR Walmart. OUR Walmart is now a project of OUR.