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After four decades of consistent decline in union density rank and file, members might expect to see our unions’ assets dwindling. That, however, is not what is happening.
According to a new report by Chris Bohner of Radish Research, organized labor is sitting on a rapidly growing reserve. Bohner, a longtime union staff organizer, shows that while the number of union members fell, total union revenues rose 28 percent and spending increased by only 17 percent between 2010 and 2020.
As a result, total assets doubled from about $15 billion to an extraordinary $29 billion. This is no small pile of cash. If the combined $29 billion was held by a foundation, it would be the second-largest after only the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
This money needs to be immediately used to organize and build our power as workers. Most of our unions have essentially given up on organizing while they are banking the growing revenues from workers with higher dues. In the past year, they have contributed very little to support the self-organized workers at Amazon, Starbucks, Apple, Google, REI and Trader Joe’s who are rejuvenating the labor movement. These workers are doing the organizing we have been repeatedly told can’t be done and isn’t worth supporting.
The question is why are our unions sitting on this huge pile of cash when pay and working conditions continue to get worse, collective bargaining fails to deliver the goods, strikes have nearly disappeared and authoritarianism is on the rise.
According to Bohner, the answer is painfully clear. “The data suggest that organized labor had substantial untapped assets available to deploy to new organizing and growth over the last decade but chose not to do so.”
How did this happen? While the report points out that dues rose as wages rose, unions spent a pittance on strike pay and cut a startling 20,000 union staff just when they are needed the most. At the same time revenue earnings from rents, treasury bills, and investments rose by $2.8 billion.
You read that right. Our unions are operating like the corporations we are supposed to be fighting by cutting staff, increasing revenue and even making money from investments and by being landlords.
If you are like me, pressuring your union leadership to prioritize organizing only to get nowhere, this report demonstrates that we are not alone.
Like these new self-organized unions, most of the organizing taking place within our unions is the result of the initiative of rank and file members with little or not resources.
While some unions are putting resources into organizing, most are not, preferring to focus only on bargaining, servicing the contract and plowing money into lobbying and local, state and federal elections.
But the strategy of business unionism has delivered a string of defeats and bad contracts for decades. It’s not possible to improve pay and working conditions when we lack the power of an organized, engaged and active membership ready to take collective action.
Without leverage that comes from power, bargaining and grievances have become a never-ending bureaucratic maze populated by “contract specialists,” “grievance officers” and arbitration judges that disempowers and excludes workers.
I have filed my own grievances. I know what it’s like to feel entirely excluded from the process. Bohner’s report recommends that our unions replace the lost organizing staff, dramatically boost strike pay and fund independent union organizing.
The most intriguing recommendation is to fund a new, separate organization that can take collective action that violates labor law such as wildcat strikes, secondary boycotts and defying court injunctions. Since these actions would be taken by an independent organization and not our unions, it would not risk union staff and resources with fines, lawsuits and jail terms.
These are excellent recommendations that get to the heart of the problem. If we are to dramatically turn things around quickly, we need to not only organize new workers. We need to do so by using effective tactics and strategies without concerning ourselves with whether or not they violate labor law, lead to formal bargaining, or embarrass our elected allies.
In my first book, When Workers Shot Back, I showed how labor law came about in response to worker organizing, strikes and disruptions of the economy between the 1870s and 1920s. Workers were so powerful, the federal government began to temporarily legalize unions and collective bargaining during World War I and then passed new federal laws that made it permanent in the 1920s and 1930s.
While organizing needs to be backed up by resources, that in itself is not enough. These resources need to be strategically deployed while workers are organized at critical choke points along the entire global supply chain where we have the greatest power from disruptive strikes.
Ultimately, our ability to withdraw our labor and disrupt large parts of the global economy is the only sure way to get the goods.
Those of us who want to tip the balance of power back in favor of workers more often than not face leadership on an immovable trajectory towards endless defeat. We repeatedly hear about the need to work to get allies elected to local, state and federal office. These allies, we are assured, will then pass labor-law reform that will make it easier for us to organize and bargain.
We have been hearing this tired refrain since Carter was elected in 1976 — 46 years ago. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign donations and millions of hours of free labor every election cycle, our allies have not and cannot deliver. Labor-law reform has repeatedly been killed by an array of minority checks built into our constitutional system.
It’s time to put our dues money to better use. Let’s spend it now to organize workers to take on the boss and change this economic system.
Robert Ovetz is the author of the new book "We the Elites: Why the US Constitution Serves the Few" (Pluto, 2022). Contact him with feedback and ideas for columns at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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