Twenty five years ago, I packed up everything I owned and drove to Las Vegas to become a labor organizer. My first campaign was a new organizing drive with casino porters, kitchen workers, and cocktail servers. I fell in love with labor organizing. I had been an activist before, but nothing compared to the deep work of sitting in someone’s kitchen and hearing their pain, rage, fear, hopes, and dreams, of being at their side as they found the courage to organize with their co-workers and take on their bosses. It changed the course of my life.

For the next fifteen years, I organized in Las Vegas and California. Some unions at the time were running big, bold organizing campaigns to improve conditions for workers and to stem the steep decline in unionization rates over the preceding decades. I had the privilege of working on sector-wide, comprehensive campaigns: Justice for Janitors, multi-union airport organizing, and industry-wide organizing of farm workers who picked strawberries. These were innovative campaigns that focused on organizing entire sectors and that prioritized immigrant and women workers. At the same time, vibrant organizing in worker centers supported workers who weren’t the focus of union organizing efforts. Worker centers advocated for the inclusion of “excluded workers” into the country’s regulatory framework for labor, which would grant them basic rights and protections. A tremendous amount of organizing energy and resources went to both union and worker center campaigns, resulting in gains in critical geographies, like Los Angeles, and industries, like commercial cleaning.

Despite such noteworthy victories, in the end, these campaigns were too little, too late. Deregulation and right-wing union busting continued apace. And, on the whole, our big organizing drives failed to stem the decline in unions or significantly improve conditions for millions of workers. Today, only 6.2 percent of people working in the private sector belong to a union. In southern states, it's closer to two percent. With notable exceptions, such as Fight for $15, large-scale, robustly resourced union drives have all but disappeared. 

Most unions now focus the vast majority of their time, energy, and resources on protecting the little power they have left against an onslaught of political and corporate attacks. Their structure and legal mandates incentivize an inward, protectionist focus on serving existing union members and maintaining existing unionized companies and industries. In some cases, this has led unions to defend the extractive and repressive sectors of the economy on which some union jobs depend, like fossil fuels and prisons. 

Labor organizing outside of unions has expanded over the past decade, making new gains for workers and injecting new energy into the movement. The alt labor movement has won pay raises and paid leave for close to one million workers at Walmart, established industry standards for domestic work, and begun to move the restaurant industry away from the tipped minimum wage. But we are still figuring out how to organize at scale and institutionalize new models of worker power, and we have yet to make massive breakthroughs.   

The declining power of the labor movement has had devastating and well-documented effects on wages, job security, and public health. Megacorporations, along with the finance and tech sectors, dominate our economy and our society. These corporate giants are fiercely anti-union, hostile to any form of worker organizing. Just last week, Amazon — the country’s second largest employer — posted an ad for a corporate “intelligence analyst” to report on “labor organizing threats” and other forms of activism against the company. Walmart, the nation’s largest employer, once contracted Lockheed Martin to use its intelligence tracking service to monitor Black Friday strikers and protestors. 

And yet, over the last decade, we’ve also witnessed a resurgence of left organizing and activism grounded in racial, economic, gender, and climate justice. These movements — from Occupy Wall Street and the Dreamers, to Black Lives Matter and Sunrise — have built mass distributive networks of leaders and activists who regularly take to the streets in powerful displays of direct action, calling on us all to imagine and fight for a radically transformed future. The last few years have also seen a resurgence of labor activism, both inside and outside of unions, as decentralized organizing, protests, and strikes spread at workplaces and corporations across the country. These movements demonstrate the hunger of workers to organize for power, both inside and outside the workplace, as well as their willingness to embrace digital tools to self-organize and build campaigns across geographies and employers. Notably, these campaigns demonstrate workers’ desire for a role in deciding not just the conditions of their jobs but the business decisions of their employers.     

 

Building the Movement We Need 

As we face down the challenges of our lifetimes — rising authoritarian forces, a catastrophic pandemic, an empowered white supremacist movement, a pending recession — we need a strong labor movement more than ever before. We need a labor movement that offers a compelling vision of society outside of corporate clutches.  That defines and fights for the common good. That is deeply rooted in racial, gender, immigrant, and climate justice. That organizes the unorganized and builds power in the sectors that drive our economy. That, most importantly, is built for the economy and society we need for all of us to live full and free lives.  

This moment demands that we learn from the workers who are using new tools and advancing new demands, to rethink our organizing models, and to expand the scope of what we are fighting for. The articles and conversations assembled in this issue call on us to build a forward-looking labor movement grounded in an expansive vision of the future we need — as humans, as communities, and as a planet. Rather than fighting to rebuild past union strength, the time is ripe for us to imagine a new future — and then to build the movements and organizations we need to win it.

Today, the single highest rate of unionization is among people working in protective service occupations, including police and correctional officers. Let’s imagine a future where workers in the green, care, education, and food sectors are the most powerful. Where Black and immigrant workers, both employed and un/underemployed, wield collective power. Where workers in the tech and finance sectors have real power and a voice over corporate decision-making. 

In this issue, we hear from a diverse group of organizers on the kind of labor movement we need to build the economy and society we want. If we want to have a strong labor base that fights rather than facilitates climate change, Lauren Jacobs and Matthew Mayers assert, we need to organize the green sectors of the economy.  If we want an economy that prioritizes everyone’s basic needs, Rebecca Simonsen and Puya Gerami argue, that we must fight for a People’s Recovery grounded in Bargaining for the Common Good strategies. If we want to defeat rising authoritarianism and ensure our society is governed by people instead of tech behemoths like Amazon, Google and Facebook, Michelle Miller, Dania Rajendra, and Tarso Ramos provide frameworks for organizing not just for workplace power but real influence over how these corporations operate. Aimée-Josiane Twagirumukiza lays out an agenda for organizing Black workers in the care economy. Neidi Dominguez pushes us to organize unemployed and precarious workers. Erica Smiley invites us to dream bigger and act bolder. Tanya Wallace-Goburn and Steven Pitts challenge us to focus on organizing Black Workers across sectors. Finally, organizing Directors from SEIU, IUPAT, CWA, and the UAW talk with labor journalist Sarah Jaffee about how unions are combining traditional and new models to organize for the future we need

 

New Organizing Models

Ten years ago, I joined a team within a union to experiment with a new approach to building worker power at the largest private sector employer in the world: Walmart. Instead of only sitting in people’s kitchens, we joined and built vast online communities where Walmart employees supported each other around workplace problems and organized direct actions and strikes. We weren’t trying to unionize Walmart. Rather, we set out to build a new kind of labor organization. I quickly found that I had to unlearn many of the practices I had honed as a union organizer and adapt others to the context of what became “online to offline” organizing. Building absolute majorities, running house call programs, and tightly managing organizing committees, for example, are foundational to most union organizer training. But these tactics are not directly relevant to organizing today’s geographically dispersed megacorporations or precarious workers who move in and out of different jobs and sectors. We are still learning — with and from the workers we organize and our movement partners — how to balance deep relationship building with distributive network building, how to effect broad change through strong minorities, and how to build a lasting infrastructure for worker power. 

Five years ago, we left the fold of traditional unions and expanded across the retail sector. In addition to Walmart, we now organize Amazon warehouse workers along with workers at retail chains like Toys R Us, which was bought out and bled dry by Wall Street. We have also expanded the scope of our fight to include the broad societal impact of corporations like Amazon and the extractive role that private equity firms play across our economy. Rather than fighting for collective bargaining rights, we are experimenting with campaigns to gain structural power by winning seats for workers on corporate boards. 

We do not have the answers, but with United for Respect, I now have the privilege of trying new approaches to how we organize, who we organize, and what kinds of structures we organize into. We are doing this as a part of a vibrant ecosystem of alt labor, worker centers, unions, community-based organizations, social movements, and campaign and advocacy groups working together to explore new models for building a powerful, effective worker movement. 

We need the labor movement to win the world we want. It’s up to all of us to remake it.

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