By Colette Perold and Eric Dirnbach
Workers today want to join a union more than they have at any other point since the 1960s. Yet only around 10% of U.S. workers are in unions, and that number hasn’t changed much in the past two decades. The biggest reason for this is that if you want a union but work at either a massive nation-wide company or in the public sector in more than 25 states, labor law has been working against you for the past 40 years. In light of this, most established unions don’t put meaningful resources into organizing workers at major chains and at half of the country’s public-sector workplaces.
If you’re a worker in one of these types of workplaces and you’ve reached out to a union to start organizing, you’ve likely been told that it’ll be almost impossible to get recognized as a union, let alone win a contract, unless labor law changes. But what most workers don’t know is that there’s another kind of unionism outside of the traditional model that workers in these more difficult workplaces have been using for decades to fight for dignity and build the labor movement—even when the traditional unionization route isn’t available to them. This model is something we’re calling pre-majority unionism, and we’re dedicating a whole new section of the EWOC website to it.
In its broadest sense, pre-majority unionism means workers organizing and acting like a union even in circumstances where they do not have a contract or where winning such a contract does not seem to be a realistic near-term prospect. In other words, it’s about being a union in all the other ways traditional unions are, whether or not the boss recognizes that union as a legal entity it’s required to bargain with.
In the cases we document here, workers engage in pre-majority unionism with the eventual goal of employer “recognition” and a contract (or what’s called a “collective bargaining agreement”). The main differences between the cases we cover are (1) how likely the workers believe employer recognition is, and (2) how they choose to organize based on that assessment. In some cases, pre-majority unionism is the only way the workers feel they can organize successfully for the foreseeable future. In others, it’s one step in a concerted strategy of building toward a traditional union election.
We’ve found that the most successful cases of pre-majority unionism have been pursued for one of the following four reasons:
In each of these four areas, pre-majority unionism has been the only path workers have found to fight for justice and build worker power in the near-to-medium term.
There are versions of non-majority organizing that oppose union elections, employer recognition, and collective bargaining agreements on principle, but we believe union recognition should be the horizon. The tactics and strategies that workers pursue must meet the goals, level of militancy, and structures possible in a given workplace. All tools must remain on the table for shifting the balance of power in the workplace and beyond.
Instead, pre-majority unionism is about recognizing that, despite the fact that workers have won union elections at the most anti-union workplaces (at time of publication, at Amazon and Starbucks, for example), official U.S. Labor Board elections and union contracts still remain very hard to win. This is because labor law and the way it gets enforced have become increasingly stacked against workers since the late 1940s, and even more so since the 1980s (see Overview of Union History, Structure, and Function).
For us, recognizing this reality is not a reason to oppose union recognition fights, but a reason to fight like hell for them, and to find other ways of organizing when necessary. Powerful worker movements have been taking this alternate path for decades.
Some organizers argue that winning union recognition or a contract necessarily results in workers being more passive and less militant. We disagree. Adding pre-majority unionism to our organizing toolkit does not mean opposing contractual unionism. While we do believe that many unions use the excuse of contract bargaining to concentrate knowledge in the hands of a few workers and staff, and use the act of winning a contract to generally divest from on-the-ground worker organizing, we do not agree that one necessarily follows the other.
Winning union recognition and a contract can be a democratizing and profoundly empowering experience for workers, teaching them the power of solidarity across differences, collective action, and worker leadership. Crucially, it adds to the structural stability of unions and the labor movement as a whole. Wherever strategic, workers should fight for official union recognition and a contract. And a central pillar of the broader fight for labor-law reform must focus on expanding rights and organizing pathways to achieve these ends free from employer interference. Pre-majority unionism is one tool to accompany that battle.
Although we like the term “pre-majority” more than any other option, there’s one caution we need to give. The major limitation of the term “pre-majority” is that it implies minority support over broad base-building. This is not a good thing. To be in a “pre-majority” union does not mean the workers should get comfortable as a minority and stop building out their membership in the workplace. It just means that the path to get there may be unconventional or may take longer than usual. In all cases, at all times, pre-majority organizing should always be looking to build worker majorities.
Some people say that all unionization starts as pre-majority organizing because it begins with a small group and then grows—if successfully, to majorities. Many even argue that the first unions in the U.S. were versions of what we’re calling pre-majority unions. The concept is not new, and indeed it’s been called many different things over the years. Workers have used terms like “minority unionism,” “non-contract unionism,” or “solidarity unionism” (see glossary). Any unionist in a pre-majority union will tell you how they go in circles trying to find a better term.
Emma Kinema, campaign lead of CODE-CWA, describes the language problem that arises when workers try to give this kind of non-traditional unionism a name. In the case of the Alphabet Workers Union, she says: “I would simply describe [them] as a union, because that’s what they are.”
The late Saladin Muhammad had a similar perspective: “It’s important for workers to understand that [unionism]…is not just about being legitimized by the National Labor Relations Board,” but that “real union organization starts with worker organization.”
“We don’t say we act like a union,” he said. “We say we are a union.”
Many workers and organizers doing the work of building pre-majority unions echo this line, not distinguishing between models and just calling it “unionism,” plain and simple.
For us, if you’re taking a birds-eye view to look at the differences between models, we find the term “pre-majority” to be the most helpful of all possible options. But we couldn’t care less what you call it. Call it something else, or don’t call it anything at all. Just go build your union.
Organizing through elections overseen by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to achieve formal employer recognition and a union contract remain the principal strategies for most unions. But in a context in which labor law has become increasingly anti-worker, and the NLRB often can’t adequately enforce the right to organize, this has failed to grow the labor movement meaningfully in recent decades. (For more on this, see Overview of Union History, Structure, and Function). The union density rate (the percentage of all workers who are union members) is now around 10% nationwide and as low as 6% in the private sector. These numbers sink lower nearly every year.
The major culprits in the broader pattern of union decline have been employer union-busting and major economic transformations like deindustrialization. Changes to federal labor law and the way it gets enforced have made it commonplace for employers to engage in crippling and often illegal tactics to oppose union organizing. But in the face of these structural factors, many argue that the labor movement’s all-or-nothing approach to unionization (either workers push for official recognition or they’re not a union) has also inhibited its potential to grow.
What people sometimes forget is that the labor movement needs to grow by millions of workers in order to even remotely shift the balance of power in this country. The speed and scale at which worker militancy needs to grow will by necessity outpace the ability of the labor movement to staff the growing demand for union elections. For these reasons and more, pre-majority unionism must remain on the table for unions to have a shot at seizing on the next labor upsurge.
We at EWOC are by no means the first to raise these strategic and tactical questions in a public forum. In addition to supporting efforts to reform labor law, labor strategists have been looking for new ways to organize more workers into unions for at least 30 years. There have been experiments with “corporate campaigns” and fighting for “card check” certification. There have been campaigns such as Fight for $15 and OUR Walmart, and a worker-center movement that has grown to help workers with wage theft and other workplace abuses outside of collective bargaining agreements. These types of campaigns are often called “alt-labor” because of how they break from traditional unionism, and in certain aspects they fit the pre-majority mold too.
Recently these campaigns and tactics have been the subject of important debates in the New Labor Forum and In These Times. This EWOC blog series builds on these conversations, offering case studies with sober analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of “pre-majority” unionism.
This report features a longer section on the unique challenges and advantages faced by workers in pre-majority unions. But perhaps the biggest constraint on pre-majority unionism is the question of resources. Without workplace-wide contracts or a legal framework that requires membership dues collection, workers are in a position of organizing their coworkers to pay dues and fight at the same time, in many cases without feeling the gains of the union beforehand.
Workers in our case studies approach the question of dues in different ways. In several cases, the workers’ organizing is subsidized by a parent union at the beginning, with the parent contributing less of the union’s budget as soon as the pre-majority union is able to bring in more dues. In some cases the parent union has been unable to subsidize the workers’ pre-majority organizing over the long haul, and when funding gets pulled, the campaigns fizzle out.
Despite the fact that pre-majority unionism has often required more resources than the traditional labor movement can expend, at EWOC we believe that pre-majority unionism does not need to be as resource-intensive as it has been in the past. With the renewed interest in labor unions, along with the organizing infrastructure we have built within EWOC, we have new models for activating volunteer union organizers to support worker campaigns over time.
Our model involves training hundreds of volunteers to support workers anywhere fighting for justice at work. When workers reach out to us, we train and assist them in starting their organizing without affiliation with an established union. When the workers, as a union, have built up enough strength—which often includes fighting and winning workplace improvements—they may choose to pivot to a formal union recognition process.
Because of our mass volunteer base, EWOC is in a position to support both the early stages of union election campaigns and pre-majority campaigns over time, and we do this on a shoestring budget (which you can donate to!). The EWOC model opens up new pathways for pre-majority organizing in a way the labor movement has not yet had to date.
There is no one-size-fits-all union strategy that will work everywhere. But our experiences have shown us that militant, rank-and-file-led workplace organizing by non-union workers must be supported and strengthened on a large scale for the labor movement to be able to seize on each union uptick and expand its ranks.
We hope the case studies here offer tools for workers forging their own pre-majority union paths today.
With thoughts, questions, comradely disagreement, or more stories and lessons to share, please join the conversation on Twitter @organizeworkers #premajority.
Want to pitch us your story of pre-majority unionism? Email us at [email protected].