By Colette Perold and Eric Dirnbach
There are a lot of factors involved in the decline of the labor movement. The huge growth phase for unions started during the Great Depression years of the 1930s. There was a tremendous amount of organizing, coupled with labor law changes, most notably the passage of the NLRA in 1935. Unions were able to organize millions of workers through the 1940s and into the 1950s largely using the election procedures established by the NLRA. However, in the following decades, the union membership rate started to fall, and the decline accelerated in the 1980s and beyond.
There are various understandings of the reasons for this decline and the role played by the NLRA framework. What’s certainly true is that after labor hit its peak in the 1950s, employers gradually began to find ways of undermining union organizing.
This was coupled with a number of conservative court opinions over time that eroded union power and emboldened employers. They allowed employers to replace striking workers, close union workplaces, and engage in effective union-busting practices. Unions have not been able to find ways to maintain high levels of effective organizing as employers increasingly committed unfair labor practices with minimal penalties.
From the 1950s through the 1970s, an average of about 500,000 private sector workers participated in NLRB elections every year, about 1% of the workforce annually. But in recent years, there have been only around 1,000 elections per year in the private sector, with less than 0.1% of all workers participating.
So the NLRA, while perhaps groundbreaking in the 1930s, has gotten worse over time due to the way it’s been interpreted and enforced, and it hasn’t been a good enough law for many decades. Labor law reforms such as the proposed PRO Act would be very helpful, since it would restrict union-busting practices and help organizing. However, the book “Tell the Bosses We’re Coming” argues that it’s the NLRA framework itself that has influenced unions to evolve characteristics that are no longer effective enough—“the combination of exclusive representation, mandatory agency fees, no-strike clauses and management rights are the foundation of our peculiar union shop.”
Another critique of unions from the left is that they have lost the militancy that helped them grow in the 1930s, and have become staff bureaucracies that have learned to manage their decline. With the merging of the AFL and CIO in 1955, unions channeled the militancy and class-oriented unionism of their members into business unionism, conceding their strike rights over time and accepting management’s terms for control over day-to-day working conditions. Unions allowed themselves to become domesticated and manageable, making political choices in how they would operate that have become difficult to undo. To grow again, they need to recover the militant spirit.
Coupled with this view is the idea, long promoted by Labor Notes and others, that unions have to be much more democratic and member-run, in order to develop that necessary militancy. Recent books by Jane McAlevey stress the need for unions to embrace solid worker organizing, rather than mobilizing and advocacy. Joe Burns has emphasized the need for unions to regain the ability to conduct successful strikes. His book “Class Struggle Unionism” outlines these different philosophies and practices of unionism.
So unions find themselves with a dilemma: while labor law reform will help them grow considerably, they may not be able to achieve meaningful labor law reform until they are large and disruptive enough to win it. If unions continue to organize in the same ways they’ve been doing, they will not grow quickly enough. To increase union density by just 1% per year, unions would need to organize over one million workers annually. But current election campaigns are organizing only tens of thousands of workers every year. And since tens of millions of workers want to be in a union, at this rate it will take unions 1,000 years to organize all these workers. The status quo is not sustainable.
Unions have been looking for alternative ways of organizing, but still largely within the familiar NLRA framework. The pre-majority union strategy discussed here is an alternative that has largely been unexplored by unions because it breaks with the dominant model of union recognition, exclusive representation, and formal collective bargaining.
More similar to how workers organized in the pre-NLRA era, the pre-majority strategy should be recognized again as a valid and powerful way for workers to fight for justice and help rebuild the labor movement.