This year has brought a lot of stirring labor victories, a pace of union campaigns and strikes so frenetic that it’s easy to collapse in a puddle of undifferentiated cheering for stuff. The most important trend, though, has been the sudden rise of independent unions — organizing drives at untouched companies led by the workers themselves, not affiliated with any existing major unions.
The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) has been the biggest example of those, and an endless stream of others seem determined to follow in its footsteps. An independent union drive succeeded at Trader Joe’s, and they’ve popped up everywhere from Apple to Chipotle to Geico. Geico!
The rise of all of these independents is inspiring. It is the flowering of seeds that were planted by 40 years of rising inequality, and by the work of an entire generation of labor movement activists pushing unions as the solution. If we are being honest, though, the story of these independent unions is also a story about the brokenness of organized labor’s existing institutions. If we ignore half of the story, we won’t learn anything from this moment.
One thing that virtually every independent union that’s popped into being this year has in common is this: They are at places that should have been unionized a long time ago. I don’t just mean that in the generic sense of “all workplaces should have a union.” I mean that if America had a union movement with even a modicum of ability to do strategic planning on a national level, the big unions that already sit in these respective industries would have been working hard to build campaigns at many of these companies years ago.
United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), for example, is the grocery industry union. It should have been plainly obvious a decade ago, at least, that Trader Joe’s was a prime target: a successful, growing national grocery chain that also carried with it a cultivated reputation for caring about employees, as well as the community and social justice.
That is the absolute pinnacle of “characteristics of a company that should be a union organizing target.” The fact this country’s first Trader Joe’s union election happened in the year 2022 and was organized by workers themselves is a pretty harsh rebuke to the UFCW, which represents 835,000 grocery workers and has more resources than all but a handful of other unions.
Amazon? Apple? Chipotle? Geico? All of these are premier employers in industries that have existing unions. (In many cases, the existing unions have organizing drives at these companies themselves too: Communications Workers of America (CWA) is organizing Apple stores, and a Chipotle unionized with the Teamsters, and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) is still deeply engaged at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, and UFCW is organizing Trader Joe’s — all of which are good examples of the ability of independent drives to energize moribund sectors, or to pick up excess demand where existing unions don’t.)
The problem here is not the failure of individual unions, but of an entire union establishment that has for decades accepted the proposition that it’s the responsibility of workers to come ask unions to organize them, not vice versa.
Let us imagine an American labor movement that had 1) A genuine belief that it is the responsibility of unions to offer every worker in their industry a true opportunity to unionize, and 2) A rudimentary level of central organization and accountability that could exert some pressure on unions that weren’t organizing to do a better job. In this fairy tale world, it would still take bravery and hard work and idealism from workers at all of these places to undertake the daunting and uncertain prospect of organizing their workplace for the first time.
The difference is that they would have all had the card of a union organizer in their pocket.
Because the unions in their respective industries would have made a strong effort to organize them, and would have made it their business to ensure that all the non-union workers at those companies knew that this union wanted to organize them, so when the stars aligned and the moment arrived when employees were ready to take on the challenge, they quite naturally would have thought of the existing union as their first phone call.
There are heroic union staffers everywhere, but not nearly enough of them.
The problem is not the individual people — the problem is this sort of thing, which should have always been the top priority of a labor movement that has been losing density for decades, has not been much of a priority at all.
This is a portion of a blog that originally appeared at In These Times on September 19, 2022. Republished with permission.
About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.