New figures show that US union density dropped again last year, despite high-profile strikes. We should admit that we don’t know exactly what will turn things around for labor, other than bold experimentation.

UAW union members form a picket line outside the Ford Motor Co. Kentucky Truck Plant on October 14, 2023, in Louisville, Kentucky. (Michael Swensen / Getty Images)

It started in Cleveland. Workers at General Motors’s Fisher Body shop were sick of the company’s attempts to cut their wages. The shop was particularly restive, a hotbed of support for the recently chartered United Auto Workers (UAW) — the mammoth auto corporation had laid off many of the workers at Cleveland-Fisher in hopes of weakening the budding organization. On the morning of December 28, 1936, a committee of union men was scheduled to meet with the company to discuss the workers’ myriad grievances. But at the last minute, the company rescheduled for the afternoon.

“A grievance of the strongly organized quarter panel department was to have come under discussion,” wrote UAW organizer Henry Kraus in The Many and the Few, his history of the union’s foundational years. “When these fellows heard of the postponement they said: ‘To hell with this stalling,’ and yanked the power off. The steel stock, metal assembly, and trim departments followed suit in rapid succession and in a few minutes the whole plant was dead.”

The strike was on. But rather than a traditional walkout, with picketing outside the plant gates, the workers sat down inside and refused to leave. The tactic was an innovation, one that was growing in popularity. Autoworkers knew that their ability to shut down GM production was the source of their power, but in an era of rampant, sometimes deadly, police brutality against organizers, a traditional picket line was no sure thing.

Picketing would open them up to violence (not to mention winter weather, which could be as demoralizing as any police squadron). There was no telling how long a regular picket line would hold or how effective it might be in keeping scabs from operating the company machinery. But inside, their proximity to valuable equipment that GM was loath to endanger with any police offensive protected them.

The UAW needed a breakthrough, and they needed it quickly. Despite the auto industry’s massive workforce — more than two hundred thousand workers at GM alone — the union was puny. On Detroit’s West Side, where many of the industry’s small parts and supply shops were located, a young, ambitious organizer named Walter Reuther headed a local that had fewer than one hundred members in 1936. This, even as the city’s auto giants employed some 250,000 autoworkers.

The electoral victory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) that year had demonstrated workers’ desire to demand more — FDR was no champion of the working class when he first ran for the presidency in 1932, but four years later, in accepting his party’s nomination, he was criticizing the “royalists of the economic order.” He dominated at the polls in industrial centers like Flint, Michigan, and workers took his win as proof that they could go on the offensive: shortly after the election, there were seven work stoppages in one week.

Young striker sleeping on assembly line of auto seats during the Flint sit-down strike in Michigan, 1937. (Wikimedia Commons)

If labor was to have a breakthrough, now was the time, and GM, employing more autoworkers than any of its rivals, had to be the place. The union just needed to find a way to force the company into a national agreement.

Bob Travis, a young organizer from Toledo, Ohio, where he had seen the citywide general strike that erupted after workers walked off the job at Toledo Auto-Lite, was the sit-downers’ UAW man on the outside, the strategist. The union had members inside the plants, but those leading the strikes were rarely union men. The outrage was ahead of the UAW. As such, the union gave Travis its blessing to set up a network of organizers in the company’s plants, readying them to capture the next spark and grow it into a roaring flame.

“Boys,” Kraus recounts Travis telling his organization of GM workers that fall, “the whole future of the Flint workers depends on you. In fact I can truthfully say that the fate of the autoworkers throughout the country rests on your shoulders. I know you’re not going to let them down. Whatever happens stick together. Don’t leave the shop under any circumstances. And remember — nobody gets fired.”

Boys, I can truthfully say that the fate of the autoworkers throughout the country rests on your shoulders.

Two days after the Cleveland-Fisher sit-down began, workers at Fisher One noticed that the company was moving the plant’s all-important dies, used to stamp car bodies, out of the plant. Suspecting GM was taking measures to undercut organization and perhaps ship jobs permanently out of Fisher One, they were eager to take action. At a lunch time meeting with the workers that filled the union hall, Travis prepared the ground.

“Boys,” the union organizer said, “I’m not going to tell you what you ought to do. That ought to be plain enough to you if you want to protect your jobs. In my plant in Toledo, General Motors walked off with 1,500 jobs a year ago and in Cleveland the Fisher Body boys struck just Monday to save theirs. What do you want to do?”

The hall resounded with cries of, “Shut her down! Shut the goddamn plant!” With that, the war was on. The workers rushed back to the quarter-mile-long building and moments later, they flung open a third-floor window, exclaiming to Travis that the plant was theirs.

The sit-down would spread to several other GM body plants, and the workers ultimately forced the company to the negotiating table. On February 11, 1937, the two sides reached an agreement, with the company recognizing the UAW as the members’ exclusive bargaining agent. In total, the strike lasted forty-four days, idling some 136,000 GM workers and causing upward of a quarter-million cars to go unbuilt.

Labor Today

This week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released the unionization numbers for 2023. Last year, a mere 10 percent of workers in the United States were union members, down from 10.1 percent in 2022. As ever, that number masks two very different union densities: 32.5 percent in the public sector and 6 percent in the private sector.

An analysis of the numbers from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) finds that unionization among workers of color, and young workers in particular, accounted for the small gains in the absolute number of workers represented by a union (up 191,000), with black workers having the highest unionization rate (13.1 percent). According to the EPI, losses in state and local government employment were a major blow for the public sector rate, as were the growing number of laws blocking public sector workers’ path to a union.

Last year, a mere 10 percent of workers in the United States were union members, down from 10.1 percent in 2022.

When the BLS first published comparable data in 1983 — no heyday for unions by any measure — the overall rate was 20 percent, or 17.7 million workers. In 2023, despite a vastly higher US population, there are now only 14.4 million union members.

These numbers are from the same year that saw more than half a million workers in the United States go on strike, with public sentiment firmly on their side. According to Gallup, public approval of unions has reached levels not seen since 1965, with more Americans than ever wanting to join unions. But rosier feelings didn’t lead to a jump in union density.

There are plenty of explanations for why that is. Even when the National Labor Relations Board rules in workers’ favor, it takes months (and often years), and the penalties it can impose on law-breaking employers are minuscule, far from adequate to deter the capitalist class (just ask Starbucks workers). And the companies don’t even have to break laws: they’re already tilted in their favor in every imaginable way.

The companies don’t even have to break laws: they’re already tilted in their favor in every imaginable way.

But all of that has been true for a long time. It is not news; it’s just the terrain on which we operate. There is no question that, as writer Hamilton Nolan put it in his own assessment of the 2023 BLS numbers, “we are failing.”

In discussing the bind, Nolan highlights another example from history: the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC). The unions comprising the then newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) contributed their own staff and money to create SWOC, which sought to find a path into the anti-union fortress that was the steel industry. As Nolan notes, SWOC launched with “433 full- and part-time organizers, 35 regional offices, and its own newspaper.”

There is no comparable effort today. The Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), a joint effort of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), may have a name that harkens back to SWOC, but few unions have offered the organization much buy-in. EWOC does heroic work, but it cannot operate at the scale we need.

In an interview late last year, Association of Flight Attendants–Communications Workers of America (AFA-CWA) president Sara Nelson told me of her desire to create an organization she described as “EWOC supercharged” (she first conceptualized it as “1-800-UNION,” a resource you can call when you want to start organizing your workplace). It’s promising to hear that, but not surprising coming from Nelson, one of the US labor movement’s most progressive leaders. The rest, too, need to get on board.

I recounted the story of the Flint sit-down strike above neither for the sake of nostalgia nor prescription, but as a reminder of the bold experimentation that once characterized the US labor movement.

I recounted the story of the Flint sit-down strike above neither for the sake of nostalgia nor prescription, but as a reminder of the bold experimentation that once characterized the US labor movement. It’s why I write so extensively not only about the independent Amazon Labor Union but about every organizing effort at Amazon. And it’s why the UAW’s drive to organize nonunion autoworkers deserves support and backing, as does Starbucks Workers United’s melding of worker-to-worker organizing with the more traditional model for which its parent organization, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), is known.

We need legislative reforms that can help unrig the system in which workers organize — the PRO Act, repealing right-to-work laws — but in the meantime, there are avenues not yet sufficiently explored. The labor movement can work more coherently as a unified movement to get a foothold in nonunion industries. Unions can tweak the standard organizing playbook as the UAW is currently doing at nonunion auto plants. They can experiment with sectoral bargaining to raise wages industrywide, as is underway in California. They can spend more on organizing and not only that, but do so in coordination with one another. They can train workers on organizing basics, and if those workers go on to try something risky, or even unprecedented, the movement can throw its weight behind them to tip the scales.

The only way out is through, and with the possibility that the United States will elect an anti-worker billionaire within the year, unions do not have time to waste.

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