At the heart of the current uptick in union organizing at companies like Starbucks has been “worker-to-worker unionism.” That model could be key to scaling up organizing and revitalizing the labor movement.

Starbucks union organizers protest outside of the private home of Howard Schultz on September 5, 2022, in New York City. (Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images)

Young, radicalized, digitally coordinated workers have initiated and driven forward many of the highest profile strikes and union drives of recent years. From the red state teachers’ walkouts to union wins at Starbucks and Amazon, rank-and-file organizers have begun challenging business as usual not only within corporate America, but also within organized labor.

The model of “worker-to-worker unionism” has spread contagiously, as workers have attempted to replicate inspiring successes seen elsewhere. In early 2018, West Virginia’s strike — initiated over the internet via a viral Facebook group — motivated teachers to organize similar statewide actions that spring in Arizona, Oklahoma, and Kentucky. Similarly, recent unionization efforts of baristas in Buffalo prompted workers elsewhere to say, “If they did it there, we can do it here too.”

An increase in worker-initiated organizing has been clearly identified by labor’s opponents. In a 2022 report, the notorious union-busting law firm Littler Mendelson sounded the alarm:

There has been a shift in how people are organizing together to petition for representation. What was once a top-down approach, whereby the union would seek out a group of individuals, has flipped entirely. Now, individuals are banding together to form grassroots organizing movements where individual employees are the ones to invite the labor organization to assist them in their pursuit to be represented.

Labor analysts have also begun to grapple with the strategic implications of this new movement. Here I focus on the strengths of worker-to-worker unionism — drives that are initiated by self-organized workers and/or in which workers take on key responsibilities traditionally reserved for union staff, such as training in organizing methods. The major promise of this approach is that it’s capable of scaling up.

How is worker-to-worker unionism different than what labor organizers call hot-shop organizing? Workers in “hot shops,” where workers organically decide to initiate a union drive on their own, usually reach out to a union for help, but they don’t start organizing — systematically persuading skeptical coworkers, etc. — before getting staff guidance. And, insofar as any training of workers takes place — it often doesn’t with hot shops — this also comes from staff.

There is also a difference in scale. While hot-shop organizing is often content to organize a single workplace, worker-to-worker union drives have tended to be part of efforts to organize an entire company or an entire regional industry.

My core argument is that while traditional, staff-intensive unionism is too costly to diffuse widely, a worker-driven organizing model can lead enough organizing drives to capture the billionaires’ massive anti-union fortresses. It has the potential to win wars, not just isolated battles.

This does not require exaggerating the degree of today’s labor uptick, minimizing the power arrayed against organized workers, or presenting worker-driven efforts as a one-size-fits-all panacea. My arguments are based on five hundred survey responses and more than two hundred interviews with worker organizers in preparation for a book on worker-to-worker unionism. Though my investigation is ongoing, there is value in summarizing its first major findings: to some extent, the fate of today’s movement depends on whether unions assimilate its lessons before it’s too late.

Roots of the Current Moment

What explains the recent rise in worker-to-worker organizing? We should distinguish between factors that have been a boost to all labor organizing, as compared to factors that have contributed to the growth of worker-initiated unionism in particular. Among the general factors boosting every form of workplace organizing, the most important are:

The economic stagnation and legitimacy crises of neoliberal capitalism, with its flagrant disparities in wealth and power;
An exceptionally tight labor market, which has increased workers’ leverage and decreased their fear of job loss;
The COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted and politicized workplaces, while obliging millions to put their lives at risk to come into work; and, finally,
The most pro-union National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) since 1938, which under the leadership of Jennifer Abruzzo has done everything in its power to defend workers’ federally recognized right to organize.

One of the three factors that have boosted worker-initiated organizing in particular is that most unions these days spend relatively little time and money on new organizing. Combined with deep economic transformations and Republican-led eviscerations of federal labor law, this organizational conservatism has created a unionization vacuum in large swaths of the economy.

Two other less-understood factors that have especially boosted worker-to-worker organizing are youth radicalization and digital tools.

Only a bottom-up movement has a fighting chance.

A clear generational pattern has marked the rise of worker-to-worker unionization. Gallup finds that 77 percent of eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds support unions, the highest pro-union rate of any age group. And my preliminary survey of organizers in worker-initiated drives has found that their median age is twenty-four and their average age is twenty-seven. By way of contrast, the current AFL-CIO executive board’s average age is sixty-one.

This is not only a dynamic found at labor’s summits. A gap between younger and older Amazon workers at Staten Island’s JFK8 warehouse was noted by Angelika Maldonado, the twenty-seven-year-old packer who chaired the Amazon Labor Union’s Worker Committee: “One of the main divisions was age. Keep in mind that the average age of an ALU organizer is about twenty-six — many older workers tended to be more skeptical of the union.”

This reflects a persistent pattern in high-risk social movements, where participation can place your material or physical safety on the line. Less familial responsibility — as younger organizers generally have — tends to increase the personal daring and free time necessary for risky activism. But because this degree of youth initiative in labor organizing in the US is a new phenomenon (until recently, unions frequently lamented the disengagement of young people), timeless sociological factors cannot explain why young workers today are at the fore of new organizing.

The main reason is that young people today came of age in a period marked by neoliberal stagnation and crisis. To quote Vince Quiles, a North Philadelphia native who attempted to unionize his Home Depot: “So I’m twenty-seven, I graduated [high school] in 2013, off of the heels of the last major recession, the rise of the gig economy, and the exploitation of the education system by private colleges and student debt collectors. Statistically our generation — you know, millennials, Gen Z — we walked up into an economy where we were shafted, right?”

Most young worker organizers I surveyed also cited recent movements as a major source of their political development, as well as an important factor in pushing them to unionize. Among political influences, Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter ranked highest — evidence of the deep interconnection between economic and racial justice struggles in the United States. Over half of the young worker organizers surveyed identified as radical; the second largest group, about a third of respondents, identified as progressive.

Today’s youth politicization should be a boon for organized labor in general, but it specifically boosts worker-initiated organizing in a number of ways. Not least importantly, it has increased the number of workers who are willing, on their own initiative, to risk their livelihoods for the sake of building a union. Fears of getting fired can be outweighed by a deeply felt commitment to social transformation, even in the absence of the backing and training of a national union apparatus.

An influx of young, radicalized workers into organized labor could prove to be a tipping point for internal efforts at transforming unions into militant, democratic instruments for struggle and organizing. Especially because of labor’s federated structure, union reform from above can only go so far if it is not combined with bottom-up initiatives.

Dramatic examples of the latter have taken place recently in the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Teamsters, where national slates of reformist, rank-and-file oriented candidates swept out old-guard officials and pledged to step up militant organizing. Inside the UAW, left-leaning graduate student workers — whose union campaigns were generally worker-to-worker driven — teamed up with a rank-and-file autoworker insurgency to topple the long-entrenched leadership.

Linked to the emergence of this new political cohort is a third major factor boosting worker-to-worker organizing: the rise of digital technologies. By lowering coordination and communication costs, digital tools have increased the ability of rank-and-file organizers to scale up worker-to-worker structures inside and outside of existing unions.

The vast majority of union drives for decades have not implemented best organizing practices.

My argument is not that digital tools, such as social media, generally replaced “tried and tested” union organizing tactics. Indeed, the use of digital tools to facilitate workplace organizing — the development and cohesion of new leaders and structures to reach beyond existing supporters — is an entirely different approach from purely online mobilizing, which taps those who already agree on an issue. As Vicki Crosson from The New York Times tech workers’ drive observes, digital tools were very helpful for facilitating the back end of their effort, but “one of the earliest lessons that we realized was that you can’t solve organizing with tech — that’s not a thing.”

What then are the specific mechanisms through which digital tools boost worker-to-worker organizing? The following are the most significant:

Low-cost communication: Digital tools such as Zoom, Facebook, and WhatsApp have somewhat (though not completely) undercut the importance of meeting halls, printed newsletters, in-person conferences, and union staffers tasked with acting as intermediaries between workplaces. As such, rank-and-filers’ dependence on established unions to provide communication resources has been lessened — and for those strikes and unionization drives working within established unions, workers can directly engage with their nonlocal peers much more easily than in the past.
Worker-to-worker mentoring: Digital tools have facilitated the ability of workers, rather than paid union staff, to train and give guidance to others seeking to organize. Now, a Starbucks barista in Buffalo can easily jump on Zoom to give regular advice to a partner looking to unionize their shop in Memphis. Indeed, one of the core innovations of both Starbucks Workers United and the NewsGuild is that both have used digital tools to put this type of national worker-to-worker guidance — through both one-on-one mentoring and mass trainings — at the heart of their organizing and mentoring processes. Unlike with staff-intensive unionism, workers in these unions are generally responsible for giving organizing training and guidance to other drives, and they rely heavily on worker volunteers.
Crowdfunding: Platforms like GoFundMe have enabled recent efforts to raise considerable amounts of money, independently from established unions. The Amazon Labor Union, for instance, was able in its election lead-up to crowdfund over $200,000 through GoFundMe, enabling it to pay for literature, food, and the basic living expenses of Chris Smalls, who functioned as a de facto union staffer after getting fired from the company in March 2020.
Publicity and momentum: The importance of full-time communications staffers from established unions, with connections to big national press outlets, has been undermined by the rise of apps like Twitter, which enable scrappy efforts to raise awareness about their efforts directly and relatively easily. With the potential for stories to go viral, social media similarly boosts the likelihood that attention-grabbing unionization efforts inspire copycat efforts.

Organizing Methods

When it comes to the nuts and bolts of organizing, it would be wrong to overstate the novelty of most worker-driven unionization efforts. One of the key strengths of the recent uptick is that it is generally implementing and developing an old tradition: the best practices of rank-and-file intensive workplace organizing.

Worker-to-worker organizing per se is not a novel practice in organized labor — its lineage can be traced all the way back to the Wobblies, Communists, the early Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO), as well as a handful of unions that upheld these traditions in the postwar period. Pick up almost any union organizing handbook written in the last thirty years and it will argue for building a strong, representative organizing committee of workers, tasked with playing a central role in winning over coworkers.

Kate Bronfenbrenner’s pioneering quantitative research of the 1980s has confirmed that one of the most important factors for unionization success is what she calls “rank-and-file intensive tactics” — such as building a representative organizing committee, having systematic one-on-one conversations, assessing coworker support, and organizing escalating workplace actions. The same fundamental approach is stressed (in distinct ways) in trainings led by Jane McAlevey on “structure-based” organizing as well as in the popular education of Labor Notes, and has been implemented by a wide range of left-leaning unions, including the Communications Workers of America, UNITE HERE, United Electrical, and 1199 New England, among others.

Yet — and this is a crucial point — the vast majority of union drives for decades have not implemented best organizing practices. This point has been sadly reconfirmed by Bronfenbrenner’s research. For example, one of her studies from the early 2000s found that only 26 percent of union drives had an active representative organizing committee — and there has been little progress since then.

Staff-intensive unionism cannot scale up today because companies are far more decentralized than in the past, a transformation that significantly raises organizing costs.

There is a significant gap between the common organizing methods of most unions, on the one hand, and those of worker-initiated campaigns and the broader labor-left, rank-and-file organizing tradition, on the other. My quantitative findings on worker-initiated drives in 2022 unsurprisingly confirm that these have heavily relied on “rank-and-file intensive” organizing methods — the overwhelming majority, for instance, have active and representative organizing committees.

Rather than counterposing “momentum organizing” to “structure-based organizing,” recent experience has shown how the former can be a crucial mechanism for boosting the latter. Indeed, many young unionists I spoke with explicitly framed their efforts as upholding a long-standing organizing tradition. Jamie Edwards, one of the founding members of the independent Trader Joe’s United, puts it this way:

We are not the people to be reinventing the wheel [when it comes to organizing], right? We have to focus on doing what works, and then maybe down the road we can make changes that are actually informed by experience — but outside of that, we’re not making improvements . . . we’re just like, we’re just doing random shit. So it’s really important that I think people do things by the book, there’s a reason why people do it that way.

Though recent worker-initiated drives generally rely on traditional rank-and-file organizing methods, workers’ expanded responsibilities within these drives compared to traditional campaigns, even of left-leaning, “structure-based” unions, has a few important consequences.

One is that a high reliance on worker-to-worker organizing helps undercut management’s ongoing efforts to portray the union as a third party, standing between management and workers. Though such claims are largely fallacious even regarding traditional union drives, it is true that in organizing efforts guided by union staff there is often a tension — sometimes productive, sometimes not — concerning who ultimately sets strategy for the campaign. As a study of a relatively bottom-up hotel organizing drive noted, “there were moments when workers recognized the discrepancy between the language of democracy (‘you call the shots’) and the reality of a high level of staff control.”

Worker-led unionization also tends to elicit a higher degree of dedication and commitment of time from worker organizers than would otherwise be the case. The Amazon Labor Union is an extreme example of this dynamic: its small organizing committee of ten to fifteen worker-organizers spent on average thirty to forty hours a week volunteering while off the clock. As JKF8 worker Angelika Maldonado explained, “I work twelve-and-a-half-hour shifts for three consecutive days, and on my off days, I’m here every day.”

This high level of dedication, especially when sustained by a broader goal of radical change, poses new openings for organizing in high-turnover industries. For the sake of the organizing effort, countless workers have chosen to stick it out at their jobs, even in the face of intense, ongoing manager harassment and demoralizing union busting.

Increased worker agency over initiating organizing drives has also significantly expanded unionization targets. Over the years since the Fortune 500 list was established in 1955, there have been zero, or at most one, union drives at the nonunion companies on the list — until 2021. That year saw three union drives at Fortune 500 companies: Amazon, Starbucks, and Alphabet (Google). And 2022 saw seven: Apple, Microsoft, Home Depot, Target, Lowe’s, Wells Fargo, Delta, and Chipotle. Not surprisingly, most of these drives were worker-initiated.

To be sure, workers at these and other megacorporations are still a long way away from winning a first contract. That will likely take many years, greater resources from established unions towards boosting and defending new organizing, as well as more intervention from state actors like legislators and the National Labor Relations Board. But recent struggles have provided what’s long been missing: a model for organizing at scale.

Part of the reason staff-intensive unionism cannot scale up today is that companies are far more decentralized than in the past, a transformation that significantly raises organizing costs. At the time of US labor’s big breakthrough in the 1930s, the heart of the economy was large, centrally located establishments like steel and auto. Employers were no less viciously anti-union than they are today, but organizers back then could focus their limited resources on a relative handful of big, geographically concentrated targets.

The same is no longer true. America’s top employer, Walmart, has over four thousand stores, averaging a few hundred employees each, scattered across the country. The same is true for most of the other largest private employers — Home Depot, Starbucks, Kroger, FedEx, Target, UPS. Unions do not have enough funds or paid organizers to unionize such huge numbers of dispersed workplaces with the staff-heavy methods that prevail today. Only a bottom-up movement has a fighting chance.

The novelty of the current movement thus far lies not so much in its workplace organizing tactics, but rather in its degree of worker agency over unionization efforts and, relatedly, its novel organizational forms.

It is hard for staff-driven efforts to expand quickly in moments of whirlwind effervescence. No such limitation faces campaigns in which workers are primarily trained by other workers.

The most important potentiality of worker-to-worker organizational forms is that they are cheaper and easier to scale up than traditional, staff-intensive models. A decrease in organizing costs is a major historical development with important strategic consequences.

A central reason why labor’s turn to new organizing in the 1990s and early 2000s failed to boost union density was that unionizing new workers proved to be so resource intensive. Kate Bronfenbrenner found that having at least one staffer for every hundred workers was one of the most crucial factors for union organizing success. And, according to former SEIU president Andy Stern, it cost upwards of $3,000 to organize a single worker in the private sector.

Worker-driven organizing campaigns are proving to be significantly less resource intensive. Staff resources for the recent graduate student unionization wave, for example, have been relatively light, in part because so much of the organizing is led by grad workers themselves.

Even if financial resources were not an issue, the ability to rapidly spread campaigns would remain. Because there are only a limited number of experienced union staffers around at a given time, and because it takes a lot of time to train new staff organizers — to have them learn the company, assess a workplace, and build trust with worker-organizers — it is hard for staff-driven efforts to expand quickly in moments of whirlwind effervescence.

No such limitation faces campaigns in which workers are primarily trained by other workers. “The moment we’re in has allowed us to really train people quickly,” explains Stephanie Basile of the NewsGuild. “It’s almost like an intense boot camp opportunity where you can get years of organizing experience in like a month right now.”

Had the Starbucks campaign not pivoted to worker-to-worker mentoring after Buffalo’s win unexpectedly caught fire on a national level, there is no way the available staffers of Workers United (the union that initiated the campaign) could have handled the onboarding and coaching process quickly enough for the unionization wave to have spread like it did.

Organizing is cheaper than in the past, but it is definitely not free. It still takes a lot of staff and legal resources to create the back-end infrastructure to support the national worker-to-worker campaigning of Starbucks Workers United and the NewsGuild. The same holds true for drives begun by self-organized workers who affiliate with an existing union. And it should be noted that even independent drives often have leaned on advice provided by staff organizers from other unions and, in particular, the volunteer legal help of sympathetic lawyers. As worker-led efforts seek to scale nationwide, such ad-hoc support will likely get stretched thin — as will the ability to fundraise sufficiently via GoFundMe. As such, fulfilling the potential of worker-to-worker unionism will very likely require a major influx in resources from big national unions.

Despite the immense power of the forces arrayed against them, rank-and-file organizers today are continuing to take big risks to win power and democracy at work. Unions should follow their lead.

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