Five Ways Unions Are Trying To Get Their Mojo Back


Since the mid-1950s, the percentage of employed workers who belong to a union has dropped from more than 28 percent to less than 12 percent. Experts have tied the nation’s growing wage inequality with this decline. To combat these trends, AFL-CIO national president Richard Trumka suggested in a speech last year that the union movement needs to change the way it communicates with workers, and the way it organizes.

“Many of our unions were created over 100 years ago when the economic and demographic landscape was very different,” he observed, “We can’t just defend our historic industrial and geographic bases when global forces far outside our power to control are eroding, if not destroying, those bases. Unions and our progressive allies need to collectively redirect our energy to focus on where jobs will be in the future and which workers can successfully organize and gain representation in the new global economy.”

While the movement faces an uphill battle, across the country, workers are trying to find ways to change the climate. Many American workers who are simply not able to join a union have been finding ways to work together to fight for better wages and jobs outside of the collective bargaining model. At the same time, traditional unions are aiming to boost membership, change public perceptions, and improve conditions for their members and other workers through new and creative methods.

ThinkProgress spoke with labor activists around the country about what has been working for them. Here are five tactics:

Shop Mobs

Stephen Walsh wanted to change the public’s perception of unions and state employees during his term as president of SEIU 503, DAS Local 125, the sub-local representing employees of Oregon’s state Department of Administrative Services. He devised creative but simple approach: organizing union Shop Mobs. In April 2013, Walsh gathered about 80 members of his and other public sector sub-local unions in the greater Salem area and had them show up — wearing their purple SEIU t-shirts — and shop at an employee-owned Salem supermarket.

SEIU 503, Local 125 Shop Mob CREDIT: Stephen Walsh
SEIU 503, Local 125 Shop Mob CREDIT: Stephen Walsh

“As we went through the checkouts we handed business-card-sized cards to the clerks with our names and amount spent written on the back and it got to the point the clerks were asking for the cards,” Walsh told ThinkProgress. “Collectively we spent over $4,000 and donated thirty bags of groceries and 12 bags of potatoes to the Union Gospel Mission, a shelter assisting the homeless in Salem.” Walsh noted that during he had numerous conversations with other shoppers during the shop mob and “none left without a favorable position of us as state employees and as union members, with most starting to see the connection and part we play in our communities.”

Walsh would like to see others use the same tactic. “Shop mobs I believe are a way to build links that cost almost nothing.” He hopes union members will spread the word of the idea: “If every union member took the time and made the effort to talk to their friends, families, and neighbors, they wouldn’t convince all of them but if they could convince a third to a half of them, then the image of the union movement with the wider community would be much better than it is now and it wouldn’t cost anything, because we all have to shop anyway!”

Unions Of Unions


Two years ago, 32BJ SEIU, the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, and New York Hotel Trades Council came together to launch Build Up NYC. Recognizing that large-scale real estate developments affect multiple types of workers, these three New York City unions — representing distinct industries — joined to form a coalition aimed at pushing for better development projects. Jessica Ramos, Build Up NYC’s communications director, told ThinkProgress that “the presidents of each decided didn’t want to fight alone individually in their silos anymore” and “could pool resources and bring people together to fight.”

Last year, she said, the coalition’s members successfully organized and exerted political pressure to ensure that a Staten Island development project will be both built and run with well-paid labor — including “temporary construction jobs, permanent building maintenance, and hotel operations jobs.”

And the agreement with the developer included language to ensure local hiring. “Our campaign theme was workers not having to leave Staten Island to find a good job,” Ramos noted. “After we got the deal, we worked with local elected official to organize a learning day — which has the various unions do tabling, having people come up, talk about the apprenticeship programs, when recruitment will start, and how the process works.”

Much of the group’s success, Ramos observed, has come from having its members as the “faces of our campaign” of ensuring good jobs and affordable neighborhoods. “When it comes to our larger demonstrations, it’s really where you see in the sea of the crowd … hotel housekeepers standing next to iron workers and public school janitors, understanding that we’re all fighting together for this” she added. “Being able to use each other’s stories has become really powerful. One of the greatest tools we have in the labor movement as a whole, that we need to fight to win more spaces for, is the stories of our members. How many times unions have been able to bring families out of public housing and into the middle class because we have apprenticeship programs, they learn how to do the work safely, and learn what it’s like to have good jobs.”

This coalition approach has been successful elsewhere.

The car wash industry’s treatment of workers in California has long been “pretty deplorable,” according Rosemarie Molina. For years, she told ThinkProgress, “A lot of workers were getting no wages at all,” allowed to keep only the tips they collected during their 10- to 12-hour shifts. “On a really good day, that’s not a big deal… but in the down season, the winter season in LA, workers were only earning $15 for 12 hours of work.”

Press conference announce new union car washes CREDIT: CLEAN Carwash Campaign
Press conference announce new union car washes CREDIT: CLEAN Carwash Campaign

The AFL-CIO and United Steel Workers (USW) joined forces with Los Angeles workers centers, community groups, academics, pro bono law firms, and religious organizations united a few years ago to create the Community Labor Environmental Action Network (CLEAN) Carwash Campaign to improve conditions for the largely-immigrant workforce at the city’s roughly 500 car washes. And Molina, the strategic director for the campaign, said the efforts have already successfully organized workers at 25 of those car washes through USW Local 675.

David Campbell, Local 675’s secretary-treasurer said his union and several others in the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor came together to help in the early stages, when number of pro-union car wash workers were fired for their activism. “We incorporated them into the workers’ brigade and made them part of the campaign to picket car washes and to become member organizers,” he told ThinkProgress. The local unions joined to provide the fired employees with a stipend, trained them to be organizers, and utilized them as the public face of the car wash campaign. After building public support, the CLEAN Carwash Campaign got a state law enacted last that requires each car wash to hold a $150,000 surety bond for the benefit of any employee who is the victim of employer wage theft. The law also includes an exemption for employers “covered by a valid collective bargaining agreement,” creating an incentive for owners to reach an agreement with the union, if the workers want one. Campbell said conditions, even at non-union car washes, have improved as “the industry knows that if they mistreat their workers, the union is liable to be at their door.”

Rebuilding Urban Relationships

Jim Williams, general vice president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), told ThinkProgress that his union was acutely aware that its public image in urban areas like St. Louis had declined over the years. As many construction workers had moved out to suburbia in years past, he said, they ceased to be seen as part of the community in big cities. To charge this this perception, its District Council 2 is actively trying to rebuild its relationship with the city’s populace.


The union has worked to ensure that for all projects in St. Louis city schools and municipal buildings, the local residents are being paid proper wages and contractors fairly paid as well — minority contractors in particular. It has also focused on providing jobs to St. Louis citizens through its apprenticeship program, which provide “skill training, where residents will get a good job at the end of the day.”

But a lot of it has simply come through charitable work. District Council 2 and the union’s charitable arm PATCH (Painters and Allied Trades for Children’s Hope Foundation) earned goodwill in St. Louis by investing in the city’s youth. “In four of the toughest neighborhoods, our charitable endowment outfitted the schools with supplies and backpacks, working with a community group. We’re trying to really get to our grassroots level,” Williams explained.

By showing the city, “that we’re here, we’re back,” Williams said, and he hopes it will be able to connect with the community at the grassroots level, which can only help “for long term success down the road.”

A 21st Century Clipboard

Earlier this year, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) — America’s largest union of public sector employees — announced a national campaign to recruit 50,000 new members by the end of summer.


Jeff Pittman, communications director for AFSCME Maryland, told ThinkProgress that his state union increased its membership by more than 3,000 members (out of about 25,000 active state employees) as part of that effort, leaving fewer than 8,000 non-union state employees. And he said one of the biggest assets to the effort was utilizing technologies the union already had: iPads and a website. “As of January of this very year, every member signed up on 1970s piece-of-paper cards we negotiated with state of Maryland and its universities,” he explained, but when they looked more closely at the rules they discovered if it collected the information on an online form, it would still be valid. Pittman said his organization began an aggressive email campaign to prospective members, aiming to convince them that “we’re stronger together.” And it yielded immediate results. “We picked up nearly 300 members online, folks we hadn’t met,” he said, calling the realization that a similar approach could have been adopted long ago, “a head-on-keyboard moment.”

Still, he believes, “the most effective way of persuading people to act in their own best self interest” is through one-on-one conversation. Realizing that the union also owned a large supply of Apple iPads, Pittman distributed them to union leaders working on recruitment efforts and gave them access to a database of members and non-members and customized information about what the union was doing to help in each non-member’s area. “We already had the iPads, we thought: why aren’t we using it this way? Create the app and use it, so folks can log right in, see here’s who’s there, here’s what they’ve faced, issues in that worksite, what we’ve done legislatively or with labor/management committees,” he noted.

In tough relations, we look at ‘What can I control?’ We’ve had pretty doggone good success with it.

AFSCME’s efforts, in Maryland and nationally, had an extra urgency with looming threat to public sector labor: the U.S. Supreme Court. When a majority of a workforce, but not every single worker, votes to be represented by a union, the union is still required to represent the interests of the non-union workers. That means all workers must be treated equally at the bargaining table — a union cannot entice workers into joining the union by bargaining for one set of wages for union members and another, lower set of wages for non-members. But in the recent Harris v. Quinn case, a group of home care workers in Illinois challenged this system.

The court ultimately sided with the home care workers, deeming them an exempt class of “partial public employees,” but otherwise left the system in tact — at least for now. Still, rather than wait around to see how much the Supreme Court would roll-back the “fair share” rules, AFSCME’s “50,000 Stronger” campaign aimed to work proactively, in advance of the decision, to sidestep the problem.

Pittman said that by utilizing new technologies, his union can be a “lower-weight fighter” who out-boxes a heavy-weight: “In tough relations, we look at ‘What can I control?’ We’ve had pretty doggone good success with it. … We can hold our own here.”

And the recruiting effort proved successful in his state and nationally. Instead of the 50,000 new members, AFSCME announced Monday that it has gained more than 90,000 new members in just the past six months.

While some are using it for recruitment, others are using it for organizing with the members they already have and communicating with the general public. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) is part of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and has been organizing a large range of workers since the 1930s. But to boost wages and benefits today, deputy director of communications Janna Pea in the group’s New York City headquarters told ThinkProgress, the group has relied on new, modern online outreach, along with the old-fashioned organizing.


Two of the group’s recent victories have come New York City, where RWDSU has several local affiliates. Pea noted that employees at the city’s flagship Guitar Center location in the city, since Bain Capital purchased the company, were unhappy with declining income from a significantly commission-based compensation system and with a lack of paid sick leave. Recognizing that Bain had a history of fighting unionization, the workers launched an online petition in support of their efforts and successfully enlisted the support of musicians including Aloe Blacc, Kathleen Hanna, and Tom Morello. After the New York workers voted to unionize last year, Guitar Center employees in Chicago followed suit, leading to an article in Rolling Stone. And Pea said, “The wife of a [Guitar Center] worker in Las Vegas saw the article posted on Facebook and said to her husband: ‘Aren’t you having problems at your store too? Let’s look and see what they did.’” Three months later, his store also voted to unionize. Ares Management acquired a controlling interest in the chain from Bain Capital in April.

Pea also said that the Internet played a key role in a recent work stoppage at a New York City book store. Employees at Book Culture, a bookstore near Columbia University in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, voted recently to unionize — against the wishes of the store owner. After five employees who voted to join RWDSU were fired, workers launched a strike and urged a public boycott of the store. RWDSU and its allies got the word out through Twitter and new media news outlets. “He saw quickly that, with community supporting us, he needed to get his act together to keep business and have workers be happy and thrive in environment they love,” Pea observed.

Chris Doeblin, owner of Book Culture, told ThinkProgress in an email that as “the operator of a small business with a responsibility to it’s values and realities,” he can say “it is and will almost always be the case that dealing with a union is a net negative for our business. At the negotiating table I will always be on the other side. That is as it should be. It that context I suppose it is fair to say that I operate in an anti union way.” While he believes that making a deal “with the staff and doing it through the union was, is, necessary to the well being of the valuable institution I serve, Book Culture,” he called it “inefficacious to use these young people and their hearts and minds to not just unionize but to attack and damage a little book store like ours.” “And so now, thousands of dollars in damages caused to our little book stores, untold defamation, huge costs to the union too for their Ivy League attorney and the inflatable rats and the people they drove in to protest what have we gained,” he asked rhetorically, “6 or 15 people contributing $5 a week in dues?”

Training A New Generation Of Leaders

Though the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245 is one of the more successful local unions — with a large base of well-paid workers in California and Nevada — a few years back its officers decided to give some thought to who would carry their banner after its current generation of leaders. With that in mind, it launched an ambitious leadership training program for a select group of promising union members.

Local 1245 communications director Eric Wolfe told ThinkProgress, “The thinking was as we look to replace current staff, we should be looking to people who have organizing experience. The way to give people organizing experience was to get them involved in organizing.” In addition to training with experienced organizers, the new leaders were sent them into the field “so they could get their hands dirty with organizing work,” including union organizing campaigns, political actions, and other solidarity work. After dispatching these organizers to assist with an ordinance fight in Alaska, a recall election in Wisconsin, and a ballot campaign in Ohio, Wolfe said that when an anti-union initiative reached the ballot in California in 2012, “we found we had a cadre of people to fight, here in California, a battle directly affecting our members.”

Jammi Juarez (in orange) and fellow IBEW Local 1245 members in Wisconsin in 2012 CREDIT: IBEW Local 1245
Jammi Juarez (in orange) and fellow IBEW Local 1245 members in Wisconsin in 2012 CREDIT: IBEW Local 1245

One of the first leaders in this leadership program — now formally recognized as union “Organizing Stewards” — was Jammi Juarez. A customer service representative working in a call center for Pacific Gas & Electric, Juarez was shocked when her then-14-year-old daughter expressed a view that unions were bad. “That’s when I took on the mission to change the world,” she told ThinkProgress. She started with her own children, dragging them to canvasses and phone banks and showing them what her union did.

Juarez has since traveled around the country, helping to organize a successful union vote at an Illinois tool plant and to bring a new manufacturing company in Sacramento into her own local. “It’s life changing,” she said, “It gives you a sense of the things that need to happen. And if you don’t do it, who will do it? We have an energized group ready for any task assigned.” Local 1245 brought Juarez aboard full-time in April as a organizer.

Wolfe also noted that to boost member involvement and engagement — and help the local communities — the Local 1245 executive board has created a fund for its various regional units to sponsor local charitable efforts. “Dozens of units around California and Nevada are now sponsoring Little League teams, mural restoration projects, women’s resource centers, and community fishing events,” he explained. “It’s been gratifying to see how many people are excited about making change in the world — but you’ve gotta ask them and give them an opportunity. That same kind of untapped potential exists throughout the country among union members. Hopefully a substantial minority of people who want to become more involved.”

Wolfe hopes others across the labor movement will so find ways to energize and activate new leadership: “Action tends to beget more action, so if you create some energy, it will tend to build on itself if it’s nurtured.”