How Unions Can Win Against the Most Daunting Odds Imaginable

BY Stephen Lerner

EDITOR'S NOTE: Stephen Lerner is a long-time union organizer and key strategist in the labor movement. Lerner began his organizing career with the United Farmworkers, worked for eight years for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) in the South, and was the Building Services Organizing Director of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). He directed the Justice for Janitors campaign, which organized 35,000 janitors.
Lerner is currently working with the AFL-CIO Organizing Department and other unions on setting up industry-wide organizing campaigns. The following is excerpted from a speech he gave at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on February 6, 1996 (excerpted and edited by Janice Fine and Marc Breslow of
Dollars and Sense--from which this is reprinted; see end of article for more information).

Things are terrible out there. Unions in this country are in terrible trouble. Workers feel hopeless and the reason they're not organizing isn't complicated. When they are constantly told that the reason they are in this mess is the inevitable march of technology or "because of the market" people become convinced that there's no reason to organize because it won't have any effect. As unions, we're not offering a vision, a plan or a coherent solution that workers think is worth fighting for, and workers won't organize if they don't believe they're going to win!
We need some clarity about the obstacles we face and what our organizing goals are. I think our biggest obstacles are internal—because I'm of the school of thought that employers fight unions because they're employers and we shouldn't be surprised about that. The problem is, as a labor movement we think too small. We're afraid to take risks and we aren't offering a compelling vision to workers about how organizing unions makes this a better society. We are not offering something to counter the vision that corporations are projecting, so they end up being the only ones who look like they are really offering solutions. And the juxtaposition between what we need to do to win and what we can do is terrifying.
For workers right now this country is a scary and confusing place... We're told that what is happening to us is inevitable because of technology, the Web, global competition, market forces, competitiveness. Corporate decisions aren't doing anything, they're not driving wages down. Bad policy or legislation isn't making things worse. It's not greedy employers. Low wages aren't breeding low wages. It's "market forces."
And no one's to blame for the impoverishment of workers because people, countries, politicians, nobody controls anything any more. It's just markets and technology doing their thing. So, it shouldn't be a surprise that workers are not organizing, protesting or fighting back against the redistribution of wealth and power to the rich in this country. Because they've been convinced it's hopeless--you can't battle inevitable economic forces, you can't hold back history.
So the question for workers is: "why organize?"... To organize in this country means to risk your livelihood, so why organize if it doesn't lead to solutions? Why engage in collective actions if everybody says the only solutions are individual ones? So if people aren't organizing we need to bear in mind that it is not that they are content or that they like the status quo. I think it's a really local response—in the absence of labor offering a vision and concrete solutions that give workers reason to believe we can win.


We need to organize millions of people to increase the percentage of the workforce represented by unions. In order to get to where we were in 1955, we'd have to organize 15 million people tomorrow. There are two extreme schools of thought in organizing now. One extreme is a narrow, mechanical, technical view, that of NLRA [National Labor Relations Act]-organizing. In that world, 500 or 1,000 people organized is considered a huge victory. And the question of how we organize, what workers feel, what workers want, what approaches we should take, are all defined by the NLRA, and that usually means a single employer at a single site. This approach, even when we're successful, is so limiting that if we keep winning like this, we'll die really quickly.
Under 100,000 people in the entire country are organized through the NLRA each year. Of these, only about half got a first contract and I have heard recent estimates that only approximately one quarter of them were still in the union three years later. We could triple, or quadruple, or organize in ten times these numbers and it still would not be nearly enough.
The other extreme is organizing that isn't tied to collective bargaining. This approach, a community-based approach, often says that we have to reach out to lots of workers and that you can't do that in traditional campaigns. That's right. But what is wrong is that they accept the idea that we can't beat employers and win contracts at this time in history.
The problem is that there are a lot of examples of community-based organizing, but I don't know many that translate into people being under contract. Workers believing in the idea of unions as an ally, or thinking that we're nice people, or thinking we can produce social services doesn't translate into a belief that the union can help you beat your own employer....
Neither of these approaches comes close to offering solutions for the level of crisis we face. We have to win workers' support at their worksites and we have to gain workers' support in the community... But if we don't address the question of how we beat employers, how we regain control of industries and how we protect our current members' jobs and standards, then none of this equals anything because we will continue in decline....


Life is simple. Corporate and business interests and their allies want to destroy unions. And nothing about technology or competition or any of those things have changed the basic relationship in this country from 80 years ago between employers and workers. Employers know this even better! When I say the word "employer" I am using it broadly to mean employers, their allies, corporate entities, and other people who control the economy but claim not to have workers.
It's a distraction from our work and a fantasy to believe that we are going to convince a meaningful number of corporations and employers to voluntarily allow us to organize, work with, tolerate, or coexist with us, unless we have the ability to force them to do it. When I say it's simple and life hasn't changed, I know everybody's got their one example of a company that's been nice. But in an economy that's got 100 million non-union workers, it's as irrelevant as winning an NLRB election and not getting a contract.
Having said life is simple, the second point is life is incredibly complicated. Organizing, targeting, and bargaining is more expensive and harder than it's been at any point in history. Building and exercising power requires a higher level of analysis and sophistication in terms of strategies and tactics than ever before. So while employers haven't changed in their attitudes toward us, what it takes to beat them is very, very different.
The third point is that while it's incredibly complicated, it's actually very understandable. And there are solutions... I think the solutions lie in understanding this economy and competitive markets. By understanding it and making it simpler, and breaking in into pieces, we can start to figure out where to organize, who to organize, and what it takes to win.
Here's what I mean: We all talk about the global economy, but there are tens of millions, if not the majority of workers in this country who don't compete globally... In terms of who do we compete with, it's regional markets, or it maybe national markets. But there's huge numbers of workers who compete where their competition is other companies. They may not be American-owned but they compete in the United States. If you look at where wages have plummeted the most, it's got absolutely nothing to do with global competition.
In trucking, where wages are so low now, it was deregulation, it was all sorts of factors. It was deunionization. But it wasn't trucks coming over the border that weakened the Teamster's union in freight and drove wages down. In hotels, again it's not global competition that has driven wages down the toilet. It was the competition between employers in specific markets where the union lost control and they drove wages down. Construction is down from a peak of 88% organized at the end of World war Two, to about 20% organized now. It's not global competition. It's labor markets that employers had the power to de-unionize. We have to get concrete and stop talking about this universal thing happening in the economy and start looking at sectors of industry, and sub-markets within industries. Then we can start getting real about focusing on plans and strategies and targets that make sense—and workers will support us.
I think that workers are smart--that we can make an argument about why we think we can win and if it makes sense workers will support it. Instead of debating grand theory, we need to look at where we have stable industries and do what labor unions historically do, which is organize a majority of an industry, take wages out of competition and let employers compete on the quality of their product rather than lowering wages.
We need to build the capacity as part of this to deal with the vicious level of opposition we face from employers. You can't sugar-coat that. We need to deal with the resources it takes to win, which are incredible. We need a clear plan and vision that workers can unite behind…


In searching for who you organize, there's lots of industries and sectors that look like this: a billion in sales and 20,000 workers....
If we're doing an industry campaign, what is our goal? If you have the wrong goal, you won't have a good result. If your goal is to win an election for one place, you may win the battle, but you lose the war. But we have to say our goal is to win industry agreements with standardized wages and benefits.
We need to start off with asking some strategic questions like who holds the real power? In my experience, increasingly it is not the employer. There's a whole series of other people who dominate. We then need to do a power structure analysis…for each level within the industry, we've got to identify tactics and strategies to take them on. Practically, we're not going to organize 200 employers simultaneously. So we need to start figuring out how we make this manageable…. If there are 200 employers, in most cases there may be 50 employers who dominate 60% of the work. So we've reduced it from 200 to 50. And out of 20,000 workers, we may be saying we're really only organizing 12,000 workers.
And then whenever we organize workers, we have to look at what we do at the worksite and what we do in the community. Both of those things have to happen. It's not one or the other.


When you look at the building service industry, you've got to identify and target the building owner. This could be a pension fund, or Prudential.… Of course they build the building, and they own it, but they don't have any workers! If you go to them and say "Why are you treating people badly," they say, "Who me? I don't have any workers." They usually have somebody called the building manager, who runs things, and he doesn't have any workers either. They've contracted everything out! So we then say within this building industry, we're interested in…the cleaning contractor, who employs janitors. To give you a sense of magnitude, New York City has 35,000 janitors in the commercial sector. Los Angeles has 15,000 to 20,000 janitors. Washington, D.C. has 6,000 janitors.
We're trying to organize every cleaning contractor, establish a contract so cleaning contractors compete on who cleans the best, who has the best marketing, who lies the best, whatever they do to get work from the building owner, not who can drive down wages. Cleaning contractors are no longer mom-and-pop operations. The biggest one, ISS, has 40,000 U.S. janitors and is owned by a Danish company. These are increasingly multinational companies that are huge in their own right and tend to be 100% union in Europe and non-union here, so it's not that they're ideologically opposed to unions.
When we have the janitors campaign, as with any campaign, we set some simple goals. First, we have to organize top-down, bottom-up and sideways! We have to organize a majority of contractors, a majority of buildings and a majority of workers! Then we've got to get a master agreement that everybody signs.
The way cleaning contracting works is that jobs go up for bid on 30 days' notice. If I'm cleaning a building, the building owner can say it's going back out to bid and I'm hiring a new contractor in 30 days. The work force and the employees are constantly fluid, so you have to make sure that every employer is bidding with the same rate or it gets bid down…this is what happened in [the] auto [industry] with outsourcing, in electronics in Silicon Valley. Everywhere, outsourcing forces a new cycle of competition—and we have got to take wages out of competition.
Our first campaign was in Denver, Colorado... We were trying to organize one building and the workers just weren't interested in organizing. The boss gave a speech: "If you get the union, my price will go up and I'll lose the contract and you'll lose your job..." So then we did the speech: "Well he's a liar, he's rich, he's a pig, vote for the union...." The workers said no because their experience was that they constantly got unemployed if their contractor was underbid. But, when we went back to that same group of workers and said we're going to organize everybody in the downtown, that same group of undocumented Mexican workers all said: "We'll, that makes sense... the stupid people from the union before you didn't know that."
Let's take the real estate industry in Washington, D.C. There's 500 buildings, but that class of people consists of a very concrete group of companies, managing firms, lawyers, pension funds. And you can identify them. We did the research, we could name the 100 people that go to the same country clubs... they literally intermarry! You can figure out who these folks are and the 500 buildings they control. In D.C., it's literally billions of dollars worth of assets... it's greater than the GNP of lots of countries.... That's who we're fighting. We're not just fighting the cleaning contractor, we're fighting these folks. and they're really powerful.
When we did our power/market analysis in D.C. we realized we couldn't organize 500 buildings simultaneously. We identified 80 "prestige buildings" that because of their size, rental rates... drove the market. We targeted these buildings. We figured out who owned and controlled them. Some were owned by national companies that were union in other cities, others by local developers that were partially union in D.C., and some by people who were irrationally anti-union. Identifying ownership allowed us to further refine who we should target and had leverage on.
Under building owners and managers the next level of power is the cleaning contractors. In D.C. we had successfully organized 30% of the market into site agreements covering 1,500 workers in over 100 buildings. These contractors were union in some buildings and non-unions in others--"double breasted." We had lined up the contracts so all 100 buildings expired at the same time. We set the goal of gaining one contract covering all the workers and forcing the contractors to be 100% union.


As part of this we identified where big contractors were union in other cities. We also worked with European unions who had them under contract. By threatening to strike their unionized sites in D.C. and honor picket lines in other U.S. cities we won a city-wide agreement that forced all their work to be union and increased our market share to close to 50%.
We also identified and used the power the city government has over zoning, permits and taxes. If you can stop construction of a building because you prove they are violating zoning laws, or if you can prove buildings are under-assessed for tax purposes, that's real power…In terms of coalition-building it's also critical to demonstrating the ties between corporate interests that both impoverish workers through lower wages and damage the community through development and tax break policies.....
We also passed the "Displaced Workers Bill," which says that when a private-sector cleaning contractor takes work away from another contractor, they have to keep the workers. Why is this important? Because for workers it provides real job security--instead of being replaced every three months when a new contractor is hired. It also protects union bargaining rights.
When a non-union contractor takes over a unionized worksite they have to keep the existing unionized workers, which then means legally they have to recognize the union. The Supreme Court recently refused to hear the employers' appeal of this law.
We engaged in a series of tactics at each level of power we could identify for the real estate industry. Ballot initiatives, tax cuts, everything to cost them money. We have dealt with huge litigation, conducted corporate campaigns and demonstrations. And winning takes serious resource--about t 20 staff including five full-time researchers and two full-time attorneys, to constantly engage them in warfare.
In terms of the contractors, we have to enforce laws--wage and hour violations, child labor, regulatory stuff, and then we put workers into collective action. We organized them without an eye toward NLRB elections. We engaged in short strikes--pulled them out and put them back fast, we did pickets and sit-ins. Our analysis was, we had to disrupt business as usual. It is important for a tenant to have a nice and clean, pristine office, with all these minority janitors who are only there at night. They want janitors to be invisible. So we brought the campaign to them. We also regained the right to honor picket lines from other cities, in most of our contracts.
In Los Angeles we honored picket lines from D.C. We sent out pickets and people honored them. In Washington, D.C. we would strike a four-person ISS [International Service System] building and shut down a 100-person building in Los Angeles. We took advantage of the fact that the contractors are national and hit them where we were strong. We're also organizing immigrant workers, so we do immigrant worker issues.
We do a whole series of things to build a campaign.... What we're talking about is developing an analysis of each level of power and what it takes to beat them. There's no panacea, no magic bullet.... It's dozens and dozens of things and it's incredibly resource intensive.
So, when I think of "janitor-land" and how this all fits together…our goal has to be to organize the whole market and gain a master agreement. In D.C., when a contractor signs, they agree to language saying that all their work in the District of Columbia is union. So we don't have to recognize them every time they pick up a new job. Everything they have is union.
We've got to take wages out of competition by identifying who really has power over workers' lives…Almost every industry has a unique characteristic to give us leverage. For janitors, this included the 30-day cancellation notice. We turned it on its head--instead of our workers losing their jobs, we can cause non-union contractors to lose their jobs in 30 days and run them out of the market.
In auto, it's just-in-time production where they don't stockpile parts anymore. The ability of the United Auto Workers to shut down the whole industry by striking one plant is incredible. We have to have a plan that fits the industry, market and workforce. We've found that we can move low-wages workers very quickly into action, and that they love it.


What we need to restart the labor movement is to win and win on a big scale. We would get tremendous resonance by choosing 10, 15, 20 places, where we target 30,000 or 50,000 workers in a major campaign effort. Not only can we win, but it would help spark the kind of excitement that then has a ripple effect and inspires organizing. That was our experience in Los Angeles with the janitors' strike. You had that rare sort of nuclear fission you get when everything clicks. People started calling up and saying "how do I do that strike thing?" That's not a thing you usually get, non-union workers saying, " I want to go on strike too."
So when you think about all the things that it takes to win, the first thing that is key is mobilizing our existing base. When you have a strike or an organizing campaign, we traditionally only organize that group of workers. In lots of cities, we still have hundreds of thousands of members. A piece of any big organizing campaign [starts off] with a massive mobilization of union members who can afford to get arrested at a non-union facility. Non-union workers can't because they'll be terminated. Union members can do all sorts of things because they've got a union.
We have a tremendous opportunity to recruit and train folks as part of big organizing campaigns…If in Los Angeles, we're mobilizing tens of thousands of union members, we can then find 100 people and train them how to be organizers. This is our most powerful resource, and folks are ready and willing and able to do stuff. They need to be ready to engage in militant direct action and have a capacity to physically shut down cities for employers. And [for] non-union employers, we need to become the private sector enforcement arm of the law. If a non-union employer fires a worker, they need to have 5,000 people shut down the plant the next day, that's the punishment.
Every campaign needs a PR operation. A big campaign to organize 20,000 people needs at least one or two people working full-time just in PR. We need full-time lawyers. I won't even get into the issue of how much Justice for Janitors spent on litigation. Right now most unions have maybe two or three researchers for the entire union. They need three, four, five, even 10 on a campaign to organize an industry. The magnitude of staff that needs to talk to the workforce is 50 to 100 full-time organizers. Most people consider four a big campaign.
We need full-time people doing the community work. That can't be work we just do on the side. We also need full-time political operations. Some of the problem we have now is folks get the big picture, but the question is execution.

Reprinted with permission from Dollars and Sense magazine, published bimonthly by the Economic Affairs Bureau, Inc., One Summer Street, Somerville, MA 02143, a nonprofit corporation. Subscriptions: $22.95/yr.; 617-628-8411.

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This story was published on June 07, 1996.