Bronfenbrenner, Kate; Warren, Dorian T.

New Labor Forum16. 3/4 (Fall 2007): 142-148,196,198.

THE FUTURE OF THE U.S. LABOR MOVEMENT HINGES ON UNIONS’ ABILITY TO ORGANIZE workers of color, women, and most especially, women of color. The majority of existing union members, and for at least the last two
decades, the majority of new workers organized, are women and workers
of color. Yet, with the exception of just a handful of unions, the labor movement has been slow to realize that its survival and revitalization is fundamentally
intertwined with unions’ ability to recognize and build on this trend.
African-American workers have historically been and continue to be the
most prounion and the most likely demographic group to be union
members even though the decline in union density since the 1980s has
been the sharpest among black workers. While more than one in four
African-American workers (27.1 percent) were union members in 1983, by
2006, this percentage had fallen to 14.5 percent.1 This nearly 13
percentage point drop contrasts with a 7 percentage point drop in
density among white workers, and a 7 percentage point drop among
Hispanic workers. Yet, as shown in Table 1, focusing solely on the
changes in union density by race, without further bifurcating the data
by gender, fails to capture the very different patterns occurring
across both race and gender. Without question, the density loss has
been much heavier among men then women, particularly among men of
color, dropping 16 percentage points for black men, 14 points for
Hispanic men, and 10 points for white men, compared to a drop in
density for white and Hispanic women during this same
twenty-three-year period of 5 percentage points or less. The drop in
density was higher for black women (9 percentage points), but still
much less than their male counterparts, and, in 2005, union density
actually increased for African American women from 13.5 percent to
14.2 percent in one year, only to drop back down to 13.5 percent in
This significant decline in union density among workers of color has
been overlooked in most discussions of the crisis facing the labor
movement. The heavier job losses among black workers are due to the
continued hemorrhaging of heavily unionized manufacturing jobs, the
deunionization and downgrading of building, food, and home care
services, and the adverse effects of privatization of the public
sector, the occupations where many black workers had been concentrated
since World War II.3 In 2004 alone, over 400,000 manufacturing jobs
left the United States, 39 percent of which were unionized and
disproportionately located in the Midwest and Southeast regions. While
black workers hit hardest by these productions shifts, and those most
likely to lose union jobs, were concentrated in states such as
Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio, both organized and unorganized
African-American workers also lost jobs in the textile and furniture
industries in states like North Carolina, where 160,000 workers lost
their jobs between 2001 and 2004 alone.4 Replacing this massive
disappearance of good union jobs have been low-wage, nonunion jobs in
the service sector, creating what Steven Pitts calls the
two-dimensional crisis of work in black communities: unemployment and
bad jobs.5
But the crisis of bad jobs is not limited only to African-American
workers; other workers of color, including the overwhelming majority
of immigrants and female workers, are also disproportionately
concentrated in low-wage industries. They know that the best strategy
for transforming bad jobs into good ones is unionization. Towards this
end, workers of color, and especially black men and women, are
organizing and organizing successfully at disproportionate rates, even
though these workers have been the hardest hit by manufacturing j ob
losses and the downsizing of the public sector. Yet, many in the labor
movement have either ignored or downplayed the role of race and gender
in organizing, and consequently have sidestepped the implications of
increased numbers of workers of color and women for unions’ organizing
strategies, institutional practices, and political involvement. The
labor movement is the largest mass membership organization of women,
African Americans, Latinos, and Asians in the country (larger than the
NAACP, NOW, La Raza, and LULAC combined). As such, the labor movement
must not only pay much greater attention to organizing workers of
color and women, but also think through what it means to represent
these workers’ interests and concerns internally, at the bargaining
table, and in politics.
THE CHALLENGE FOR ORGANIZING DATA ON NLRB UNION ELECTIONS FROM THE early part of this decade shows that women, and especially women of color, have the highest election win rates among all demographic groups. For example, units with a majority of white men have the lowest win rates (35 percent) compared to units that are majority workers of color (53 percent), majority women (58 percent), and especially units that are majority women of
color (82 percent).6 This is despite the fact that the majority of
private sector organizing campaigns still occurs in occupations where
women and people of color are the minority. And organizing outside of
the broken and unfair NLRB process continues to increase, and with
some significant successes involving workers of color. Recent
non-Board and public sector campaign victories include the 49,000 home
child care providers who won recognition in Illinois, and 5,300 mostly
immigrant janitors who won recognition in Houston, both through SEIU
in 2005; 40,000 child care providers organized by AFSCME and the UAW
in Michigan in 2006; and earlier this year, the 4,000 mostly
African-American male security officers organized by SEIU in Los
Angeles.7 The overwhelming majority of these new union members are
workers of color, primarily women of color.

Building on these recent successes, we see much potential for
organizing gains-either through the NLRB or non-Board strategiesin the
occupations where workers of color, women, and women of color
predominate and where the union density rates are low: clerical (66
percent female, 5 percent union), service and maintenance (64 percent
female, 5 percent union), professional and technical (58 percent
female, 6 percent union), health care and social services (81 percent
female, 7 percent union), and hospitality and food services (56
percent female, 34 percent workers of color, 2 percent union).8 But
this would mean that unions would have to commit serious resources
toward organizing, something that all but a handful have thus far
failed to do. Still today, unions on both the national and local
levels allocate on average just 10 percent of their resources to

In addition, as Bronfenbrenner has shown in over two decades of
research, simply targeting units with majorities of women and workers
of color is not enough. The most successful organizing campaigns that
are able to overcome intense employer opposition are those that engage
in a comprehensive union-building strategy.10 In addition to “adequate
and appropriate staff and resources” and “strategic targeting and
research,” among the ten key elements of such a comprehensive strategy
are an “active and representative rank-and-file organizing committee,”
“active participation of member volunteer organizers,” and a focus on
“issues which resonate in the workplace and community.” These latter
three elements mean that unions, to be successful in organizing
campaigns, must engage in a different model of unionism-one which
requires extensive changes in organizational structures and practices
in order to create campaigns that speak to the multiple class, racial,
and gender injustices workers face at the workplace. While many
organizers and scholars argue that the best strategy in organizing a
diverse workforce is to take a color- and genderblind approach, just
focusing on the broad class issues that unite workers, Sharon Kurtz
reminds us that this is risky. From a strategic standpoint,
downplaying or skirting issues of racial or gender justice in an
organizing campaign risks undermobilizing workers for whom those
issues may resonate, and it also risks alienating external
community-based support and allies, who might be a crucial resource in
a hostile organizing campaign.11

ENGAGING IN A DIFFERENT MODEL OF UNIONism would also mean developing new rankand-file leaders who represent a more diverse membership. This issue of developing staff and leadership that represent the changing
demographics of the workforce and of union members is still one of the
most significant challenges facing the labor movement today. It has
been more than ten years now since the AFLCIO created the position of
executive vicepresident and expanded its Executive Council to provide
more representation for women and people of color, and Change to Win
conscientiously appointed a woman and man of color as its top two
officers. But where action is most needed is at the affiliate level:
within Internationals and within local unions. For example, according
to data from a nationally representative survey of Internationals
conducted in 2003, women, workers of color, and immigrants are still
severely underrepresented in staff and leadership positions compared
to their membership numbers.12 And, as the constituency groups have
long argued, leadership change must go beyond symbolic and token
gestures; women and people of color must be empowered within their
organizations to represent the interests and concerns of a diverse

This issue of leadership representation is even starker in the context
of organizing campaigns. There has been some progress in the
recruitment and development of lead organizers over the last two
decades. From the late 1980s to the late 1990s, the percentage of
female lead organizers increased from 12 percent to 21 percent, while
the percentage of lead organizers of color increased from 15 percent
to 21 percent.13 But that progress has been much too slow, and we know
that significant obstacles still remain for organizers of color and
women organizers in advancing within their unions. As Daisy Rooks has
shown in her interviews with Organizing Institute alumni, the “cowboy
mentality” of the white and male occupational culture-where the
intense and family-unfriendly working conditions and demands of
organizing work are celebrated-flourishes in even the most progressive
and diverse unions, excluding many women and people of color from the
ranks of lead organizers.14

Bracketing the ideals of fairness and inclusion for the moment,
developing a diverse leadership is an important strategic issue.
Simply put, when organizers and lead organizers reflect the workers
they are organizing, they win. While the overall win rate in NLRB
campaigns for female lead organizers averages 53 percent (compared to
42 percent for men), the average win rate for lead organizers of color
is 58 percent (compared to 41 percent for white leads), and for lead
women of color organizers is 69 percent (compared to 43 percent). And
when the lead organizer is a woman of color in units with over 75
percent women of color, the NLRB election win rate is an astounding 89
percent.15 Developing more lead organizers who are female, people of
color, and especially women of color, when combined with a
comprehensive union-building strategy, is a formula for success. Yet,
despite the starkness of these findings, and the great possibilities
they offer to the labor movement, neither unions nor scholars studying
the labor movement have paid much attention to the critical role women
of color, particularly African-American women, have been playing and
could be playing in the revival of the U.S. labor movement.

and gender in organizing we want to raise here. The first has to do
with the need for internal change in unions’ organizational
structures. Institutional change that takes gender seriously requires
shedding the “cowboy mentality,” and transforming union organizing
culture into one that is women-friendly and empowering, one which
moves women and women of color organizers up the leadership ranks,
instead of burning them out or replicating the corporate glass
Second, unions could be much more strategic about choosing which
organizing campaigns to target, and redirecting more resources to
organizing workers of color. We are not suggesting that unions stop
devoting resources to workplaces where white men predominate (even if
they do have the lowest win rates in NLRB elections, and represent the
minority of those organized outside the board process). We are
suggesting that rather than continue to concentrate the majority of
their organizing dollars on campaigns in their core industries where
white men predominate, which have neither been chosen strategically
nor run strategically, unions devote more resources to organizing
workers of color and women of color, especially in the South, by
running smarter and much more strategic campaigns overall that would
free up already scarce resources.

The third and final implication is this: what would it truly mean to
have white, black, Latina, and Asian women as members, on staff, and
in leadership positions in greater numbers than ever before? What
would it look like if women of color were given a real role in the
labor movement and an empowered voice in their unions, and their
issues and interests were addressed at the bargaining table and on
unions’ political agendas? As labor prepares for the next election and
focuses so much of its efforts on labor law reform, we contend that
now more than ever it is important to look back and think about how
different the current playing field could have been if unions had not
spent all those years thinking the South was not organizable, and
writing off red states politically by failing to take notice that
there were women of color in light manufacturing, business services,
health care, communications, and IT, and especially the public sector
(outside of collective bargaining legislation), ready and eager to be

Similarly, we might wonder what kind of labor movement we would have
if race-not just immigration-were on the table, or if African
Americans were being appointed to leadership positions among staff and
officers that reflected their disproportionate representation among
organized workers, and in particular among newly organized workers
coming into the labor movement.

Most important, we could see how much more effective the U.S. labor
movement could be if it were standing up for and speaking out on the
issues that mattered for its constituencies of color. Such a labor
movement would have been there front and center, right with the
members of the Congressional Black Caucus at the door of the White
House, confronting the Bush Administration on the racist nature of the
failed response to Hurricane Katrina. And that labor movement would
have spoken out with a united voice against the Patriot Act and U.S.
foreign policy more generally, knowing that these policies are
targeting and affecting workers of color at home and the families of
workers of color abroad.

Diversity is not the enemy of solidarity. We contend that solidarity
can, and must, be built among an ever-diversifying labor movement,
nation, and world. The labor movement’s very survival depends on it.
Workers of color, especially black men and women, are organizing
successfully at disproportionate rates, even though they have been the
hardest hit.
A color- and gender-blind approach to organizing risks undermobilizing
workers for whom those issues may resonate, as well as alienating
community-based support and allies. When the lead organizer is a woman of color in units with over 75 percent women of color, the NLRB election win rate is an astounding 89 percent.

1. John Schmitt and Ben Zipperer,”Unpublished Analysis of the CEPR
Uniform Extracts of the CPS-ORG,” Center for Economic and Policy
Research, 2007. Available online at http:// ceprdata.org.
2. Ibid.
3. Ruth Milkman, LA Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the
U.S. Labor Movement (New York: Russell Sage, 2006), and Louis
Uchitelle, “Labor’s Lost; For Blacks, A Dream in Decline,” New York
Times, October 23, 2005.
4. Kate Bronfenbrenner and Stephanie Luce, “The Changing Nature of
Corporate Global Restructuring:The Impact of Production Shifts on Jobs
in the US, China, and Around the Globe.” Report submitted to the US
China Economic and security Review Commission, October 14, 2004.
5. Steven Pitts, “Bad Jobs: The Overlooked Crisis in the Black
Community,”New Labor Forum 16na1 (2007): 39-47.
6. Kate Bronfenbrenner, “Organizing Women:The Nature and Process of
Union Organizing Efforts Among US Women Workers Since the 1990s,” Work
and Occupations 32 no.4 (2005): 1-23.
7. Michelle Amber, “SEIU Local 880 Wins Right to Represent 49,000
Illinois Home Child Care Workers,” Daily Labor Report67, p. A-13,
April 8, 2005; Michelle Amber, “security Firms in Los Angeles
Recognize SEIU for Some 4,000 security Officers,” Daily Labor Report
97, p. A-10, May 21,2007; Susan R. Hobbs, “40,000 Child Care Providers
in Michigan Gain UAW, AFSCME Union Representation,” Daily Labor Report
241, p. A-9, December 15,2006; Susanne Pagano,”SEIU Janitors in
Houston OK First Contract Raising Wages $2.45 Over Three-Year Term,”
Daily Labor Report 225, p. A-5, November 22, 2006.
8. Kate Bronfenbrenner, “Organizing Women:The Nature and Process of
Union Organizing Efforts Among US Women Workers Since the
1990s,”Workand Occupations 32 no.4 (2005): 1-23;BLS2006.
9. Dorian T. Warren, A New Labor Movement for a New Century? The
Incorporation of Marginalized Workers in U.S. Unions, Ph.D.
Dissertation, Yale University, 2005.
10. see Kate Bronfenbrenner and Robert Hickey,”Changing to Organize: A
National Assessment of Union Strategies.” In Ruth Milkman and Kim
Voss, eds., Rebuilding Labor: Organizing and Organizers in the New
Union Movement (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004) for more
detail on the ten key elements of comprehensive unionbuilding
11. Sharon Kurtz, Workplace Justice: Organizing Multi-Identity
Movements (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).
12. Dorian Warren, Ibid.
13. Kate Bronfenbrenner, “The Role of Union Strategies in NLRB
Certification Elections,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 50
(1997): 195221; Bronfenbrenner, 2005.
14. Daisy Rooks,”The Cowboy Mentality: Organizers and Occupational
Commitment in the New Labor Movement,” Labor Studies Journal 28, no.3
(2003): 33-62.
15. Bronfenbrenner, 2005.