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"Unions Make Us Strong,"

by Julius G. Getman November/December 2011 issue of Poverty & Race

My 2010 book Restoring the Power of Unions: It Takes a Movement (Yale Univ. Press) analyzes the current weakened state of organized labor and evaluates the prospect for union resurgence.

For organized labor to regain power it must become again, as it was in the past, a social movement. Organized labor today is in the main a progressive interest group, but not a movement. To constitute a movement requires something more than money, members and economic power, significant though all these factors are. A movement entails developing and utilizing the passionate energies of workers. It means fostering solidarity across unions and occupations. It requires leaders who are willing to trust and who are committed to sharing power with the union’s rank-and-file. The spirit of movement also requires a concern for issues such as environmental justice, racial equality and the rights of immigrants which transcend the economic well-being of the union members. The spirit necessary for a vital movement remains largely dormant, although never totally absent in most labor organizations. In some labor organizations, it is abundantly present. Those organizations are the model that shows the way to a broader union resurgence. They demonstrate that achieving and maintaining a spirit of movement is possible, but is never easy. In every case in which it has been accomplished, the spirit of movement has required internal struggle and leaders with faith in the rank-and-file membership.


The history of HERE from its early days to the mid-1980s demonstrates that along the way the union has faced virtually every problem that has confronted the labor movement generally, including employer opposition, corruption, mob infiltration, weak internal leadership, fear of change, political divisions, racism, sexism, anti-immigrant prejudice and economic catastrophe. It has successfully overcome its internal problems through a dynamic collaboration between up-from-the-ranks working-class leadership and progressive, college-trained political activists with roots in student and civil-rights movements. The collaboration began when Vincent Sirabella, a long-time union dissident from an immigrant, working-class background who headed the union’s local of maintenance workers at Yale, hired and trained John Wilhelm, a Yale graduate and long-time political activist. Together with a remarkable group of organizers and activists, they won a series of victories culminating with the successful organizing campaign and strike by Yale’s clerical and technical workers. The Connecticut and Yale locals of HERE in the early 1980s represented a return to a model of collaboration between workers and intellectuals that had been absent from organized labor for many years. Its main architect was Sirabella. The struggle at Yale and the tutelage of Sirabella were crucial to the leadership development of John Wilhelm, who is today president of HERE’s successor organization, UNITE HERE.

The history of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) is my focus because it has been transformed since the 1970s from a business union dedicated to the well-being of the staff to a workers’ movement. This transformation is evident in its diverse and dedicated leadership and in the successes of its key locals in such cities as New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Chicago. In each of these cities, the local unions have organized successfully, bargained effectively and allied themselves with progressive forces on major social issues. In all of these locations and others as well, HERE’s success has been achieved despite the enmity of employers who have routinely resisted organization and have tried to use the bargaining process as a technique for weakening or destroying the union.

The greatest problem for unions generally is organizing workers in the face of determined employer resistance. Our current labor laws give an advantage to employers and make organizing difficult and often dangerous. Those unions that have had success in organizing in recent years have done so by obtaining agreement from employers to remain neutral and to grant recognition once a union was able to obtain authorization cards from a majority of workers in a mutually accepted unit. Obtaining such agreements has generally involved major struggles with employers who have rarely if ever accepted them without pressure. The success of the neutrality and card check agreements led organized labor to seek to have recognition through card check made a part of the National Labor Relations Act. This was the major provision of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) which organized labor spent large sums of money on and devoted great resources to in the aftermath of Democratic Party victories in the 2008 elections. Organized labor’s focus on EFCA was a mistake: Augmenting the right to strike, by outlawing an employer’s ability to permanently replace striking workers, would be considerably more valuable in building a sense of movement.

Not all the obstacles to labor’s advance come from outside. Internal divisions—some ideological, some political and others personal—have been a major obstacle to worker solidarity, as labor history, including that of HERE, demonstrates with depressing regularity.

We Need a Strong, Progressive Movement

A strong, vital and progressive labor movement is important for our society, both economically and politically. When unions were strong, the United States had the longest period of equitably shared prosperity in our nation’s history—a sharp contrast with our current situation of a weak labor movement and growing economic discontent and gross disparities in wealth. The weakness of organized labor has had a negative impact on our political culture. It has made it relatively easy for right-wing demagogues to shamelessly appropriate the banner of populism and to turn to their own advantage the feelings of working-class people that they are not visible to those in power.

It is important to explain the decline of the labor movement, why it has failed to organize the unorganized, has lost strikes, and has become more professional but less militant and less inspiring. The role of law must be recognized in this, but there is also need to place emphasis on the problems inherent in the structure of the current union movement and the attitudes of its leaders. The labor movement bears more responsibility for its decline than most union leaders, liberal commentators and scholars have been willing to acknowledge. Understanding this complex issue requires focus on the law and the practice of organizing. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) has provided a system of representation elections for determining whether a group of workers is to be represented by a union. Management’s advantage in the process comes mainly from its opportunity to assemble workers and argue that unionization would be a risk for them and not an advantage. Employers are permitted to reject union requests to similarly address the worker voters and state the case for unionization.

Because of his successes at Yale and elsewhere, Sirabella in the early 1980s was appointed HERE’s director of organizing. Sirabella believed that the model he developed at Yale could transform the labor movement, and he began a national organizing campaign, which failed in immediate terms but which brought a new group of aggressive organizers into the unions. From that failure came the seeds of later success.

HERE’s transformation into a movement came through a series of individual struggles: how Local 226, the Culinary, became a major force in Las Vegas after winning the Frontier strike, one of the longest and most bitter struggles in labor history which grew out of the determination of the Frontier Hotel’s new owners to reduce wages and rid themselves of the union; how Local 11 in Los Angeles was transformed from a bastion of Anglo supremacy to a diverse battler for immigrant rights; how Local 2 in San Francisco managed to unite radical activists with long-time rank-and-file workers to become a major force in California.

The Merger

HERE subsequently merged with UNITE, an amalgamation of garment industry unions. The merger made obvious sense to most observers and supporters of HERE. It was thought likely to strengthen both unions. HERE had a growing membership base but was sorely lacking in money to fund organizing and job actions. UNITE had great resources, including prime NY property and a successful bank, but a declining membership base. Each union had a long history of organizing immigrant workers. The leaders of the two unions spoke a common language and seemed committed to similar progressive values. Bruce Raynor of UNITE became general president and John Wilhelm was designated as co-president.

Differing Leadership Styles

However, behind the apparent similarities lay very different styles of leadership and different approaches to organizing. Wilhelm’s style of leadership is notably collaborative, while Raynor’s is notably top-down. Wilhelm and other leaders of HERE believed in organizing through worker committees. Raynor favored organizing through deals between himself and management officials. An open dispute erupted when it became apparent that Wilhelm and not Raynor would be elected general president at the union’s 2009 convention. The dispute became open and increasingly ugly in the Winter of 2008. It involved several lawsuits, including one brought by Raynor to force dissolution of the merger. The battle was made far more bitter and potentially destructive by the involvement of Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Stern’s goal was to incorporate both UNITE and HERE into SEIU. To achieve this goal, he supported Raynor’s insistence that the merger be dissolved. When Wilhelm and his allies rejected Stern’s proposal, Stern and Raynor created Workers United, composed of dissident elements in UNITE HERE. Bruce Raynor was promptly elected president of the new organization, which announced that it would raid UNITE HERE locals. A long, bitter battle ensued which, despite the Workers United advantages in money and staff, was won by UNITE HERE, which held fast and won the loyalty of its members and the support of key leaders of organized labor.

The NLRA Election Process

The fact that the NLRA election process does not work well for unions is well recognized by commentators and union spokespeople, most of whom focus on unlawful employer resistance and the law’s system of woefully inadequate remedies. It is partly with a view to avoiding the harmful impact of illegal employer behavior that unions made the passage of the EFCA their major goal. Earlier field studies indicate that unions and academic commentators have exaggerated the impact of the threats and reprisals, and they have for too long limited themselves to what is called “hot-shop organizing,” i.e., focusing on locations where worker discontent is evident.

The ability to strike is critical to the success of the labor movement. And the law, particularly the right of employers to hire permanent replacements, has turned out to be a significant hindrance to labor’s effective use of the strike. The secondary-boycott laws are both harmful and unconstitutional, and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) has a potentially devastating effect on the strength of the strike weapon.

Proposed Changes to the NLRA

EFCA was unlikely to provide the great boost to organizing that its proponents look forward to and its opponents dread. EFCA would not do away with organizing campaigns: The employer’s advantage in terms of access to employees would remain a critical factor. Passage of the act would lead many employers to conduct anti-union campaigns earlier than they might otherwise. It is vital to amend the NLRA to prohibit employers from hiring permanent replacement workers in place of strikers. The regular use of permanent replacement workers during the 1980s has made organized labor fearful, with good reason, of striking. However, throughout labor history, successful strikes have been crucial to organizing success.

It is important to consider whether the NLRA, administered by a supposedly expert agency, is a worthwhile scheme or whether it should be scrapped and replaced by a different federal act or by state law. The NLRA is worth saving, but it needs a fundamental overhaul. Board members should be chosen from a limited pool of neutral experts, possibly from the National Academy of Arbitrators, and a special court should review its decisions. Among the needed amendments to the NLRA are the following:

  • The board’s remedial power needs to be increased.

  • Injunctions against employers’ unfair labor practices need to be regularly issued, just as they are currently issued against union secondary boycotts.

  • Unions need to be given equal time to respond to employer speeches and meetings, and the election process should be accelerated.

  • Employees unlawfully fired during an organizing campaign should be quickly reinstated.

  • Most significantly, strikers who engage in no serious misconduct should not be risking their jobs when they lawfully walk out.

  • A frequently made suggestion is to permit minority bargaining, wherein unions which do not represent a majority of workers in a unit bargain contracts for their own members. Several prominent labor scholars believe that the NLRA, properly interpreted, permits minority bargaining. I disagree. Minority bargaining violates the law and permitting it would not do much to strengthen the labor movement.


    It is important to recognize the distinction between organized labor in its current state and a vital, democratic labor movement. Too often, union leaders have failed to take needed chances or to accept responsibility for their organizing and bargaining failures. It is possible to organize and increase worker power in the face of employer opposition and a hostile NLRB, as several unions—including HERE—have demonstrated. Fear of failure has made unions too cautious and unwilling to depart from the antiquated models. Taking chances is critical. Indeed, failed efforts, such as HERE’s national organizing drive of the late 1980s, have provided the basis for later success. The success of the labor movement is critical to the goal of a just society. For all its flaws and weaknesses, organized labor provides the most effective voice for the workers, immigrants and progressive causes.

    Julius G. Getman occupies the Earl E. Sheffield Regents Chair at the Univ. of Texas School of Law.

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