Between Scylla and Charybdis

Marianne Garneau and Lexi Owens look at organizing efforts that eschew unions.

Image: The Strait of Messina, engraving by A H Payne. Scylla and Charybdis are the names of two rock outcroppings on either side of the strait of Messina, near Sicily, Italy, through which ships have to navigate. Trying to avoid one means risking crashing on the other.

A strange, new way of talking about unions is making the rounds in the labor movement. Call it “anti-union unionism.” It starts from an acknowledgement of the decline of union power over the past several decades, and concludes that the future of worker organizing lies entirely outside of unions, in informal, independent efforts.

Take for example a recent post by The Nation, “There is Power Even Without a Union.” The article is mostly a profile of one individual named Adam Ryan and an organizing effort he started called “Target Workers Unite.” The loose organization, claiming 500 members, was “birthed partly out of his frustration with the organizing that the unions were doing with retail workers.” Ryan “wants to help build a workers’ movement that does not rely on unions,” which he thinks “have lost their way.” The structure, activity, and membership of the organization remain undefined in the piece.

Or take a New York Times article from last fall by Noam Scheiber, titled (in print) “Uniting Workers, Without a Union.” The article praised the book Labor Law for the Rank & Filer by Staughton Lynd and Daniel Gross, which it describes as “provid[ing] a blueprint for organizing without a formal union.” Scheiber credits the book with inspiring organizing projects from the Tech Workers Coalition to Rideshare Drivers United and quotes former Google employee Meredith Whittaker in explaining why “traditional” unions simply aren’t right for some workers.

This is an anti-union talking point we often hear from the bosses themselves. In fact, both articles supply tidbits that could have been lifted from any captive audience meeting. From the Times piece: “The business union ‘is controlled from the top down by officers and staff (usually white males) who are not regularly employed at the workplace,’ Mr. Lynd and Mr. Gross write.” The Nation piece describes Ryan pointing out to workers that that unions haven’t been doing enough.

Both articles seem to indicate that the solution to bad unionism is to not organize unions at all. 

Or more specifically, the reader is left with the impression that only informal, ad hoc organizing is worthwhile. The articles praise efforts among Target workers, Google workers and Uber drivers that have eschewed unions and have chosen instead to create informal working groups led by dedicated individual workers. These groups have carried out symbolic actions like one-day walkouts and have rallied their coworkers around social issues, enjoying some success. We have yet to see them build any significant capacity in the workplace.

That has to do with their informality: the lack of defined membership and dues, the lack of formal decision-making or roles, and a scattershot approach to taking action that isn’t tied to strategically building the organization.

Valid criticisms

We won’t pretend we don’t understand the criticisms being made of unions. We agree with Ryan, Gross and Lynd that unions have become less radical and combative, and that they are not reaching large sections of the workforce. For that matter neither should anyone in the mainstream labor movement pretend not to understand the problems they are referring to. For decades now, even union officialdom has expressed skepticism about what unions can accomplish within the bounds of the existing legal labor relations framework. Hence the turn in the 1990s – just as the AFL-CIO re-dedicated itself to organizing – to other strategies like worker centers, advocacy campaigns and neutrality agreements. None of these have yet managed to stem the decline in union density and power.

We also agree that formally non-organized workers “have the right to organize and have the right to strike” and that quite often “a dedicated group of employees can accomplish more through actions like strikes than by formal efforts to certify a union”. In fact, this site specifically reports on campaigns and wins that take place outside of the legal processes of recognition and bargaining, whose tradeoffs – management rights, no-strike clauses and binding arbitration – we consider a devil’s bargain.

But it is also a terrible shame to paint the only alternative to the strictures of formal contracts as informal, minoritarian activism without criteria or basic benchmarks. And it’s a false choice. Abandoning the rules set by bosses or the NLRB should not mean abandoning rules altogether.

What is solidarity unionism?

Gross and Lynd are fellow members of the IWW and the Times piece attempts to articulate our alternative to the election and contract system: solidarity unionism. Scheiber repeatedly describes this as “minority unionism,” on the idea that because solidarity unions don’t try to win NLRB elections, they don’t need to try to convince a majority of workers in a shop to join the organizing effort.

Minority unionism has been practiced for decades with mixed results, including during Gross’s time in the IWW when he was organizing with the Starbucks Workers Union more than a decade ago. But the IWW itself began to move away from the minority approach in the early 2000s. Already in 2003, for example, then-General Secretary-Treasurer Alexis Buss dropped the title “Minority Report” from her Industrial Worker newspaper column criticizing labor law (“We must stop making legal recognition and a contract the point of our organizing”). She took up the title “Solidarity Unionism” to more accurately capture the kind of organizing the IWW had been moving towards. (It was a term she borrowed from Lynd, who had been involved with the Workers’ Solidarity Club of Youngstown.) “The point of unionism as the IWW sees it is to organize workers in ways that our power cannot be ignored or coopted,” she wrote then.

For as exciting as it is to see solidarity unionism now being written about in the mainstream press, the picture Scheiber’s article gives of the IWW’s organizing model is highly misleading. It captures an increasingly common tendency to view solidarity unionism as an “anything goes” approach to labor activism, synonymous with any kind of worker activity at all, or as a catch-all term for anything outside of NLRB-supervised elections. Rather, solidarity unionism is a very specific approach to worker organizing that has been honed over the years by IWW organizers on the basis of experience. It means democratic decision-making by the workers in a workplace about what demands to make and what actions to take to win those demands. The ultimate goal is to shift the balance of power at work by exercising power over production and the day-to-day operations of the shop – precisely what is taken away in most contract language. This approach means bringing as many workers in the shop as possible into the union’s activities so the workers can exert the maximum amount of leverage.

This is not to say that “minority unionism” is completely ineffective. Sometimes a small group of workers can win real concessions. Starbucks Workers Union secured holiday pay for MLK day, and a raise for baristas across New York City. For that matter, Google employees were able to end forced arbitration for full-time employees. Target fired a racist manager after Ryan’s one-man strike.

But minority unionism that is not trying to build a majority is self-limiting. In order to wage a successful strike, unions need to mobilize a majority of workers to leave their posts and halt production. This pressure, or the legitimate threat of a strike, forces the bosses to negotiate and concede to major demands. Unions that are unable to sign up a majority of workers fall apart eventually, because they can’t use every available tool in the unionist toolbelt to win. The bosses outlast them and pick them apart — Whittaker herself and several others were pushed out of Google.

The IWW’s organizer training discusses ways to use small actions, while the organizing effort is still a minority, to build towards a majority and eventually, wall-to-wall support, by letting workers “see the union.” But cleaving to minority unionism is a self-defeating kind of approach. Our goal is not to unite a group of workers who already agree with the aims of the organizer; our goal is to unite all workers in a fighting union to take on the boss and win.


Meanwhile, structureless efforts are internally vulnerable for all sorts of reasons: they concentrate power in the hands of a few charismatic individuals; they lack democratic decision-making; they experience cycles of boom and bust as support swings dramatically depending on what the employer did last; they cannot withstand union-busting – and for all these reasons, they ultimately fail to build power.

Even if you are eschewing formal recognition or a contract, the standard organizing lessons still apply: get a complete contact list; socially and physically map the workplace; identify leaders; talk to people one-on-one instead of in big groups (and by god not through social media blasts); develop a majority in the workplace and a committee that is broadly representative of it.

We too believe that any lasting effort must be built by the democratic participation of the workers themselves. Solidarity unions are not loose affiliations that despise formal organization, structure, and union connection. Instead, they are disciplined organizations led by worker-members. These are workers who show they are willing to take the lead in the campaign by formally joining the union, paying dues, participating in meetings, and taking collective action over shared grievances. Democratic power remains in the hands of the workers, who utilize the union shop structures to win demands and prevent retaliation against individual workers.

Many of these “new” approaches throw the baby out with the bathwater. Often they’re not innovative, just bad organizing, either emulating the top-down decision-making they criticize business unions for, or replicating a non-profit model that chases “earned media” rather than building worker power.

To be clear, any self-organized effort among workers with (1) formal, democratic decision-making, that is (2) representative of the entire workforce, and (3) has a process for handling workplace grievances — that is a union, as far as we are concerned. Employer and government recognition be damned. And every worker needs a union.

It is difficult to make yourself understood in the labor world when forsaking the NLRB system but the last thing you want to do is convince workers that there are no rules. A loosey-goosey approach merely reinforces the idea that there is only one way to organize seriously or with any kind of discipline. We have to navigate between the Scylla of the NLRB straitjacket and the Charybdis of structureless minoritarianism.