LABOR Worker-to-Worker Unionism: A Model for Labor To Scale Up

JACOBIN, Eric Blanc, March 24, 2024

At the heart of the current uptick in union organizing at companies like Starbucks has been “worker-to-worker unionism.” That model could be key to scaling up organizing and revitalizing the labor movement.

Young, radicalized, digitally coordinated workers have initiated and driven forward many of the highest profile strikes and union drives of recent years. From the red state teachers’ walkouts to union wins at Starbucks and Amazon, rank-and-file organizers have begun challenging business as usual not only within corporate America, but also within organized labor.The model of “worker-to-worker unionism” has spread contagiously, as workers have attempted to replicate inspiring successes seen elsewhere. In early 2018, West Virginia’s strike — initiated over the internet via a viral Facebook group — motivated teachers to organize similar statewide actions that spring in Arizona, Oklahoma, and Kentucky. Similarly, recent unionization efforts of baristas in Buffalo prompted workers elsewhere to say, “If they did it there, we can do it here too.”

An increase in worker-initiated organizing has been clearly identified by labor’s opponents. In a 2022 report, the notorious union-busting law firm Littler Mendelson sounded the alarm:

There has been a shift in how people are organizing together to petition for representation. What was once a top-down approach, whereby the union would seek out a group of individuals, has flipped entirely. Now, individuals are banding together to form grassroots organizing movements where individual employees are the ones to invite the labor organization to assist them in their pursuit to be represented.

Labor analysts have also begun to grapple with the strategic implications of this new movement. Here I focus on the strengths of worker-to-worker unionism — drives that are initiated by self-organized workers and/or in which workers take on key responsibilities traditionally reserved for union staff, such as training in organizing methods. The major promise of this approach is that it’s capable of scaling up.

How is worker-to-worker unionism different than what labor organizers call hot-shop organizing? Workers in “hot shops,” where workers organically decide to initiate a union drive on their own, usually reach out to a union for help, but they don’t start organizing — systematically persuading skeptical coworkers, etc. — before getting staff guidance. And, insofar as any training of workers takes place — it often doesn’t with hot shops — this also comes from staff.

There is also a difference in scale. While hot-shop organizing is often content to organize a single workplace, worker-to-worker union drives have tended to be part of efforts to organize an entire company or an entire regional industry.

My core argument is that while traditional, staff-intensive unionism is too costly to diffuse widely, a worker-driven organizing model can lead enough organizing drives to capture the billionaires’ massive anti-union fortresses. It has the potential to win wars, not just isolated battles.

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