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Reviewed by:
  • Rebuilding Labor: Organizing and Organizers in the New Union Movement
  • Nancy Brown Johnson
Rebuilding Labor: Organizing and Organizers in the New Union Movement. Edited by Ruth Milkman and Kim Voss. Ithaca: ILR Press, 2004. 320 pp. $49.95 hardback, $19.95 paper.

Organizing is hard. Organizing is really hard. Each of the nine papers in Rebuilding Labor: Organizing and Organizers in the New Union Movement reinforces this point using a variety of perspectives, methods, and data. Each paper in its own way indicates that although organizing is possible, it requires tenacity, perseverance, and most important, a systematic sustained effort. And even then organizing may fail. As Milkman and Voss discuss in the introductory chapter, it is not surprising that some unions, after examining the extensive resources necessary to organize, decide that it is not worth the investment.

The book begins appropriately with Kate Bronfenbrenner and Robert Hickey's chapter on "Changing to Organize: A National Assessment of Union Strategies," which explores combinations of ten union tactical strategies that lead to success in organizing campaigns. They forcefully argue and provide compelling evidence that the more "comprehensive organizing tactics" employed by unions, the more likely the union wins the election, even in the face of intensive employer opposition or industry and demographic factors that are typically associated with employer success. These tactics include member involvement, volunteers using worker-to-worker strategies, selecting quality issues, escalating pressure tactics, and building for a first contract. In some ways, this chapter reads like a cookbook which lays out the ingredients of a successful campaign. Further, it suggests that as with cooking, leaving out an important ingredient diminishes the final product. At times the authors speculate beyond their evidence, but the evidence itself is comprehensive, making it difficult to dispute.

Nonetheless, the question remains that if organizing is so straightforward, why are more unions not using these tactics? The answer to this question lies in the subsequent chapters: coordinating these tactics requires a great deal of planning, skill, and effort.

Teresa Sharpe, in her chapter on "Union Democracy and Successful Campaigns," brings home the point that mounting the kind of strategic campaigns described by Bronfenbrenner and Hickey can be precarious. Sharpe provides a rich description of a successful campaign to organize and gain a first contract for hotel workers. The delicate tightrope that organizers must walk in balancing democracy and leadership illustrates that minor missteps have the potential to lead to ruin. Sharpe makes it clear that knowing the elements of a successful strategy and executing them are two very different things. Preston Rudy further reinforces this point in his chronicle of two successful [End Page 100] Justice for Janitors campaigns in California. He emphasizes that building a community of support is a necessary ingredient for success and that it is at times a hard fought battle. As he states, "Abundant resources, talented staff using rank-and-file intensive tactics, a supportive International, and workers who are willing and able to take risks to organize a union are not sufficient when the political context of that organizing is ignored."

In recent years employer resistance in organizing drives has received a great deal of the credit for union decline. Some chapters in this volume reveal that the union can fail to rouse or even anger workers without management's help. Robert Penny's chapter describes workers so vehemently opposed to the union that they wage their own oppositional union campaigns independent of company efforts. He proffers several characteristics of worker-initiated anti-union campaigns: an employer campaign that serves as a springboard for the worker campaign; individualistic ideologies (ironically) framing collective resistance; and union tactics that strain or inspire the counter-mobilization campaign.

Lopez's chapter also makes it clear that management resistance is not always the key problem by showing that unions can lose even in the face of a weak and fairly fought campaign by management. Lopez attributes workers not voting for the union to the legacy of business unionism fueling their concerns about union thugs and do-nothing leaders. A lackluster union campaign failed to counter these impressions or articulate an alternative vision for workers, which led to a worker-initiated counter...


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pp. 100-102
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2007
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