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  • Rebuilding Labor: Organizing and Organizers in the New Union Movement
  • Bruce Nissen
Rebuilding Labor: Organizing and Organizers in the New Union Movement Edited by Ruth Milkman and Kim Voss Cornell University Press, 2004. 309 pages. $49.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper)

Ever since John Sweeney led a palace coup to become leader of the AFL-CIO in 1995, there has been renewed scholarly interest in the activities and the fate of the U.S. labor movement. Sweeney's "New Voice" slate ran on a platform calling for U.S. unions to dedicate themselves to massive organizing of the unorganized. This aggressive call for unions to transform [End Page 1858] themselves from "business union" servicing bureaucracies into organizing machines crusading for workplace and broader social justice kindled hope that unions might be able to grow rapidly and once again become central to the struggle for justice for working people.

A decade later, the reality is sobering. Few unions have wholeheartedly taken up the challenge to organize on a massive scale. Union density (percentage of the workforce in unions) continued to drop, albeit at a slower pace, in the past 10 years. Today less than 12 percent of U.S. workers are in unions, and only about 8 percent of private sector workers are union members. Much recent academic literature on organized labor concentrates on union efforts to transform themselves internally – to "change to organize" so that they can "organize for change." Rebuilding Labor is an impressive addition to this literature.

As the subtitle suggests, the volume is concerned with union organizing efforts and union organizers. What accounts for the overall failure to organize massively and the occasional successes? What happens to union organizers, and can this occupation be a fulfilling one that retains people? These are the types of questions addressed in the book.

A well written overview of the state of union organizing since 1995 by editors Milkman and Voss is followed by a comprehensive examination of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) data by Kate Bronfenbrenner and Robert Hickey that confirms Bronfenbrenner's previous research findings that a "comprehensive union building strategy" is the most effective way to organize. Indeed, Bronfenbrenner and Hicky argue that union organizing behavior is the most important determinant of organizing success, more important even than employer anti-union tactics.

Extremely interesting chapters by Steven Lopez and Robert Penney show that worker opposition to unions is not simply due to employer manipulation. Many workers independently hold negative images of unions, and organizing unions must show workers that they are different from those stereotypes. Solidarity through the mechanism of a union is an achievement to be actively worked for, not something that is automatic once workers overcome fear of the boss.

Other chapters focus on union organizer practices or their experiences or longevity. Teresa Sharpe studies organizers of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) local to show the importance of democratic practices, yet the need to push workers to engage in activities they are not naturally inclined to undertake. The tension between these two is a creative and ongoing one. Marshall Ganz and four colleagues examine the career trajectories of a cohort of union leaders and organizers from 1984 to 2001, utilizing their self-understanding to determine how their goals changed or did not change as a result of their experiences, and which goals make for longevity in the union movement. Daisy Rooks interviews current and former organizers who went through the AFL-CIO's Organizing Institute (OI) to examine burnout, retention and turnover issues and to critique present union practice. Leslie Bunnage and Judith Stepan-Norris examine the "Union Summer" program where college students are placed in union organizing situations during a three week summer internship period.

All of these chapters are genuine contributions to our knowledge of current union organizing, and a number of them are simply excellent. Perhaps the Organizing Institute chapter is least successful, and the two chapters on worker opposition to unions are excellent, as is the always-thorough work of Kate Bronfenbrenner.

A final chapter by John DiNardo and David Lee, while a fine piece of work, is wildly out of place in this book. It is an examination...


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pp. 1858-1860
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