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  • Why the Labor Movement Is Not a Movement
  • Richard Sullivan (bio)

Fifteen years ago, John Sweeney's election to lead the AFL-CIO symbolized what many hoped would be a new era for the labor movement. Gerald McEntee—head of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)—captured the general mood among labor activists, calling Sweeney's election "a crucial turning point for the working men and women of this country" and "the first step in revitalizing the labor movement."1 Amid the swirling optimism, labor movement proponents—practitioners and academics among them—speculated about the possibility that a labor renaissance was at hand.

Renewed interest in labor by scholars led to a surge of new research, new labor journals were started, scores of books and articles were published, conferences on labor transformation were convened, and a new language of labor revitalization emerged. A dominant theme in this discourse has been the idea that to regain the power it once had as the voice for the working class, organized labor must become a movement again. Many observers promoted social movement unionism as a necessary and welcomed departure from the old model of "business unionism." Commentators used the rhetoric of social movements while exploring ways that unions could adopt movement-style tactics, recruit a more diverse membership, fuse with social movements, broaden their goals, and mobilize workers.

So how have we fared in our efforts to transform labor and make it a movement again? While there have been signs of improvement and pockets of success over the last decade and a half, it is clear that the renewal many had hoped for has not occurred. There are a million fewer union members today than in 1995. And union density is nearly 20 percent lower than it was when Sweeney took over, continuing its downward trend and nearing levels not seen since the 1930s.

Labor has not become a movement again in part because we still do not think of it as one. Despite efforts to adopt the language and tactics of social movements, our analyses remain tied to the conventional wisdom that treats organized labor as an agent in the labor market rather than an actor in a movement. On three key dimensions this tacit assumption undermines our ability to conceptualize labor as a movement: through the use of union density to measure labor movement power; by viewing trade unions as the movement's [End Page 53] constitutive organizational form; and embracing an all-or-nothing approach to organizing workers.

The Density Bias

Perhaps the best indication that labor is not considered to be a movement is the unquestioned and exclusive use of union density to assess labor's power. Most labor proponents will agree that as the proportion of union members rises, the collective bargaining power of workers increases. The inverse is also true—when density falls, labor's power declines. It is this view—that labor movement power is inextricably linked to union density—that undergirds the angst about labor's persistent decline over the last several decades.

But density is more than a convenient barometer for the health of the labor movement. The belief that union density is the source of labor movement power has become a cornerstone of labor's conventional wisdom. It is so widely accepted, so firmly established in our common sense, that its use requires no explanation. This "density bias" is reflected in the discourse on labor revitalization.2 Nary a piece has been written on the topic of labor renewal in the last decade and a half that doesn't begin by pointing to density figures as a way to illustrate labor's weakness and to justify the need for the prescription its author proposes. But this preoccupation with membership measured as a proportion of the workforce belies the fact that the labor movement in the U.S. is understood—even by proponents of social movement unionism—as something other than a social movement. Labor is alone among movements in its reliance on membership density to assess its power. To suggest that we could evaluate a movement's strength using the proportion of women in the women's movement or...