For years, many worker advocates have said there’s a simple, straightforward answer for reversing organized labor’s decline: worker-to-worker organizing. Nonetheless, there was very little worker-to-worker organizing going on in the United States—what organizing there was, was overwhelmingly done by union staff organizers. Despite all the wishing, worker-to-worker organizing remained a far-away dream that just wasn’t happening.
But now with the historic union victory at Amazon in Staten Island and the string of union wins at Starbucks, we are finally seeing true worker-to-worker organizing in action—and how powerful and successful it can be. We are also, at least in Starbucks’ case, seeing how contagious worker-to-worker organizing can be, how it can spread like wildfire, with workers at more than 170 Starbucks in nearly thirty states petitioning for union elections.
Initially many labor leaders pooh-poohed the idea of worker-to-worker organizing at Amazon and Starbucks, saying that it’s forbidding enough to organize those anti-union behemoths, and that there’s no way amateur worker-to-worker organizers could pull off victories there. I should perhaps note that many union leaders have little love for worker-to-worker organizing because—unlike in typical organizing drives that rely on union staff—they don’t have close control over it.
In recent days, we have seen highly publicized successes in worker-to-worker organizing: the tremendous upset win at Amazon’s 8,000-employee Staten Island warehouse and victories at ten of the eleven Starbucks where workers have voted thus far whether to unionize. After years of talk about the need for worker-to-worker organizing and little of it happening, over the past year, many frontline workers are now plunging into it. They’re feeling angry and emboldened because of how poorly their employers treated them during the pandemic. They have gotten used to speaking out and standing up to authority because of the Black Lives Matter, MeToo, and immigrant rights movements. They are feeling less scared about sticking their necks out and perhaps being fired if they seek to unionize because they know it’s easy to find another job thanks to the very low jobless rate.
It is little understood that worker-to-worker organizing has several big advantages over traditional organizing with staff union organizers—who, I want to make clear, are often excellent and highly dedicated. One tremendous advantage is that worker-to-worker organizing overcomes one of the most important ways that America’s labor laws are tilted so heavily in favor of corporations and against unions. It is legal for corporations to prohibit outside (that is, non-employee) union organizers from setting foot on company property, even the parking lots, while companies are allowed to propagandize against the union 24/7, showing anti-union videos in breakrooms and lunchrooms and requiring all employees to attend meetings where union-busting consultants hold forth about the supposed evils of unions. But with worker-to-worker organizing, unlike with union staff organizers, the main organizers—rank-and-file workers like Amazon warehouse workers and Starbucks baristas—have regular access to company property, the shop floor, and their fellow employees.
Take Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island: a fired Amazon employee, Christian Smalls, and his best friend, Derrick Palmer, an Amazon worker in Staten Island, founded an independent union that had a shoestring budget and relied overwhelmingly on two dozen workers at the Staten Island warehouse to reach out to the 8,000 workers there. Those worker-organizers plunged into talking-up coworkers in breakrooms, talking to coworkers during lunch and at the entrance as people left work and at the nearby bus stop so many workers used.
Another huge advantage of worker-to-worker organizing is it emphatically puts the lie to what is perhaps corporate America’s most frequently used anti-union argument: that unions are a third party, a greedy group of outsiders who only want workers’ dues money. When workers hear this “third-party” refrain and then see their coworkers—often their friends, their lunchmates—bravely sticking their necks out and urging others to unionize, often taking time before work and after work and away from their families to explain the advantages of unionizing, many workers realize, “Hey, the union is us, it’s me and my coworkers,”; they realize the union is not some aloof third-party based in Washington.
Worker-to-worker organizing helps unions win in another way: by altering how workers frame what’s happening. With traditional organizing efforts, workers—when they are casting their ballots on whether to unionize—often ask, “Do I vote for my employer whom I don’t really like, or for this somewhat distant, big bureaucratic union I don’t really know and to which I’ll have to pay dues money (at least in non-right-to-work states)?” But in a worker-to-worker organizing effort, the calculus changes—when workers are voting, they ask, “Do I cast my vote for my employer whom I don’t really like, or do I cast my vote for my coworkers, whom I know and like and who have bravely challenged management and fought for a union in order to make this a better workplace so that all of us can get paid more and treated better?” For many workers, the answer is a no-brainer. You vote for your coworkers.
Another major advantage: worker-to-worker organizing is far less expensive than the traditional organizing model, which relies on paid staff organizers, who of course often also try to mobilize many rank-and-file workers to help organize. Smalls said the Staten Island campaign, relying overwhelmingly on twenty-four warehouse workers, spent just $120,000 to organize the more than 8,000 workers there. That comes to less than $15 per worker. But if a union dispatched twenty-four paid organizers for six months to organize those workers—to speak to them outside the warehouse, to knock on their doors at home, to phone them at home, to hold meetings at a local hotel—all that might easily cost the union $3 million: for staff salaries, staff benefits, hotel rooms, food, per diems, rental cars, gas, cell phone bills, airline flights from where the organizers live, not to mention the cost of T-shirts flyers, and renting an office.
A little-discussed reason for organized labor’s decline in membership is that many union leaders have balked at undertaking ambitious organizing drives because they don’t want to spend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars on such campaigns when they know there’s a good chance they will lose. (They will rightly complain that the nation’s labor laws are stacked against unions and that’s why the PRO Act should be enacted.) Therefore, a big reason union leaders should embrace worker-to-worker organizing and agree to bankroll it is that it’s not just a frugal way to organize large numbers of workers, but a way to make the most out of this very promising moment for labor.
There’s a final reason that worker-to-worker organizing is such a good idea. Many workers, especially young workers, talk and think a lot about the importance of agency, of taking charge of one’s life. Self-organizing—that is, joining together with one’s coworkers, with one’s buddies at work, to unionize—is agency in action. Self-organizing can be an exciting, even exuberant exercise of agency, of self-help.
Worker-to-worker organizing can make workers feel good and feel proud that they’re not just fighting to improve pay and conditions at their own workplace. They’re also helping build worker power overall that could create a fairer U.S. economy with less income inequality and higher standards for all workers.