Last week’s announcement that the percentage of unionized workers in the United States has fallen to 11.3%, a 97-year low, brought diverse responses. Some, like Gary Chaison of Clark University, the media’s favorite labor pundit, said unions need to “stop being clever about excuses” and “figure out how to devise appeals to the workers out there.” Others attributed the loss of union jobs to government layoffs and the end of collective bargaining in Wisconsin and other states. The AFL-CIO offered a positive spin, focusing on rising union membership in California and other states, and among Latinos.

But unionization’s decline is no mystery. After struggling for forty years with labor laws that deny fair elections and reward endless employer delays, unions invested $200 million in Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign to secure support for labor law reforms enabling union growth. Labor leaders knew that such reforms were essential, but allowed the Democratic-controlled Congress in 2009 to avoid action. Activists in all fields should learn from this mistake .


It spoke volumes that President Obama’s 2013 inauguration speech promoted marriage equality but did not even mention “unions” or “labor law reform.” Union leaders lauded Obama’s address for its progressive values despite these omissions, reflecting the nature of their relationship with the President since he took office.

This relationship involves tax and budget policy, immigration reform, and other “bread and butter” issues entirely unrelated to labor law reform. Labor sees no point in pressing the President on labor legislation that could never pass the House, and has moved on to its broader social justice agenda.

Taking Eyes off the Prize

Labor took its eyes off the prize in 2009 and is paying a steep price. By not holding Obama’s and Democratic congressional leaders’ feet to the fire to get at least some labor law reforms enacted, union leaders ensured that the movement will have a very difficult time adding to its private sector numbers or even maintaining its current workplace share.

There is a powerful lesson to be learned here.

The lesson is about focus.

Barack Obama was the first strong labor ally to win the White House since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. This meant that in 2009 unions finally had a chance to win labor law reforms necessary to prevent employers and the courts from continuing a forty year practice of undermining the National Labor Relation Act’s goal of facilitating union membership and contract bargaining.

Labor leaders made no secret of the importance of labor law reform’s passage, and were optimistic when Obama took office. In April 2009, AFL-CIO officials told The Huffington Post that they were "100 percent confident" that the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), the heart of labor law reform, would be enacted.

But labor leaders did not treat the EFCA campaign as if the future of union membership was at stake, even though they were claiming such. They diverted union resources to health care, and did not tell the Democratic Party (or Senate leader Harry Reid, who would need strong labor support to win what he knew would be an uphill re-election fight in 2010) that passage of at least some labor law reforms was a make or break issue.

Would Democrats have ignored labor law reform if they knew that labor would fund primary challenges against many of them in 2010? And if they believed unions would not provide a dime to Democrats who did not go all out to pass legal reforms?

I strongly doubt it, particularly given Reid's particular vulnerability. But union leaders did not play hardball when the movement's very future was at stake.

Labor missed its historic opportunity in 2009 to get the more level playing field it needed for growth. That’s why private sector unionization has fallen to 6.6%, and has little chance of meaningfully increasing. The improved economy will reduce the slide in public sector unionized jobs, but state and local governments will not be vastly expanding their workforces anytime soon.

Lessons for 2013

Activists face similar historic opportunities on gun control, immigration reform and climate change.

Gun control, for the obvious momentum created by Sandy Hook.

Immigration reform, because if it does not pass in the next six months it will be pushed back to at least 2015. Activists realize they erred in not insisting immigration reform move forward in 2009, and clearly will keep their eyes on the prize.

The focus on climate change is stopping the Keystone Pipeline. Massive demonstrations will occur on February 17. The Sierra Club clearly understands the importance of activists focusing on Keystone, announcing last week that it would participate in its first planned civil disobedience ever in joining the anti-Keystone protests.

Activists and the Obama Administration lost their focus in 2009 as the health care “debate” crowded out all other issues. It’s time to write a different script for 2013.

Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.