How Do Unions Win Organizing Campaigns? Let’s Look at the 20 Year Old Data That Told Us

An analysis of NLRB data from decades ago showed unions how to win elections against even tough employer union-busting campaigns. Is this still relevant today?

The Labor Movement Acknowledges its Crisis

After finishing graduate school I went to work in the labor movement in 2000 as a researcher and have spent the last 18 years doing union research, organizing and bargaining campaign work, policy analysis and similar projects.

That was a time when unions were in the middle of a renewed conversation about organizing, prompted by the election of the “New Voice” leadership at the AFL-CIO in 1995. A consensus had emerged that the labor movement was in a crisis due to falling membership and union density (the percentage of all workers who are union members). Many unions pledged to devote more resources to organizing and improve the way they ran organizing campaigns.

This issue became a focus of new research and many labor academics published probably dozens of books from 1995–2005 on unions and organizing, and I read most of them. One chapter of one book stuck in my mind all these years and I recently went back to reread it to see if it still offers lessons for today.

A Union Election Analysis

The first chapter of the 2004 book Rebuilding Labor: Organizing and Organizers in the New Union Movement, was “Changing to Organize: A National Assessment of Union Organizing Strategies” by Cornell professor Kate Bronfenbrenner and then-graduate student Robert Hickey. It featured an analysis of 412 NLRB union certification elections with over 50 eligible voters from 1998–1999. What was particularly interesting about this study is that they surveyed the union organizers who were involved in these elections to find out about union and employer tactics during the campaigns. They analyzed the data to see what factors mattered most for union wins. The authors noted that unions needed to engage in more strategic campaigning:

While the majority of unions today run very weak campaigns with no underlying strategy, the majority of employers run very strategic campaigns, taking full advantage of the range of effective anti-union tactics available to them, and adapting and tailoring those tactics, depending on the organizing environment and the union’s campaign.

The main hypothesis of the study was that unions would win more campaigns if they utilized what the authors called a “comprehensive union-building strategy,” composed of 10 tactical elements:

Looking at this list, you would think that these are pretty obvious tactics and nearly every campaign would use most of them. Alas that was not true — the average campaign they analyzed used only 2.6 of these tactics and the overall election win rate was only 44%. Unions at the time were right to be concerned that their organizing wasn’t good enough. Let’s look at the data in detail.

More Tactics Equals Higher Win Rate

The study looked at how often these tactics occurred and the win rates with and without them. Each of these tactics were not widely used — on average they were present in only 26% of campaigns, ranging from a low of 14% (adequate and appropriate staff and financial resources) to a high of 39% (strategic targeting). Here is a chart listing all the tactics and the win rate differential — when the tactic was present vs. not present. We can see that the three most effective tactics were Benchmarks, Adequate Staff and Rank & File Committee. I’ll say more about these later.

The study also grouped campaigns into those that had no tactics, 1–5 tactics and more than 5. The chart below shows, not surprisingly, that the win rate rose dramatically with more tactics. Amazingly, campaigns with no tactics still had a win rate of 32%. What’s depressing here is that only 10% of the campaigns used more than 5 tactics even though win rates surpassed 2/3 for those. The vast majority of campaigns used 1–5 tactics, with a win rate of less than 50%.

How About Employer Anti-Union Behavior?

Where the discussion gets really interesting is when they combined this union tactical analysis in the context of the union-busting actions of employers. By the time this study was conducted, it had been standard for employers to undertake a scorched-earth anti-union campaign, committing numerous Unfair Labor Practices (ULP) in order to defeat the union in these elections. The study looked at the frequency of many different employer tactics, some legal, some illegal, which gives a sense of what the union-busting campaigns looked like. The average number of employer tactics was 7.2. The chart below shows how often 21 of these employer tactics occurred.

It needs to be stressed how absolutely standard these kinds of anti-union campaigns have become. Indeed, Bronfenbrenner followed up this study with another one a few years later of over 1,000 NLRB elections and summarized decades of analysis of this behavior in her excellent No Holds Barred report in 2009. Here is its summary of the number of employer tactics per campaign found over time. We can see how the anti-union campaign has grown over the years, doubling from 5 tactics to nearly 11, as well as the frequency of campaigns where employers use more than 5 or 10 tactics.

No Holds Barred, Economic Policy Institute, 2009.

Better Union Campaigns Can Beat the Boss

OK, so the union and the employer are both deploying their tactics in the campaign. The really interesting question is: how well can a good union campaign defeat a tough employer campaign? The study broke down the numbers:

The trend here is clear, and I find this result fascinating. When employers used 5–9 anti-union tactics, unions had a win rate of 35% with fewer than 5 tactics, but increased that to 93% with more than 5. A well run union campaign was almost guaranteed to win elections in these cases. Similarly, when the employer ran a really tough anti-union campaign with at least 10 tactics, unions increased their win rate from 29% to 52% when they used more than 5 tactics. No doubt we can be pretty confident that if a union in this study ran an excellent campaign with all 10 tactics, the win rate here would be very impressive against even the toughest employer campaign. Unfortunately, the number of such cases was no doubt too low in this study to confirm that.

A further analysis that broke down the data by individual unions found, as expected, that unions that typically used an average of 4 tactics in their campaigns tended to win more than unions that used an average of 3 or 2 tactics. But the study noted:

It is striking that even the most successful unions in our sample are still making only limited use of the comprehensive campaign model, while the majority of U.S. unions continue to run fairly weak, ineffectual campaigns.

Moreover, I mentioned the three most effective tactics earlier: Benchmarks & Assessments, Adequate Staff & Resources and Rank & File Committee. After further analysis, the study concluded that these tactics were “…fundamental elements of a comprehensive campaign, building blocks that enhance the union’s ability to engage in any of the other tactics…” Certainly all campaigns should include these and yet surprisingly so many didn’t at the time.

The study concluded with this message:

Unions cannot wait-for labor law reform, for a more favorable economic climate, or more favorable political environment-before they begin to utilize this more comprehensive, multifaceted, and intensive strategy in all their organizing efforts, inside and outside the NLRB process.

Is This Data Still Relevant Today?

Today unions are winning most of their elections but are running fewer of them, as I’ve discussed in a past article. Unions won 69% of their 1,055 certification elections in FY2018. Over the years, the union win rate has crept up, averaging 70% over the last five years, much higher that the roughly 50% win rate from the 1970s through 1990s. If we look at the 2018 subset of 276 elections with 50 or more voters, as the Bronfenbrenner & Hickey study did, the union win rate was 61%. This is much better than the 44% the analysis found from 20 years ago. Furthermore, given that a large majority of these elections likely faced very tough employer anti-union campaigns, it’s remarkable that this win rate is even better than the 52% for the subset of campaigns in the study where employers and unions both deployed a lot of tactics. So it appears that the lessons from this study may have been learned and unions are running much better campaigns that incorporate more of the 10 tactics analyzed.

However, the era where unions grow dramatically from NLRB elections has been over for a long time. Unions are running too few elections and the resources required to win them are likely so high that the number of elections may never return to the much higher levels of decades ago, as I’ve discussed before.

The real lessons of this study for today are perhaps fairly obvious. Organizing campaigns can actually take many forms. Whether they are NLRB elections, card-checks, worker center fights, IWW “solidarity unionism,” or other “alt-labor” style organizing for better working conditions, the campaigns will face incredibly hostile employer opposition and they need to be well planned, resourced and executed, using all of the tactics described in this study. We can expect to win most of the time if we follow these guidelines. Certainly labor law reform may help reduce employer opposition, but as the study concluded, we couldn’t wait for it then, and we can’t wait for it now.

Moreover, if adequate resources was found to be a key element in union strategy, this raises I think the principal remaining question, and a much harder one to answer. How do we develop the resources, capacity and confidence to run many more organizing campaigns, of whatever kind, involving millions of workers on the massive scale that we need?