Unions Need to Think Small to Get Big

Organized labor can reverse its decline by focusing on smaller workplaces—and using digital tools to organize them.

Activists join fists in solidarity ahead of a protest march, with one holding an iPhone
Andrew Burton / Reuters

Private-sector unions may be best known for large, high-stakes labor fights—the 2014 UAW–Volkswagen battle in Tennessee, for example, or the more recent effort by thousands of workers at a Nissan factory in Canton, Mississippi. Indeed, unions themselves have focused their organizing efforts at these large workplaces for decades, assuming it’s the easiest way to gain new dues-paying members.

But this conventional wisdom—that unions get the most bang for their organizing buck at large workplaces—is wrong. New research shows that most workers are unionized in smaller workplaces. Of the nearly 700,000 private-sector employees who joined a union in the past decade, almost two-thirds were unionized in shops with fewer than 250 workers.

In fact, labor groups are more likely to win elections for union representation in small workplaces. In a study released this week by the Century Foundation, we analyzed microdata on every union election in the country from April 2007 to December 2018, more than 22,000 in total. We found that bargaining units of 24 or fewer employees were nearly 12 percent more likely to win a union than larger groups. Units with nine workers or under, for example, won 70 percent of their elections, compared with a win rate of 57 percent for units of 100 and 249 employees.

What’s more, the fewer employees in a workplace, the more likely they were to win elections by wider margins, underscoring that workers at smaller units are more consistent and cohesive in their support of unions. In the typical small-unit election, unions win 80 percent of the “yes” vote. For larger units, this number drops to under 60 percent.

Why, then, does organized labor focus its limited resources on organizing large workplaces, when evidence shows that it’d be more successful in smaller workplaces? A big reason is that unions continue to rely on retail organizing. Professional organizers are sent into one workplace at a time, and they try to convince a majority of workers to join a union. If a workplace is too small, or if it’s geographically isolated, or if it’s in a state with strict anti-union laws, it’s not worth most unions’ time to organize there, and so they don’t.

But what if there were a way for unions to greatly reduce the costs of organizing small workplaces, and bring that approach to scale at small and medium-sized workplaces across the country? There is—through online organizing and large-scale digital marketing to workers.

Organized labor can follow the lead of successful commercial and political campaigns, which have mastered the use of algorithms and data-mining tools to identify, engage, and influence customers and voters. Unions could use “big data” to target low-wage workers in specific locations who share traits commonly associated with union support. It’s a path toward reversing the trend of declining unionization, and recruiting millions of new members.

Imagine a fast-food worker in Alabama who sees an ad on Facebook promoting higher wages at work by joining a union. The ad could then direct workers to a free or low-cost online organizing platform, empowering them to initiate organizing drives at their workplace by providing them with resources such as step-by-step guides to gather signatures and file petitions for union recognition.

Such a model would improve the economics of winning new members, given the relative cost-effectiveness of micro-targeting and digital marketing. Lowered acquisition costs would in turn allow unions to diversify the locations and types of workplaces at which they recruit, opening up regions of the country, like the South and the Great Plains, in which unions have historically struggled to make inroads.

Online organizing would be particularly effective with Millennials, who are not only the largest generation now in the labor force, but also the most supportive of unions, at 68 percent. Younger workers increasingly navigate workplace issues online, using tools like Glassdoor and Coworker.org to advocate for better workplace conditions. A digital organizing tool would build on this generation’s growing willingness to assert rights at work, marrying it with young people’s unique ability to use technology to mobilize for change.

Online organizing isn’t a cure for all of labor’s challenges; unions shouldn’t abandon the approach of sending staffers in to organize workplaces directly. And a well-designed app won’t stop companies from threatening or retaliating against workers when they express an interest in joining a union, conduct that serves as a leading deterrent to organizing today.

But a platform can provide easy access to assistance if and when workers face abuse, through tools like live-assistance help lines staffed by lawyers and volunteers at nearby union shops who can share advice. Plus, research suggests that smaller groups of employees are better at staying united in the face of employer opposition. Workers at small establishments may face fewer legal challenges from their employers, who likely have fewer resources to resist an organizing drive.

While unions continue to have success winning elections when they do occur, the overall number of elections is rapidly declining. Last year, fewer than 1,600 petitions for union representation were filed with the National Labor Relations Board, the lowest number in more than 75 years. In the mid-1970s, when union activity was at its peak, some 9,000 elections were certified each year; in 2018, the number was one-tenth of that, with only 790 successful elections.

And while unions have more success with smaller bargaining units, the percentage of union density among smaller employees is much lower, underscoring the significant opportunities for unions to gain members at small and medium-size businesses. The unionization rate at workplaces with under 25 employees, for example, is under 5 percent, compared with more than 15 percent for employers with more than 250 employees.

By now, the struggles of the American labor movement are well known. But there’s at least one big bright spot: Interest in joining a union is at a four-decade high. And with good reason: The average union household earns $400 a week more than nonunion families, adding up to more than half a million dollars over a lifetime.

With inequality widening and public support for unions growing, organized labor has a real opportunity to turn the tide after decades of declining membership and dwindling power. But it requires a different approach—one that is driven by digital organizing and large-scale marketing, includes smaller workplaces and tech-savvy younger workers, and meets millions of workers online, where they already are.