The UAW Challenges the Labor Movement to Get More Ambitious

A headshot of Hamilton Nolan.
Hamilton Nolan

Regular people who are not directly involved in the labor movement often find it hard to get interested in stuff that is happening at unions.

Here is the short chain of reasoning I use to explain why they should care: What is the biggest underlying problem in America? Inequality. What is the single most potent and plausible weapon against inequality? Labor unions. What do labor unions need to do to actually roll back inequality in a way that would improve your life? They need to organize millions of new working people. 

So while it is understandable that the average person who is not in a union sees the topic of ​“union organizing” as some esoteric niche unrelated to them, that is not the case. This is the path to fix the whole country. When people feel like this doesn’t affect them, well — that’s just an indicator of the problem.

Need for Ambition

The next question in this chain is: What will it take for unions to organize at the scale that we need? There are some practical answers to this question — it will take money, it will take organizers, it will take a structure conducive to keeping the money flowing towards organizing.

But there is a more basic answer, that captures what has been lacking during the post-Reagan decades of declining union power: It will take ambition. Ambition!

Large parts of the union establishment still carry the sheepish look of a dog that has been beaten down for years. Living in a state of permanent decline, a life spent playing defense, has sapped them of the belief that things can be different. Their goals have gotten modest.

Modest goals won’t get us where we need to go. We need to think big. The labor movement needs, before anything, genuine ambition for a new America. Rather than gazing at the scale of the problem and concluding that it is impossible, we need labor leaders who see their jobs as climbing mountains no matter how high they are. Ambition is the most precious quality of all.

That is why yesterday’s announcement from the United Auto Workers that they are launching a campaign to unionize more than a dozen non-union automakers at once is so important.

The UAW knows that the biggest threats to its long term industrial power are the rise of big non-union auto companies like Tesla, and the fact that the auto industry has long been able to move plants to anti-union southern states in order to operate union-free. If left unchecked, those two trends will drain the UAW like a vampire, leaving it a hollow shell of a once-mighty institution. 

To truly beat back those trends will take organizing at an unprecedented scale. It will take organizing 150,000 new workers into a union that only has 400,000 active members today. That is the sort of challenge that union leaders would traditionally regard as a vague, long-term problem, like ​“solving climate change,” to be addressed with small gestures in the present, in the hopes that maybe somehow something will happen down the road to make the whole thing easier.

Instead of that, the UAW has simply said: It will take organizing 150,000 new members to fix our problem? Then our plan will be to organize 150,000 new members. Let’s get to work.

This is exactly the mentality that the labor movement writ large needs, but does not have.

The UAW is seizing opportunities that unions too often squander. It is coming off a major strike win at the Big Three automakers, a strike that was itself hugely ambitious. Instead of coasting on that victory, UAW leader Shawn Fain is using it as an advertisement for the union, to pull in workers everywhere. When I interviewed Fain a week ago, I asked him which company would be his next organizing target, and he gave a kind of vague answer about how he didn’t care because the union wants to organize everyone. I thought that he was just avoiding the question. But it looks like he was being honest. They’re going after everyone. 

This is the sort of campaign that will take years, and will take a lot of money, and will be hard. But they are making a plan to do it because it must be done, which is the step without which you can be absolutely sure it would never get accomplished.

All Unions

Which other unions should be doing this? I would say ​“all of them,” but I don’t want to be too vague myself. Let’s say, for the sake of appearing practical, that this type of ambition is only realistic for industries that already have a strong union presence in them — industries where major unions operate, and have a traditional base, but where union density is not where it needs to be. Where else, then, should we see equally grand campaigns to organize hundreds of thousands of workers where unions are already established?

  • All non-union grocery stores (UFCW)
  • All non-union teachers (AFT, NEA)
  • All non-union health care workers (Many big and medium sized unions in the industry)
  • All non-union construction workers (The building trade unions)
  • All non-union hotel workers (Unite Here)
  • All non-union aviation industry workers (AFA, ALPA, Machinists, SEIU, etc)
  • All non-union local, state, and federal government workers (AFSCME, AFGE)
  • Every single non-union worker in the TV and film industry (WGA West, WGA East, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, Teamsters)
  • THE TECH INDUSTRY, Jesus Christ (CWA, the media unions)

This is just a list I thought up in five minutes. It would be much longer. The point is that each of these areas has the same state of play that the UAW is facing in the auto industry. It’s not like the UAW looked at the richest union buster on earth’s electric car company, and the most racist anti-union states in America where they intimidate poor workers into not organizing, and thought to itself, ​“well this is all laid out real easy for us so I guess we’ll give it a shot.”

It’s hard! But it needs to be done. 

There is zero reason why all of the unions I mention above cannot conduct themselves with the same level of ambition. All of those unions sit in industries where the power of organized labor is threatened by the growth of non-union employers. The Hollywood unions just won big strikes too, just like UAW. Will they likewise use this moment as a springboard into a vibrant union future? Or will they retreat back into their comfortable positions as those who are not lucky enough to be members of the unions are left out in the cold?

Organize at Scale

As important as the need to organize at scale is for preserving and growing the power of the unions, the moral importance of giving millions of non-union workers the protection of a union is even greater.

I want to see some grand plans! I want the building trades to get serious about organizing! I don’t want the tech industry, the most valuable in America, to coast along union-free! I don’t want all those grocery workers who put their lives at risk during the pandemic to wonder why the union in their industry doesn’t help them out, too!

I want unions, in general, to find the existence of enormous numbers of non-union employers right within their own industries to be intolerable and repugnant and the cause of a ​“war room”-like atmosphere that will persist until this grotesque situation changes.

Sorry for saying ​“I” so much. We! We want this. We need this. The working class of America needs unions to get on the UAW’s level.

Don’t be cautious. Be bold. Spend all your money on organizing. Go for broke. The conditions are not going to get better than they are right now.

If you are in a union, show them what the UAW is doing, and say: We need to do this, too. Time’s a-wasting.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on Nov. 30, 2023. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

Learn more about union rights at Workplace Fairness.

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