Unions Need to Spend Big to Seize the Day

Even as union density has declined, unions have spent little on organizing while amassing vast war chests. But the UAW and Workers United are showing that spending big on strikes and organizing pays off.

A "UAW on Strike" sign held on a picket line outside the main entrance at the General Motors Ypsilanti Processing Center in Ypsilanti, Michigan, on September 22, 2023. (Emily Elconin / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In a moment of opportunity for workers and the labor movement, a key strategic question is whether union leaders are prepared to put at risk the more than $32 billion in assets they currently have sitting idle in union treasuries. Will organized labor decide to invest in large-scale organizing campaigns and militant strikes, or continue to invest its resources in Wall Street?

Unions like the United Auto Workers (UAW) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) affiliate Workers United are demonstrating one path forward, dramatically increasing spending to support bold campaigns. For the labor movement to make the most of the current period of high favorability for unions and rising militancy, other unions will need to follow their lead.

Union Membership Is Down, but $32 Billion Is Parked With Wall Street

Union density and membership have steadily declined for decades, but paradoxically, labor’s financial assets have increased exponentially. I call this “finance unionism,” a practice whereby union leaders focus on accumulating Wall Street financial assets rather than investing those resources in mass organizing and strike activity.

As the chart below shows, union membership has declined by 2 percent in absolute terms since 2010, but according to financial filings with the Department of Labor (DOL), organized labor’s net assets (assets minus liabilities) have increased from $14.4 billion to $32.7 billion in 2022 — a 127 percent increase (complete 2023 data is not available). Unions have been able to do this because they collectively run large budget surpluses each year, spending less on strikes and organizing than they receive in rising member revenues and investment income.Increasing spending on organizing and strikes is not a panacea to reverse labor’s decline, but reducing spending amid an unprecedented worker upsurge is a disastrous strategic choice. According to my analysis of union filings with the DOL, the top ten union headquarters — representing approximately 70 percent of all union members — are spending nearly half a billion less in 2023 than in 2010 when adjusted for inflation.

The breakdown of total union spending also gives a good idea of labor’s defensive strategic posture. Since 2010, unions have spent less than $1 billion on strike benefits for workers, compared to $31 billion in benefits for staff and officers and $9 billion on political activity (e.g., lobbying and campaign donations).

Unfortunately, recent data on unions’ spending on organizing versus collective bargaining is unavailable, because in 2022 the Biden administration rescinded a DOL regulation requiring disclosure. But what little data exists suggests that unions are spending a shamefully low amount on organizing.

The UAW and Workers United: Beyond Finance Unionism

Both the UAW and Workers United are good examples of an alternative model to the widespread practice of finance unionism.

After Shawn Fain was elected UAW president in early 2023 in the first direct election of officers by the membership (as well as a newly elected International Executive Board), the union increased spending by $181 million in 2023, a 70 percent uptick. According to financial filings with the DOL, the spending increase was primarily driven by a $152 million expenditure on strike benefits for members in the historic stand-up strike at the Big Three automakers (and other strikes), as well as increases in direct spending on organizing and collective bargaining. Rather than a budget surplus, UAW ran a significant deficit in 2023, using its ample war chest to finance new spending.The UAW spent $438 million in 2023, more than any other large national union in the United States. The $152 million the UAW spent on strike benefits in 2023 was more than the entire labor movement spent on strikes in 2022 ($116 million). Yet that historic strike expenditure only represented 13 percent of the UAW’s $1.1 billion strike fund and treasury.

Building on the momentum of the stand-up strike, in early 2024, the UAW promptly announced $40 million in new organizing funds to support nonunion autoworkers and battery workers organizing across the country, particularly in the South. Two months later, the UAW won a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election to represent over forty-three hundred autoworkers at Volkswagen, the first successful unionization vote at an auto factory in the South. This week, another 5,200 autoworkers will have the opportunity to vote for union representation at a Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama.

While the UAW used its treasury to fund a high visibility and successful strike at the Big Three automakers and organizing in the nonunion auto sector in the South, Workers United pursued a different strategy. Initiating the first organizing win at Starbucks in Buffalo in 2021, the campaign quickly spread semi-autonomously throughout the country. Embracing a decentralized worker-to-worker organizing model rather than a staff-heavy top-down approach, Workers United nevertheless devoted substantial financial resources to support the campaign’s legal, research, and communication needs.

Workers United’s headquarters rapidly increased spending to support the Starbucks campaign, as the chart below illustrates. Spending rose from the prepandemic level of $3.8 million in 2019 to $11.5 million in 2023, a 207 percent increase.  

According to DOL financial filings, Workers United’s legal expenses for organizing increased from $5,000 in 2019 to $2.4 million in 2023. Staffing rose from seven employees in 2019 to sixty-three in 2023, primarily due to hiring more organizers.

In the aggregate, from 2020 to 2023, Workers United devoted $10.8 million in new spending to organize 10,500 workers at 425 Starbucks stores (assuming all new spending was for the campaign). This spending was undoubtedly buttressed by the regional bodies of Workers United, its parent union SEIU, and the Strategic Organizing Center (a coalition effort of SEIU, the Communications Workers of America, and the United Farm Workers of America).

The union is also in a strong financial position to fund the expansion of Starbucks organizing. The Workers United treasury has $178 million in net assets, primarily stock from the sale of the union-owned Amalgamated Bank to Wall Street investors in 2018.

Unions Are Winning Elections at an Unprecedented Scale

Workers United and the UAW used the revamped election procedures of the NLRB for their respective organizing campaigns. That’s because the Biden administration’s NLRB has addressed some, but not all, of the critical flaws of existing labor law.

For example, under the new rules, it is much more difficult for employers to delay elections for union representation endlessly. In addition, the NLRB has stepped up enforcement penalties and remedies for employers who violate the law.

Although labor law is still deeply flawed — particularly in the ability it gives employers to deny newly organized workers a first contract (see: Amazon Labor Union) — the NLRB reforms have corresponded to an uptick in organizing wins. As the chart below shows, in fiscal year 2023, unions won 76 percent of union elections, the highest win rate since 1965.

In 2023, approximately ninety-two thousand workers were involved in NLRB representation elections initiated by unions (and 2024 data show a similar organizing pace). While the uptick in organizing is encouraging, it is far from the scale necessary to meaningfully increase worker power and union density. In fact, workers in NLRB elections only represented 0.08 percent of the private nonunion workforce in 2023. Historically, during most of the 2000–2010 period, unions organized at a far higher rate than in 2023.

Labor has more than enough financial resources to organize at ten times the current rate. Still, too many unions lack the political will, leadership, and a coherent strategy to do so, despite the most fertile organizing environment in decades.

For far too long, many unions have operated under the assumption that it is impossible to organize under existing labor law. But when labor is winning 76 percent of NLRB elections for union recognition, these excuses ring hollow. The UAW and Workers United are showing that it is possible to organize on a large scale, and they are willing to devote the resources to do so. The question for the rest of the labor movement is: If not now, when?