Labor Can Scale Up Its Recent Wins

Eric Blanc

Can the new models of union organizing coming out of recent high-profile campaigns like Starbucks be a potential way to capture the current upsurge of support for and interest in unions? Labor scholar Eric Blanc thinks they can.

United Auto Workers members and supporters on a picket line outside the ZF Chassis Systems plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on September 20, 2023. (Andi Rice / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Interview by
Micah Uetricht

At a moment of dark news proliferating across the globe, the American labor movement has recently been, in a refreshing change, a bright spot. We find ourselves at a moment of growing public support for unions, recent high-profile victories by unions like the United Auto Workers (UAW) in their “stand-up strike” against the Big Three automakers, and a number of innovative new organizing campaigns across a wide range of corporations and industries in the United States.

The latter is the topic of Rutgers labor scholar and frequent Jacobin contributor Eric Blanc’s forthcoming book We Are the Union: How Worker-to-Worker Organizing is Revitalizing Labor and Winning Big (University of California Press, 2025), as well as his article in the journal New Labor Forum, “Worker-to-Worker Organizing Goes Viral,” drawing from research on that book. Blanc argues that the worker-to-worker model allows workers to train each other and gives them tools to start organizing on their own, rather than relying on expensive, unscalable, staff-heavy union organizing models.

Blanc spoke to Micah Uetricht for the New Labor Forum podcast Reinventing Solidarity. You can listen to the full conversation here. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Micah Uetricht

Your forthcoming book, We Are the Union: How Worker-to-Worker Organizing Is Revitalizing Labor and Winning Big, is all about what you classify as a new model of organizing, worker-to-worker unionism. Before we get into that model, let’s talk about the union organizing model you’re contrasting it against. What exactly is the staff-intensive model, and what’s wrong with it?

Eric Blanc

Staff-intensive unionism is a catch-all term that refers to different types of drives whose commonality is that they depend on a lot of staff to win. The norm in this type of approach, which has been pervasive among organizing-focused unions in the United States since the 1980s, is that you need about one staffer for every hundred workers you’re trying to unionize. That one-to-one-hundred ratio is commonly accepted as best practice.

The basic problem with this model is that it’s too expensive to scale — i.e., to win at the widest level necessary. Both in terms of money and time, it just costs too much. You can’t hire enough staffers this way to organize tens of millions of workers. And, time-wise, unions generally grow in spurts of effervescence, and in such moments you don’t have the ability to train up enough staffers quickly enough to seize the opening.

I’m not trying to exaggerate the deficiencies of this model: at its best, staff-intensive organizing can do a great job of developing rank-and-file leaders, and lots of workers have seen their lives improved through this type of organizing. The problem is the model just can’t reach or involve enough workers to turn around labor’s decades of decline.

Micah Uetricht

So what is the worker-to-worker model that you say can overcome these problems in the staff-intensive model?

Eric Blanc

The new model, worker-to-worker unionism, is a type of organizing that is scalable because it depends more on workers and less on staff. It builds off the best, most rank-and-file oriented traditions of staff-intensive organizing to go even further in providing responsibilities for workers to take on tasks that are normally done by paid full-timers.

Basically, the new model has emerged out of necessity, as some unions have experimented with new approaches to meet this labor moment over the past few years. What do you do when you have not just a couple workers reaching out to you for organizing support, but hundreds or even thousands? You have to develop ways to scale, to figure out how you’re going to talk to all the people reaching out and how to start giving them tools to self-organize well before any staffer gets on the ground. To get a sense of what I’m talking about in the real world, you can look at Starbucks Workers United, the wave of higher-ed drives, the NewsGuild’s Member Organizing Program, and the most recent efforts of the reformed UAW, especially at plants like Mercedes in Alabama.

In staff-intensive drives, at their best, typically it’s up to staff to train worker leaders, and then worker leaders are in charge of winning over their coworkers. Worker-to-worker unionism builds off of that and says, “Well, workers can do some of the things that staff normally do: for instance, workers can train other workers.” So instead of having a staff organizer training and guiding workers’ organizing committees, oftentimes at Starbucks or in the NewsGuild you had workers training workers elsewhere via Zoom. In other words, workers who had gone through the experience of organizing their shops pass on those lessons and their training to other workers, usually online (and sometimes in person).

Another crucial difference is that worker-to-worker unionism often (though not always) starts with workers self-organizing. In a typical staff-intensive campaign, systematic organizing — outreach, one-on-one conversations, mapping, inoculation, all that — only begins once a staffer meets with workers and starts guiding them. In contrast, in a lot of these recent drives we’re seeing pop off across the country, workers start collectively organizing first. And then afterward, they vote on whether to go independent or to affiliate with an established union. Most of the time they end up affiliating with an existing union, because they want the resources and they want the extra organizing support. But they make that choice after they’ve already started cohering themselves. And that really changes the organizing dynamics and how they relate to the established union, because often in staff-intensive drives there can be a pattern of deference to staffers and a pattern of excessively relying on them. It’s easier to develop more of a genuine partnership, and a feeling of ownership, when workers have already begun organizing on their own.

To give a recent example: at the big Mercedes plant in Alabama, a group workers were organizing on their own, and they were thinking about maybe going independent until they met with the UAW last fall and laid down their conditions for what it would take for them to affiliate — they wanted to have the decisive say over all major decisions in their effort (which hadn’t been true in past UAW drives there). The new UAW agreed and that set into motion a bottom-up dynamic where the workers really do have the main say over strategy — that’s the third piece of the new model. In the best staff-intensive organizing, workers occasionally have a decisive say over all big questions, but it’s pretty rare, for the reasons I already described earlier. In the new model, it’s the norm.

Micah Uetricht

Part of your argument has to do with the new possibilities for organizing with digital tools, right?

Eric Blanc

Yes. These days, lots of progressives believe that social media systematically helps the right wing and spreads disinformation. And there’s an influential argument that social media, at most, can help popular movements organize episodic protests, but that it can’t help build sustained organization.

One of the things my book does is to push back against this new doom-and-gloom view of tech. Contrary to the skeptics, we are seeing digital tools being used to build sustainable, powerful, working-class organization in the United States. It doesn’t mean that tech is a substitute for the deep one-on-one relationship-building practices that good organizers advocate and implement. But it helps workers self-organize at scale, in a way that wasn’t possible even fifteen years ago. Basically, tools like social media and Zoom dramatically lower organizing costs, which makes it easier for rank-and-filers to start organizing without established union support — just think of how viral Facebook groups helped launch the 2018 red state teachers’ strikes.

Tech also enables worker-to-worker unionism to scale up beyond the local level for the first time in history. Before things like Zoom, if you’re a worker and want to guide another workers’ drive, you could basically only do that with someone in your hometown. So an established union would have to pay a staffer to fly somewhere to train up a new drive and it was up to staffers to coordinate regionally and nationally. But now, that’s just not the case. Now you can have a Starbucks worker in Buffalo training a Starbucks worker in Mesa, Arizona; you can have graduate student workers training each other all across the country, and you can have all these workers meeting weekly with each other to strategize. That’s new, and it’s made possible by new technology.

Micah Uetricht

But your point isn’t that workers can win at scale without resources and staff support, right?

Eric Blanc

Right. It’s a mistake to counterpose rank-and-file power to established union resources and staffers — I don’t agree with some leftist calls for bottom-up unionism that downplay funds and staff or that romanticize rank-and-file activity. The actual problem with staff-intensive unionism is that it isn’t scalable, not that experienced full-time organizers and deep union pockets are of secondary importance (or that they necessarily inhibit rank-and-file agency).

We actually need way more resources and staffers dedicated to new organizing if the labor movement is going meet the current moment and dramatically increase union density, especially given how decentralized the economy is now. We need to see unions doing what the UAW is doing right now, spending $40 million to organize autoworkers across the South, doing what the NewsGuild is doing, what Starbucks Workers United is doing. Basically, we need a big absolute increase in funding for new organizing, but at the same time a relative decrease in the cost of each campaign, by giving workers more responsibility for training new efforts, for starting drives on their own, and for strategizing. That’s the way you’re going get to scale.

Micah Uetricht

To what extent is this model solely possible to implement in this moment of effervescence that you were talking about earlier? Is this just specific to the moment of upsurge in interest in unionizing that we’re currently in?

Eric Blanc

It’s a good question. I think the urgency of moving toward a new model matters less in a period of downturn, since the big upshot of the new model is its ability to scale. It’s also very clear that the new model has emerged to meet our particular moment — with the pandemic, a tight labor market, a great NLRB [National Labor Relations Board], a moment after Bernie [Sanders] and BLM [Black Lives Matter] in which young people are overwhelmingly supportive of unions, a moment in which unions are getting a huge amount of media attention.

But I don’t want to overstate the new model’s context-specificness, because what’s important about worker-to-worker unionism is not just its ability to onboard all of the new people reaching out. It’s also the ability to plant many more organizing seeds and to do so more widely. That type of seeding is important to underscore, because the new model doesn’t consist of passively waiting for workers to rise up on their own. Look at the UAW, for instance. The UAW had to generate momentum and generate a new level of effervescence throughout the South by taking risky strike action at the Big Three, winning huge contract gains, and then saying, “We’re calling on every worker in a nonunion auto factory across the South to start organizing.” It wasn’t the case that there were thousands of workers spontaneously reaching out — the UAW leadership had to seed this self-organization and then build up a new organizing structure to help meet the new demands.

The same is true for salting, which can be another mechanism of worker-to-worker unionism, in which you seed new drives by getting people — oftentimes young socialists — to get a job in a strategic workplace to help unionize it. Salts were key to the early wins at Starbucks and also at Amazon’s JKF8; thankfully, the new Inside Organizer School is helping spread this tactic more widely now. And another key tool for proactively seeding is holding big online organizing trainings, like the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee does and Jane McAlevey does with Organizing for Power. So there are big parts of the new model that are relevant even when the momentum is lower, mechanisms that regardless of context can to lead more drives and that can build a more democratic unionism.

Micah Uetricht

When you frame it this way, this model seems like a no-brainer for unions to implement. So my question is: Why aren’t most unions implementing it?

Eric Blanc

The basic problem is that most unions aren’t even trying to organize, period. So they’re not really thinking about these questions or the best models to win widely. Most unions have seen their financial reserves dramatically skyrocket over the last decade, and they aren’t putting that toward new organizing.

A lot of them think is it’s not possible to win under current labor law. And that’s a plausible assumption, because it is hard to unionize in the United States, because labor law is so weak and because employers are so hostile. It’s not the case that worker-to-worker unionism is some sort of magic bullet; there’s no guarantee that just having a good organizing model means you’ll win. In this context, unions are just kind of stuck in institutional inertia, bureaucratization, and risk aversion, with most their hopes for change hinging on the mirage of electing mainstream Democrats and hoping they’ll implement labor-law reform, without a mass movement forcing this through.

So it’s really up to workers to transform the labor movement from below. The new UAW is a very good example of this — autoworkers, with a boost from some radicalized grad workers, organized to kick out the old leadership and to elect a firebrand Christian socialist, Shawn Fain, as union president. The recent Big Three strike and subsequent unionization campaign didn’t happen because workers convinced the old leaders to change course; it happened because they built power to democratize their union.

But it’s also the case that new organizing puts pressure on existing unions to do more. A very good example of this is the Starbucks campaign — which was started by a small group of salts in Buffalo, with support from a little branch of a little union, the Rochester Regional Joint Board of Workers United. Their organizing success pushed national Workers United, which had not been involved in a lot of new organizing, to throw down lots of money to support the effort. And then in turn, as the Starbucks movement continued to spread nationally, that put a huge amount of pressure on SEIU [Workers United’s parent union, the Service Employees International Union], which still thinks big but which generally hasn’t since the 1990s been oriented toward this sort of rank-and-file intensive organizing.

To its credit, SEIU, after a lot of internal debates up top, did end up giving a huge amount of money to the Starbucks campaign, a campaign that in many ways goes against a long-standing “policy first” theory of change among many top SEIU leaders. What you see with Starbucks Workers United is a bottom-up initiative that pulls a big established union into supporting a different type of campaign. So there are distinct paths to reforming the labor movement — and worker-to-worker unionism is essential for all of them.

Micah Uetricht

Anyone who is making proposals for labor revitalization has to be a little cautious with their predictions, right? Many people have said over a recent couple decades, “If only labor does X, Y, and Z then it’ll be able to get back on its feet,” but then union density continues to decline. So we have to approach this analysis with some level of caution. But what’s the best-case scenario if labor adopts this new organizing model?

Eric Blanc

I want to push back a little bit against this idea that “labor has tried a lot of times to turn things around, and it hasn’t worked out.” It’s not actually true that labor has gone all in on new organizing and that these attempts have failed. That didn’t happen in the last moment of labor excitement, in the 1990s or 2000s. A few unions made a turn to new organizing back then, but for the most part they and AFL-CIO leaders couldn’t convince everybody else to seriously fund new organizing, or even convince their locals to do it. So it’s not the case that unions went all in and were defeated. They didn’t ever really make the attempt at scale.

Today we know that the level of support for unionization is higher and that the level of grassroots activity is higher than it’s been for a very long time. And we’re seeing that when unions do go all in, they are winning. Contrary to what skeptics suggest, these new drives are getting first contracts — just look at Burgerville, Colectivo, the NewsGuild, or higher ed. And it’s a really, really big deal that Starbucks workers are now on a path to win a first contract. This is a huge deal — the first time since the 1930s that you’ve organized a big nonunion company at the heart of the US economy. Same with the auto right now. Who could have imagined a year ago that we’d see the first nonunion auto factory go union at Volkswagen in Chattanooga? And not only that, but it’s now spreading to Mercedes and dozens of other plants.

Of course, all other things being equal, labor normally doesn’t make a big breakthrough, because capitalists are just extremely powerful. So it’s always risky and there’s no guarantee that we’ll win. But the only way to win big is by trying. How else could you find out how far it’s possible to go? And I think one of the reasons that this moment is different is not just that workers are winning some key battles, but that there’s a distinct path to getting the union movement to go all in on new organizing, a path that wasn’t really available in the ’90s and 2000s. Back then the focus was on trying to convince risk-averse officials to move in a different direction. And today, for the reasons I’ve explained, workers are starting to self-organize — oftentimes without existing established union support — and are often dragging big unions into supporting them.

But there’s not much point in speculating, because what happens next depends on what people do. It depends on whether listeners to this podcast organize their shop through projects like the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, which supports anybody who wants to organize their job. Or if you’re a union leader listening, are you going to put up a real fight to get your local and your international union to start using big resources to go all in on new organizing? Not in five years, but now.

That’s why I don’t think that the prediction game is so helpful. I look at this more like organizing: you have to project some level of justified hope and a plan to win to get people into motion. And that, in turn, becomes to a certain extent a self-fulfilling prophecy. This dynamic holds true whether you’re organizing your shop or whether you’re trying to organize tens of millions before labor’s current moment slips away.