Open-source Unions

An idea that can help revive the labor movement


| November / December 2002


IN 1956, 35 PERCENT of working Americans belonged to a union. Today, less than 14 percent of the total U.S. workforce belongs. Does the labor movement have a future?

Absolutely, declare political analysts Richard B. Freeman and Joel Rogers in The Nation (June 24, 2002). But to regain their clout, unions must add millions of members and win back public support. The authors’ solution: Unions should drop restrictive membership codes and use the Internet to reach an estimated 85 million nonunion workers who want to take advantage of labor arbitration and career counseling independent of their employers. Freeman and Rogers call this idea "open-source unionism."

Under the traditional rules of unionization, employees must demonstrate a majority of support at a workplace in order to be allowed into a union. But workplaces that fail to achieve a pro-union majority are generally abandoned by organized labor, leaving workers to fend for themselves, even if 30 or 40 percent of them want to join a union.

But it hasn’t always been like that. Prior to World War II, union doors were open to all pro-union workers, whether they were part of a majority on the job or not. Many powerful unions, like the steelworkers and mineworkers, were organized using this "minority unionism." "Nontraditional members in nonmajority settings can give labor an immense boost in its reach, leverage, and access to strategic information on employer behavior," Freeman and Rogers explain. "Under open-source unionism, unions would welcome members even before they achieved majority status, and stick with them as they fought for it—maybe for a very long time."

And inexpensive Internet communication makes it feasible for unions to help and stay in touch with nonmajority members. In fact, several Net-based minority unions have already popped up, like Alliance@IBM and Workers at GE (WAGE), complete with recruiting programs and lively "virtual" union halls.

"Turning labor around will require more than simply doing more of what unions have been doing over the past decade, Freeman and Rogers assert. "What we need is a labor movement that workers can join easily, without going to war with their employers, a labor movement that welcomes support anywhere it finds it."