color photograph of an outdoor protest in support of amazon workers unionizing. in the foreground, people hold up signs that read "do managers treat you with disrespect" and "to unionize is not a crime." in the background, there is a large banner with amazon's logo
COVENTRY, ENGLAND - JANUARY 25: Amazon workers hold GMB union placards on the picket line as they hold a strike outside the Amazon fulfilment centre on Jan. 25, 2023, in Coventry, England. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

A record-breaking number of workers unionized last year, coinciding with increased federal enforcement of laws protecting labor organizing. While many workers decided to organize under established labor organizations like the AFL-CIO and the SEIU, others organized independently.

Most unionized workers choose to work with a preexisting labor union or federation to obtain material and organizing support. For example, public school teachers usually unionize under the National Education Association or the American Federation of Teachers. Grocery store workers are often represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers. These unions assist with setting up an election, negotiating a contract and legal fees, and addressing other needs for newly unionized workers. 

Increasingly, workers are also organizing independently without working under established unions. Workers at large companies like Amazon and at small local chains like New Seasons grocery store in Portland are trying to improve their workplace conditions by tapping local organizers to focus on a specific, local industry or workplace. Independent unions are not new and have long represented security guards and health care workers.  

As labor organizing grows across the country, it is important to understand the distinctions and nuances between different types of organizing. While most unions choose to organize with a larger labor union to take advantage of professional assistance and resources for organizing and negotiations, other unions want to operate as unaffiliated entities to have more control over their operations.

Both kinds of unions aim to win better wages and working conditions for the people they represent but have different approaches to accomplishing these goals. The approach of established unions is that their large-scale collective power, significant financial resources, and professional organizing capabilities allow them to secure bigger wins for workers in a more efficient manner. Independent union leaders are closer to the ground, allowing them to more effectively serve the workers they represent and have greater democracy and transparency. 

Behind the growing trend of independent unions is workers’ wariness of the largesse of established labor organizations. While business leaders often use “big, bad labor union” rhetoric to discredit the labor movement, recent corruption scandals and a decrease in the amount spent on organizing undermine labor organizations’ credibility. 

While independent unionization allows unions to move more nimbly and avoid high percentages of dues going to overhead at the state and national level, it can also create extra burdens for workers trying to organize while navigating the bureaucratic elements of being a union. 

Let the union handle the bureaucracy

Tom Smith, senior director of organizing for the Communications Workers of America (CWA), first began labor organizing in Knoxville as one of the founders of United Campus Workers of Tennessee. The union started independently, and Smith and his co-founders struggled to manage the union themselves because they lacked resources and time. They decided to affiliate with an established labor union and interviewed nine candidates, eventually deciding to become CWA Local 3865. The union is now nearly 10 times larger than when it was independent. 

Being part of a large, established labor organization can provide material resources, organizing power, and increased credibility. Established unions with professional staff know how to fill out legal paperwork and manage the logistical side of labor organizations. Smith said that letting professional unions take on the bureaucracy allows members to focus on organizing, 

“There can be this mistaken myth that having ‘democracy’ means doing everything, and there are lots of things that are frankly not an effective use of labor activists’ time to come up with on their own, especially when other workers already spent the time and resources to figure out how to do stuff,” said Smith, identifying tax documents and incorporation forms as particular areas where established unions can help.

“That’s a set of expertise that these labor unions have already gained and institutionalized, and I would argue it’s more democratic to let people figure out how to run this campaign the best we can and not have to learn paperwork that was set up to waste our time and resources,” Smith said. 

Maintaining a strong parent-local relationship

Members of the United Grad Workers (UGW) of the University of New Mexico say they’ve had a positive experience organizing with United Electrical Workers, which represents electrical workers, graduate employees, and others at a wide range of workplaces. When the founding graduate workers decided to unionize, they interviewed several potential candidates before settling on UE, the organization they determined would be best equipped to provide organizing and bargaining support.

“It was great to have the [bargaining] lawyer as well as multiple organizers who travel around the nation,” said Gisselle Salgado, a chief steward with UGW. “They are so supportive, whether in person or virtually. They help us out with the actions; they help connect us to other strategies that have been helpful in other grad worker workplaces.”

Salgado attributes their positive experience with UE to strong communication with organizers and a culture of transparency. When selecting which parent union they wanted to work with, the founders made a list of their priorities to evaluate their options. After settling on what they needed, they spoke to rank-and-file members of other graduate student unions to learn more about their experiences working with the labor organizations they were considering. Now a member of UE, the union continues to work with other locals of UE to organize and strategize.

“There is so much we can learn from each other, and I think that’s one of the great benefits of having a parent union, where you already have a network ready and waiting for you,” said Salgado. “All you have to do is reach out and continue organizing.”

UGW pays around 77% of its total dues (also called per caps) to the national and regional United Electrical Workers. The per caps locals pay to their unions go toward helping new groups of workers organize union drives, paying professional staff, and supporting workers when they go on strike. 

“While the figure may seem high, others have aided us in our unionization, and we’re excited to be paying it forward,” said Salgado. “At the moment, what stays with our local has been sufficient for us to continue organizing, and with the increase of membership, we’re looking forward to acting in solidarity on a local and national level.”

Alternatives to “business unions”

Some large labor unions have faced criticism for poor financial transparency and outcomes. A recent federal investigation uncovered widespread embezzlement from officials in United Auto Workers, one of the largest labor unions in the U.S. A dozen union leaders, including two former presidents, were convicted of stealing funds for luxury travel, expensive cigars, golf outings, and other frivolous indulgences. In March, a reform caucus was elected by United Auto Workers members after running on a platform that focused on increased transparency and democracy. 

Some labor organizers, including those involved with Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), criticize what they call “business unions.” These unions, they argue, have perpetuated capitalism while creating bloated organizational structures by focusing more on securing wages and benefits for existing members than organizing new ones. Unions’ assets have skyrocketed in the last two decades despite declining membership, leading some activists to assert that established labor organizations are engaging in “finance unionism,” meaning they grow through accumulating existing members’ financial assets and by eschewing investment in organizing. Union spending on strike pay and organizing has declined significantly over the last half century. 

IWW positions itself as a radical alternative to establishment models of unionization. It is also a union with the ultimate goal of ending capitalism. The organization defines a union as two or more workers who want to shift the balance of power on the job. While most unions seek legitimacy through federal recognition and contracts, the IWW’s approach is that unionization does not require recognition by an employer or the state.

“We see a legitimate union as whether or not workers are taking action on the job, building power, winning concessions, and practicing direct democracy,” said Graham Kovich, a spokesperson for IWW.

Along with membership in IWW, Kovich, a hospitality worker, has been an on-and-off member of Unite Here, a labor union under the AFL-CIO. He alleges that when he asked Unite Here union leaders in 2019 why they did not organize small restaurants in Detroit, Unite Here staff told him that high turnover would make it difficult for the union to collect dues and make a return on investment. Kovich said that IWW has helped a lot of smaller businesses obtain wage increases and workplace improvements. IWW also lets any individual worker join the union and provides extensive organizer training to its members. 

Prism reached out to Unite Here for comment and did not receive a response by publication.

At the same time, other labor organizers have criticized IWW for an overreliance on volunteers and direct action to create workplace change. In particular, IWW bans its members from signing collective bargaining agreements that include no-strike clauses, which are contract provisions that prohibit employees from striking; strikes that occur despite these provisions are not protected by the National Labor Relations Act, although there are exceptions for strikes protesting “conditions abnormally dangerous to health.” Most companies will not sign a collective bargaining agreement without a no-strike clause. 

The IWW encourages workers to agitate for workplace improvements through direct action and the withdrawal of labor, rather than contracts that give up their right to strike. Kovich said that he doesn’t believe the no-strike clause is the main obstacle to negotiating agreements, and companies will use whatever excuse they can to avoid a contract. 

“The [National Labor Relations Board] contractual playbook is one that bosses are very familiar with and thus are very good at thwarting,” Kovich said. “Starbucks Workers United, for example, has won elections at more than 300 shops and are still pushing to try to get the company to the bargaining table.”

Unionizing independently

The City of Portland Professional Workers Union (CPPWU), a group of Portland city employees currently unionizing, for now has opted to organize as an independent union with some assistance from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and Professional and Technical Employees (PROTEC). CPPWU originally tried to organize under AFSCME and PROTEC, but when it wanted to file for an election, workers say the labor organizations were hesitant because they wanted CPPWU to take a different approach that would be less public if unsuccessful. CPPWU decided that an independent union would give them more autonomy. 

Jeff Winkler, a union leader and analyst with the City of Portland, said that independent organizing has allowed CPPWU to make decisions quickly and keep low overhead costs. At the same time, Winkler said they have had a positive relationship with AFSCME and other established unions, which assisted them with legal fees and other expenses. 

“If our membership tells us they want to join with PROTEC or AFSCME or both, we will listen to our membership, but we’re also fully prepared to keep going and start a new union,” Winkler said.

Organizers at chains like Amazon and Trader Joe’s have said that independent unionization gives them more autonomy and credibility. In 2021, Amazon defeated a unionization effort at its Bessemer, Alabama, facility organized by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. Chris Smalls, organizer of the successful Amazon Labor Union campaign in the company’s Staten Island warehouse, said that a large reason the effort failed was because it was organized by outsiders. Smalls famously said that “in order to get it done, you gotta build from within.”

Building collective power

Whether organizing independently or with an established labor organization, unions require collective power to create meaningful change. Workers who want to unionize can speak to union members to learn about their experiences organizing independently or with various labor organizations to determine the best path toward improving their working conditions. Organizing independently, like the CPPWU, also does not mean that a union has to completely eschew working with establishment organizations. 

“What we’re endeavoring to do is change society in a pretty drastic way, and we don’t do that with small numbers of people, and we don’t do that in isolated groups that aren’t part of robust movements,” Smith said. “Robust movements require us to engage with existing organizations.”

Sravya Tadepalli is a freelance writer based in Oregon. Her writing has been featured in Arlington Magazine, Teaching Tolerance, the Portland Tribune, Oregon Humanities, and the textbook America Now. Sravya...