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The 32BJ Model

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Deep dives on the success or failure of individual labor unions does not a robust comment section make. But this New Labor Forum piece on the successes of SEIU 32BJ is quite worth your time.

SEIU Local 32BJ offers a case study of how unions can win, especially in the private sector which has seemed impervious to organizing. Over the last two decades, 32BJ has organized over one hundred thousand new members who others said could not be organized because they were low-wage subcontracted workers, because of their immigration status, or because racial, ethnic, and language divides could not be overcome. Local 32BJ has helped workers see what they have in common, and has offered strategies and tactics that have turned poverty wages into living wages while providing an effective voice for workers both on the job and in their communities. Local 32BJ did not invent many of the strategies and tactics it uses, but it provides an example of how their deliberate implementation can lead to union victories.

Local 32BJ is part of the property services division of the SEIU. It is SEIU’s third largest local comprising janitors, security officers school custodians, food service workers, residential, and airport workers. A mega-local, the current structure of 32BJ came into being in 1999 when it was trusteed by the international union and began to merge with other property service locals. Some of these merged locals brought with them rich organizing cultures carried over from the Justice for Janitors movement. Others had no organizing program and were in decline. Merging these locals together allowed 32BJ’s organizing culture to spread throughout its jurisdiction, and provided the capacity to launch aggressive regional organizing drives that enabled it to grow as the  labor movement declined.

Graph 1 above depicts 32BJ growth from 1999 to 2021. Growth due to new organizing totaled 103,268. Growth due to mergers totaled 65,600, which includes 12,889 newly organized workers by locals prior to merging with 32BJ. The gray line is overall membership taking into account declines due to job loss.During a period when union membership  continued its decades-long decline, 32BJ grew dramatically, with 61 percent of its growth the result of new organizing. During this time, 116,158 workers were organized.

\Almost all the newly organized workers are people of color and many are new immigrants. Unionization has vastly improved their wages, hours, and working conditions. To note a few examples, predominantly Latina immigrant janitors in New Jersey saw their hourly pay go from $5.15 in 2001 to $17.70 in 2021, with the addition of family health care, a pension, and strong language protecting against sexual harassment and assault. In Washington, D.C., largely African and African-American security officers organized in 2007 and saw hourly wages increase from $8.25 to $19.29 in 2021, with health care and an employer contributed 401(K). And forty thousand airport workers in New York and New Jersey are going from $7.50 in 2014 to $19 per hour in 2023.[4] Additionally, these workers won health care legislatively in 2021, and over ten thousand now have a union contract.

There’s really a lot to chew on here for anyone interested in organizing, which should be every single reader of this blog. There’s not many unions that have actually grown in the last thirty years. SEIU is a huge example of a union that has grown. You’d think other unions would learn more lessons here, but they often don’t.

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