Jobs in the Labor Movement

By Don Goldstein

“The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old age pensions, government relief for the destitute and above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

As we approach the holiday commemorating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, it is worthwhile to remember that Dr. King was a big supporter of the Labor Movement. The slogan of the famous demonstration in 1963, where Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech was “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The reason that Dr. King was in Memphis, Tennessee when he was struck down by an assassin was to support the striking sanitation workers.

Like Dr. King, do you have a passion for social and economic justice? Do you care about higher wages and benefits, workplace health and safety, work and retirement with dignity, corporate greed, gender equality, civil rights, Immigration, fair tax policies, criminal justice and labor legislation? Do you want to be on the front lines of activism?  If so, consider a career in the Labor Movement.

While union membership has shrunk since it’s high-water mark of 35% of the workforce in 1954, mainly because of hostile administrations, unfavorable legislation, and increasingly aggressive tactics by employers to fight unionization, surveys have consistently shown that people if given the possibility, prefer to join unions.  Even now though, there are 14.6 million union members representing 10.3% of the workforce in hundreds of unions in every state in the country. In 2021-22, from Hollywood to Columbia University, strike threats, actual strikes and organizing efforts have rolled across the country. Some of the target companies are well known like Amazon, Starbucks, John Deere and Kellogg’s, but there are also ongoing strikes of miners in Alabama, musicians in San Antonio, graduate student workers at Columbia, and hospital workers in Buffalo among many others. As unions expand organizing efforts, consider that suitable and interesting jobs for GC students and alumni exist in many of these unions.

Types of Union Jobs

Organizer/External Organizer/New Organizer

I think it’s fair to say that the Organizer is the lifeblood of the Labor Movement. These are the people who are on the front lines of union organizing campaigns. Their jobs involve the preparatory work of conducting research, gathering data, and developing strategies and plans. Much of their work includes one-on-one communication with workers at job sites and in their homes, list development, recruitment, running worker meetings, directing workplace actions, developing leaders, building strategic alliances, and collaborating with other staff. These jobs may involve canvassing, as well as preparing and overseeing union representation elections.

Being a union organizer will call upon your writing, presentation, and communication skills. It will involve travel, as well as a good deal of weekend and evening work, and demand substantial resolve and resiliency in very fast-paced, adversarial situations. Most unions that are looking for organizers are posting for recent college graduates or graduate students and for candidates that have experience in union campaigns, political campaigns, or community organizing. Lead Organizers and Organizing Directors usually have 5 or more years of organizing experience.

Internal Organizer/Worksite Organizer/Union Rep./Council Rep./Staff Rep./Business Agent/Business Manager/Business Agent/Servicing Rep./Membership Specialist/Contract Administrator/Grievance Coordinator

These many job titles are all roles involving representing union members vis-à-vis management. A person in one of these roles will ensure that the collective bargaining agreement is not being violated and will collect and process complaints and grievances against management. They may represent members at disciplinary hearings. These individuals will also advise and assist on collective bargaining for new contracts. Additionally, the Internal Organizer will train stewards and educate members.

These roles call for good research and communications skills, attention to detail, the ability to multi-task, and strong organizational skills. Because contracts are legal documents and contract administrators (although not often lawyers) often possess the skills of lawyers, the Graduate Center’s MALS concentration in Law and Society would be good preparation for these roles. It should also be pointed out that there is room to grow into higher leadership roles within these type of positions. Higher leadership job titles include Director of Field Services, Internal Organizing Director, and Lead Negotiator.

Political Director/Legislative Advocate/Political Organizer/Policy Coordinator

These workers help to develop a policy agenda and attempt to move legislation through lobbying, involvement in ballot initiatives, and/or supporting candidates. They try to build bipartisan support for legislative initiatives and coalitions with stakeholders and run political grassroots organizing campaigns. These roles call for strategic thinkers with data-driven skills who understand the union’s political agenda and can communicate and get things done. They are a good fit for a number of Liberal Arts degrees, particularly Political Science, Sociology, Anthropology, and Urban Education.

Communications Director or Associate/Communications Specialist/Video Coordinator/Media Specialist

People in these roles are responsible for media strategy, media outreach, media inquiries, monitoring media coverage, and managing all relationships and contacts with the media. These jobs often will include building and updating a Media Database and the Union’s Website. These days, a social media strategy is of vital importance. Communications roles may also involve training and coaching spokespeople or union leaders to improve their media performance. They could involve writing press releases, letters to the editor, and op-eds, as well as coordinating media events and conducting interviews. They might work on the strategic communications aspects of organizing campaigns, a vital function when strikes might be won or lost because of support or lack of support from the public. These people will also be responsible for communications with the membership via print or online bulletins or newspapers. A degree in Communications or English would be good preparation for these roles.

Data Analytics Specialist/Information Systems Specialist/Web Developer/Cybersecurity Expert/Programmer

These are the people who make technology work and make processes more efficient. They troubleshoot and project manage ongoing and new technology initiatives. An ability to communicate technical subjects to non-technical individuals is a desired trait. Project Management knowledge, Python, R and SQL are in demand. A GC Master’s degree in Data Analysis and Visualization, Data Science, or Quantitative Methods in Social Science would be good preparation for these positions.

Benefits Consultant

Many unions manage member benefits independently or jointly with management. This person may research benefits, evaluate vendors, negotiate new agreements or renewals with vendors, and enforce existing contracts with them. It is also a position that requires a knowledge of state and federal laws.

Strategic Researcher

This person provides data and insights on corporate ownership, organizational structure, finance, and economic issues. It can be a vital role in preparing for and developing collective bargaining negotiation positions and demands. This work intersects with Communications, New Organizing, and Collective Bargaining. PhDs and Masters in Economics are great fits for this role.

Labor Educator

Many unions run internal training and education programs for their members. Often, these programs are in partnership with universities. As an example, for many years I was an instructor at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, which was part of Empire State College, SUNY. The college offered an Associate’s Degree program for the Apprentices in the Electrician’s Union (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local #3). I also taught at the New York City extension of the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations, which offered various programs and certificates for union leaders and members. Right in our own backyard, we have the Murphy Institute—CUNY School of Labor Studies, which focuses on worker and union member education and research. Another important Labor Education body is the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) Organizing Institute located in Washington, D.C., which trains and develops member activists and staff organizers. Permanent faculty positions require a PhD, while other positions are filled by adjunct faculty who have Master’s degrees.

Common Requirements

Across the board, like at most not-for-profits, a successful candidate must identify with the broad values of the Labor Movement and the specific values of the individual union. Some unions are really progressive, some more towards the middle, and a few are downright conservative. A Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Doctorate may be required. Relevant experience is usually asked for, but that seems to be quite flexible and a good case can always be made for transferable skills. Presentation skills are very important as are writing and interpersonal skills. Foreign languages may be very important depending on the make-up of the membership. The willingness to travel and the flexibility to work long, irregular hours according to the demands of the job are important qualifications. Teamwork is crucial as well. Some of the roles described above may overlap, such as Technology and Communications. In smaller unions, many of the roles may be combined so that, for instance, the same individual might be responsible for external and internal organizing.

Geographic Location

There are unions in all 50 states, but one-half of all union members live in California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, and the State of Washington. There is also a large union presence in Washington, D.C., as some of the largest unions in the country have their national headquarters there. D.C. is also home to the two labor federations, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win.

The Disadvantages of Working for Labor Unions

Work-Life Balance

Work-life balance can be extremely challenging, particularly in the External and Internal Organizing positions and in the Political and Communications roles. The work can be all-consuming. There are no 9-5 boundaries.

Stress

The job can be quite stressful. People’s livelihoods are on the line, so you might be dealing with upset and angry people. Expectations and demands may be too high. A thick skin is needed in many of the roles outlined above.

Varying Union Cultures

Different unions have different cultures. Some are better to work for than others. Since unions are political organizations, the election of new leadership may directly affect your work.

The Advantages of Working for Labor Unions

Working for Social Justice

Like working for many not-for profits, the work is fulfilling a social mission. You can have the satisfaction of advancing a cause that you believe in. You are part of a movement that empowers people and improves lives.

Salary Transparency and Averages

In job descriptions, there is a way, way higher percentage of jobs where the salary is posted than in other sectors. Salaries are higher than in the rest of the not-for-profit sector and benefits are generally excellent.

Field Work

Many of the jobs involve field work rather than being stuck in an office.

Job Security

There is good job security. There generally are not massive layoffs or turnover.

Transferable Skills

Much of the work is applicable to other sectors of the economy should you decide to move on.

How to Find Labor Movement Jobs

UnionJobs.com is the most comprehensive website for labor union jobs. The AFL-CIO organizing hub hosts a resume database where you can post your resume and indicate geographic and job-type preference. If you are interested in working for a specific union, you can go directly to that union’s website where you will find posted jobs.

In the New York metropolitan area, the largest unions are: