Seven steps towards power on the job

Apr 20, 2014

Basics on how to organize a union

What do the following workers all have in common?

• Greyhound Bus Lines in New York, N.Y.
• Aramark in Boston, Mass.
• Atmos Energy in Flowood, Miss.
• Chestnut Hill Hospital in Philadelphia, Penn.
• Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C.
• Golan’s Moving and Storage in Chicago, Ill.
• Humphreys Half Moon Inn in San Diego, Calif.

They organized and won a union election in the last year. Thousands of workers at hundreds of work sites in every area of the country won union elections. Many elections only involved a few people and many of them were low-paid service workers of various kinds — security, maintenance, health care, etc.

These elections were just the legal certification of struggles where workers created power on the job by joining together and acting together. For the first time, they had rights that could not be ignored and a united voice with the power to change conditions in their workplace.

How did they do it? How can you do it?

1. Talk to your co-workers

A worker who wants to change conditions on the job can begin to make real change by first talking to others who have expressed similar ideas.

Find times and places to talk where people can feel comfortable expressing their concerns. This is usually away from work areas where there are supervisors or management-friendly workers. It could be outside of the workplace.

Talking to co-workers about a union is just as legal as talking to workers about any other non-work issue. However, it is best not to alert the boss about union organizing until you have gathered greater power.

2. Make a list of workers and begin to track what issues are important to whom

As you talk to people, identify which issues motivate the greatest interest among the largest number of workers. Is it respect, lack of power or voice in how things are done, unfair treatment, low wages, lack of benefits, or something else?

3. Set up a committee of co-workers who have said that they want to have a union

This committee is the core of what will become a union. It is the heart of the organization that will create power for the workers. First, identify who the leaders are among the workers in each area on the job. Leaders are people who are looked up to by their co-workers and whose opinion is important to others.

Talk to those leaders who have given some indication of being concerned with the biggest issues and who are likely to want change. Talk to them one-on-one and show them that you feel the same way about these issues. Then ask if they would join a group of others who feel the same way and want to do something about it.

Make sure that the committee is as broadly representative as possible — all shifts, classifications, work areas, men, women, African American, Latina/o, Asian, etc.

4. Contact a union

To win representation at work, it is important to have the experience and resources of a union that is dedicated to organizing. The boss usually has lots of time and resources at their disposal to try to defeat a union drive. It is important to have the organizational strength to effectively deal with the boss. There are lots of unions and if you want to talk to someone about which is the best for your type of work and location, call the AFL-CIO in your area or contact the PSL office. We would be glad to help.

5. Move to create majority support

As the organizing committee gains greater support and participation, the organizing drive moves into a different and more public phase. The organizing committee needs to figure out who is the best person to talk to each worker. Everyone needs to be talked to about the issues that concern them and their support for the union. The bosses’ lies about the union need to be directly answered. This is when everyone will be asked to sign a union authorization card.

In the process of building greater support around issues that matter, the best way to demonstrate to everyone that people can act together is by actually taking actions. Actions could include getting petitions signed and carrying them as a group to the boss, or it could be wearing union buttons or t-shirts. Whatever the action is, it helps to build confidence and solidarity as well as testing the commitment of those who have said they support the union.

6. Winning the election

A petition for a union election can be filed with only 30 percent support in most instances. But filing with less than 75 or 80 percent is risky because the bosses’ last minute pressure tactics may create enough fear to make some people vote for the employer. If the organizing committee has good relationships with the workers and has identified how they are going to vote, then winning is much more likely.

In the course of organizing and mobilizing greater and greater support for the union, a number of companies have been forced to recognize unions without a long drawn-out formal NLRB election. Instead, based on the pressure of seeing the workers come together, they agree to recognize the union just based on the number of signed cards showing majority support.

7. Getting the first contract

The need for organizing and action does not end with winning the election. Now it is time to create the pressure needed to make the boss sign a contract with rights reflecting the reasons that people fought for a union in the first place. It can be done. It is done hundreds of times every year.

How does it feel? Ask the car-wash workers in New York City or airport concession workers at the Indianapolis Airport. It feels great to finally have some power on the job!