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Many people look for more power, more of a voice and more protections at their workplace. Often, they contemplate the possibility of forming a union. Yet, for most, the idea of starting one either seems impossible, dangerous or people don't know that it is allowed in their type of workplace.

Having parents who belonged to unions much of their working career - up until I became a labor organizer myself, I kind of assumed that it was a clear and easy personal choice made by workers to either be unionized or not. The process, I learned as I began my new job in the movement, is actually quite complicated and the deck is rigged pretty solidly against workers standing up for themselves.

Follow me below the challah for a brief explanation of the process - and I hope that this starts a bit of a dialogue on bringing change to our workplaces. If we are to be the grassroots, then we need to be making change in our microcosms, on the ground in our community. In some cases, that may mean starting a new union at your workplace.

Before diving right in - if there is interest, I will continue writing on the subject - and will note that this election system is administered through the National Labor Relations Board and there are differences from state to state. It also doesn't apply in the same way to trades workers - carpenters, construction workers, plumbers etc., but there are also guidelines for those workers that I can discuss in a future diary.

This is also a simplified version - this is a difficult process and that is why organizers are essential on the ground, guiding from beginning to end - make good use of them, even though you know your workplace best.

Now here are the basic steps to form a union at your workplace

1) Pick a union that is able to represent you - and meet with an organizer

Each state is different. Each work type is different. Each locale and company has a different labor history. So do some homework and call the union that represents similar workers. Though this has become hazier in recent years - for example, the United Auto Workers represent the Legal Aide lawyers of New York City.

The two major umbrella unions are the AFL-CIO and SEIU. There are others outside of these two as well.

2) Figure out what your "bargaining unit" is

There will be an election for your workplace, assuming you get enough initial support from your coworkers - so you need to know how many voters there are!

Its not so simple, but a good organizer will chart out the workplace in order to have an educated guess as to how many employees exist. Remember, your boss knows this info, but you and your organizer may not.

3) Sign up a strong majority of workers on union authorization cards to trigger an election

Election season is 6 weeks long in the labor world - and it can happen any time of year. To trigger an election, technically only 30% of workers at a site must sign cards. However, since 50%+ are needed for victory, it is necessary to sign as many people as possible initially. Different unions have different goals - my union would only turn in cards to the state at 65%+ of a workplace, but it depends on the job, the level of excitement with workers and the level of surprise.

4) Fight like hell for 6 weeks before the vote

Once the boss finds out you want a union, all hell breaks loose. For 6 weeks, your boss will spend all their energy - and tons of money - trying to convince you and your coworkers to vote NO.

One of the reasons for the extreme downturn in successful union votes is the proliferation of union-busting consulting firms and law firms. They make millions of dollars swooping in, dividing workers (often along racial, gender or education-credential lines) and trying to scare and bribe people to vote against their best interest.

So its your job to counteract this - which is incredibly hard. Stand up for yourself. And your coworkers. It is in this window where you prove your mettle - and see if you have what it takes to win. Remember, your boss has the upper hand - they know your home address, phone number, pay scale and often who you are friends with and who has influence over each other.

5) If you win, you must negotiate a contract

When you win, you have a union - but its not in full force (nor do you pay dues) until you and your coworkers negotiate a contract that sets out working rules, pay scale, benefits and guidelines. This too requires solidarity and hard work. Winning the election means nothing if you do not push the boss to sign a contract that benefits you and your coworkers.


When you work as an organizer, the job is made worthwhile when you meet people of immense fortitude and courage who go through this process and come out with a strong and productive union. This is a true example of grassroots change - bringing about progressive movement towards a better functioning workplace - be it a factory, hospital, restaurant, office or any other time of business.

Have questions or disagreements? Good, thats how we get this ball rolling!

Originally posted to Sibling's Keeper on Mon Jun 10, 2013 at 08:18 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  The fall of the unions, coupled/related to (14+ / 0-)

    the expansion of globalization and unbounded trade, is the primary reason for our wealth gap today imo.

    I was gonna listen to that, but then, um, I just carried on living my life. - Aldous Snow

    by GoGoGoEverton on Mon Jun 10, 2013 at 08:47:44 AM PDT

  •  2 problems: (9+ / 0-)

    #3 - Signing up a strong majority of workers can be very difficult.  Unions have such a bad rap that a lot of workers won't have anything to do with them, even if it's in a place where the bosses won't immediately can you for saying the word "Union", which some will.

    #3a - A lot of people deny that they need a union even when they do.  When I was a court clerk, we had a union, and only about 30% of the clerks and reporters belonged to the Union, because "well, it won't do any good."

    Getting past that inertia can be a real barrier to getting a Union going.

    I am not religious, and did NOT say I enjoyed sects.

    by trumpeter on Mon Jun 10, 2013 at 10:40:36 AM PDT

    •  It's less about unions having a bad rep (0+ / 0-)

      (although that is a factor), but more about workers simply being afraid to exercise their rights.

      As an organizer, you have to be honest with the people you're working with. And the fact of the matter is, between employer resistance (legal and illegal), incredibly weak labor laws, and a NLRB sorely understaffed and underfunded, you basically have no protections in the workplace that are meaningful for an average employee.

      Never be deceived that the rich will permit you to vote away their wealth. - Lucy Parsons

      by cruz on Tue Jun 11, 2013 at 06:22:05 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  At the court, (0+ / 0-)

        it was all about the rep.  "Unions are worthless - they don't do anything for us" was the usual cry.  Those of us who told them "unions are not servants - they're us, and we have to unite to get anything done" just got funny looks.

        I am not religious, and did NOT say I enjoyed sects.

        by trumpeter on Tue Jun 11, 2013 at 08:03:42 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  There is another way. (13+ / 0-)

    The NLRA's entire election process is so skewed to the employer side that it's very difficult to win.  Even if you do, all an employer has to do wait out a year of unfruitful bargaining and go for another election to throw out the union.

    In these times, a better approach is "solidarity unionism."  You don't have to win an election within a defined bargaining unit to get the protections of the core of the NLRA:

    "Section 7:

    Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection..."

    Solidarity unionism ignores the rest of the rigged NLRA scheme and organizes workers for specific actions and demands rather than exclusive, all-encompassing contracts.  Solidarity unionism also rejects no-strike clauses and wholesale abdication of "management" issues to the employer.

    The IWW has practiced solidarity unionism since its inception.  We're still training people that approach.  Moreover, we don't rely on paid organizers from "Union Central."  Instead, our motto is "we are all organizers, and we train people to back that up.  You don't have to wait until some business union decides your shop is a good enough risk with enough dues potential to be worth its time.

    If you're interested in learning more about the IWW, check out this page to find a local branch near you:

    If you'd like to learn more about solidarity unionism, there's a great discussion of it in Staughton Lynd's Wobblies and Zapatistas.

  •  A good point. We already are starting to see (6+ / 0-)

    what I call "small-u unionism"; for example recent the Walmart and fast-food strikes.

    For another good perspective on this subject check out this article.

    "One of the greatest tragedies of man's long trek along the highway of history has been the limiting of neighborly concern to tribe, race, class or nation." Martin Luther King, Jr.

    by brae70 on Mon Jun 10, 2013 at 12:58:00 PM PDT

    •  Those movements are inspiring (6+ / 0-)

      Its actually an exciting time to be involved in the movement because of all these meaningful and non-traditional actions - and I've been seeing a resurgence of activity in the past year out of sectors that were dormant and beaten down.

      Out of curiosity, have you been out to any of the picket lines or protests in either of these movements? It is essential that while we move in the traditional ways that I described above, we also become more flexible and creative to combat the stunning resources leveled by corporate anti-union busters.

      •  Not to either of those two, but I've (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        israelfox87, AoT, notrouble, Oh Mary Oh

        been to a protest in support of the Coalition of Immolake Workers that was organized by Jobs with Justice. This action was in favor of better prices for tomato pickers.

        Another good strategy is to form an unofficial workplace "council" or "league" to get workers used to collective action by starting small, then consider affiliating with a major union.

        "One of the greatest tragedies of man's long trek along the highway of history has been the limiting of neighborly concern to tribe, race, class or nation." Martin Luther King, Jr.

        by brae70 on Mon Jun 10, 2013 at 02:47:36 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I love the work that CIW does (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          brae70, AoT, Oh Mary Oh

          Immensely important and led by some really inspiring Latino activists who also do great work promoting immigrant rights, anti-wage theft protections and diversity training in the movement itself

          It hearkens back to a time when the labor movement was expansive - took on battles along with other community and faith groups. I feel sometimes we limit ourselves too much today - albeit from a less powerful position with limited resources. Another exciting group working simultaneously on immigrant rights issues and worker rights issues is the National Domestic Workers Alliance, yet another group like farm workers left out of any semblance of labor protections during the new deal era.

  •  Anonymous organizing? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lightarty, Dirtandiron, Oh Mary Oh

    I saw something a couple years ago about an organizing effort that included a blog at which workers could interact using screen names only. That way the employer couldn't figure out whom to retaliate against.

    I suppose the drawback of that might be that an employer stooge could also participate anonymously. There's probably a way to prevent that, or at least make it difficult.

    "The true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals." - Barack Obama

    by HeyMikey on Mon Jun 10, 2013 at 02:38:34 PM PDT

    •  Anonymity is tricky (6+ / 0-)

      Staying anonymous and making your way to vote at the end in secret may seem safest, but its problematic for two reasons.

      For one, it robs any opportunity to build strength together to survive the onslaught of pressure from the boss. For followers - people who tend to follow the majority around them - if no one is publicly in favor of the union, they may think that no one is in fact on board and so do not want to risk being on the losing side.

      Strangely, there is also more legal protection in being public. Technically, you can't be fired for trying to a join a union. But we all know that bosses do in fact break that law all the time. By being public, it creates a trail of "protected activity" that can then be used to prove illegal disciplines or terminations in court. If you are secretive - but someone finds out that you are pro-union and you get fired, there is very little a union or you can do to prove to the courts that you were fired for union activity.

  •  Great diary & comments (5+ / 0-)

    So many workers need this information and support in their efforts.

    "If you can't take their money, eat their food, drink their booze and then vote against them, you have no business being in DC."

    by Betty Pinson on Mon Jun 10, 2013 at 05:47:35 PM PDT

  •  Rank and File Unions are the way to go (6+ / 0-)

    I am biased, I am a United Electrical Workers Union. We are an Independent Union, not affiliated with the AFL-CIO. I would suggest the UE get a look from anyone wanting to form a Union in their workplace. Here is a link to the UE page outlining the steps you identify.

    Just your average every day Autistic hillbilly/biker/activist/union steward with an engineering degree.

    by Mentatmark on Mon Jun 10, 2013 at 07:51:03 PM PDT

  •  Fine Job iseralfox (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Oh Mary Oh, 6412093

    Your post is wonderful and the sort of info that is needed here.  May I suggest the AFL-CIO web page as another place that may give the intrested a bit more information.  Its always great though to hear the info from someone who is out there practicing what they preach...well done and thank you for your very important work.

    Give peace a chance get up and dance... Alvin Lee/Ten Years After

    by Blue Collar on Tue Jun 11, 2013 at 12:38:26 AM PDT

  •  in the organizing process, I would add... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Oh Mary Oh, israelfox87, brae70

    when considering organizing at your workplace, in addition to educating yourself to which union fits your needs, also do extensive research on union facts.  This research will be instrumental in forming a core group to do your initial contact with a union organizer.  It's important to keep in mind that this is YOUR organizing drive, the union rep is there for support only. It will be up to the core group of workers to 'sell' the idea of a union.  It is the job of the organizer to guide and educate you to talk to your fellow workers.  You must be prepared to devote a lot of your time and energy to making the organizing drive successful.

    It is also essential to talk to other workers in your industry who had successful union organizing drives.  Once your drive is off the ground, these unionized workers are great to have speak at your meetings with your co-workers.  

    Those are a couple of important things I learned from the successful union organizing drive I was involved with in the workplace (a university) in the mid 1990's.  

    •  Amen (0+ / 0-)

      It sometimes may sound like rhetoric, but when I first meet with a worker or a group, I tell them that this is their campaign. I don't work where they work so at the end of the day, I can help to the best of my abilities, but they have to carry it. Of course afterwards, they still will be working at the place.

      In a recent campaign, it really helped that this group of health professionals had many relatives in different kinds of unions and they could talk to them. One even called the local congressperson - I kid you not - who sent a staffer to one of our meetings to show solidarity. Ah blue states...

      Out of curiosity, where you organizing as faculty, grad students or other employees of the university? There are some really interesting things going on at private universities - what with the 12 year attempt for grad students at NYU to organize, organizing the food service staff at U of Miami despite Florida's horrific laws, and the systematic organization of adjunct faculty who are terribly treated and paid throughout the country.

      •  university clerical... (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        israelfox87, Box of Rain

        at Illinois State University.  We organized with AFSCME Council 31.  They had the best organizers and their director Tracey Abman is such a professional, motivational leader.  

        The clerical at University of Illinois, after 7 years of organizing, had won representation with AFSCME a few years before we organized.  Having a successful clerical union just 45 minutes away was very helpful.  

        I had moved out of state in 2001, but twelve years later, am still a huge union supporter.  

        •  Quite interesting (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          teharper428, 6412093

          I like Council 31 a lot - you are exactly right to point out their professionalism in the work that they do.

          I may end up writing a diary in the not too distant future about the tactics bosses use to try to prevent organization. Hopefully folks like you who have been through the process will share what the experience is like. In order to overcome fear, you need veterans of battle to learn from.

          •  anti union tactics (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            We had little in the way of anti-union tactics.  HR tried to put together some anti-union employees, but they were pretty ineffective.  We had a jump on them; from the start we educated co-workers about the positive aspects of unionizing and what management would attempt to try to divide us.

            I always felt to be out front in union organizing was the safest place to be.  I was a good employee, and so to be fired was going to make the university look really bad.  It's the employee who hides his/her union support that could be in jeopardy of being fired.

            I have every flyer, newspaper articles and AFSCME materials we used in our union campaign.  

            •  I am glad you faced minimum anti-union (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              israelfox87, teharper428

              activity.  Partly, that was because you are in the public sector.  

              Private sector union organizing often faces the most virulent anti-union tactics you can imagine.

              The Machinists just lost an election for 3000 workers where I live.  A leaflet magically "appeared" in everyone's work place one morning, in Spanenglish, about how the employer had divisions in Mexico, and unionization would divert all the work to the new "casa" where wages at 3 bucks an hour.

              Of course management denied any part in that.

              Orly, it isn't evidence just because you downloaded it from the internet.

              by 6412093 on Tue Jun 11, 2013 at 10:33:41 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

  •  Question for Isrealfox87 (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Oh Mary Oh, israelfox87, 6412093

    How much will the NLRB rules changes help organizing when they are fully implemented?

    Microunions -

    Excelsior List to include Phone #'s -

    'Quickie' elections -

    etc... -

    Also, what are your views on non-exclusive non-majority unionization as a tool for unions to increase density?  What if corporations were required to bargain with them?  New Zealand uses a model like this and they have over 20% unionized and I believe this is how it was done in the US before and after the NLRA was passed in 1935.

    Thank you.

    •  Good questions (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      And down in the weeds, excellent for spreading broader knowledge.

      To give everyone a bit of background:

      Microunions are a much bandied about term for the broadening of types of bargaining units in a particular workplace. This has often led to small groups, say the receptionists at a large office complex, forming unions even if other people in the office don't.

      The Excelsior List is the employer provided list of bargaining unit employees that has to be passed to the union once the election process has started. There are often shenanigans played with it by the boss, who can make last minute additions or subtractions or blatantly add supervisors to the list, causing legal challenges to slow down the process.

      Quickie elections was a proposal to cut off some of the stalling tactics that bosses uses to delay elections. Unfortunately, this was overturned by the courts - and so never went into effect.

      In my opinion - and obviously I only speak for myself and my experience - the first two have very little effect on anything. As I believe the strongest unions are wall to wall (and don't believe in splittig professionals, technical workers and service workers between different unions), micro unions are difficult because you are in a terrible bargaining position for a contract even if you win.

      The big case on the subject is with Macy's where the Cosmetics department organized, but the rest of the store didn't. Even if they had been recognized as union - which they haven't been yet - the boss could quite easily string them out for a long long time without a contract until they grow apathetic or until other workers in other departments receive raises and benefits that the union workers don't.

      As for the excelsior list...well, I always feel in person meetings are best, but obviously the more ability to reach people, the better.

      Lastly - we kind of have the non majority unions you speak of, they are just in anti-closed shop states (so called "right to work" ) where, at one time, there was a majority who wanted a union, but today there is no longer. Largely these are weak chapters, though Nevada and Iowa have shown that you can be successful with these laws if you are activist enough.

      As for actual non-majority unions without elections in the past, this is kind of what is happening at McDonalds, Target and Wal-Mart. Absolutely we need more of this kind of activism with the understanding that there never will be the kind of recognition that countries like New Zealand or Australia granted to them. As with anything in the labor movement here in the states, they have to learn to grow constantly or they die.

  •  Card check (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    bypasses the cumbersome and unfair NLRB election process, and robs the bosses of their many-weeks-long window to fire organizers and convince workers not to support the union. Our president professed to support card check during his first campaign, but Senate Republicans mumbled something about a filibuster, and we haven't heard anything about it since then.

    "A lie is not the other side of a story; it's just a lie."

    by happy camper on Tue Jun 11, 2013 at 06:49:48 AM PDT

    •  Labor law (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      is one of the most old-fashioned segments of our legal system, yet updating it with laws that fit the current climate and rabid anti-work corporate world that has been built is nearly impossible on the federal level. Card check seems like a pipe dream and while I would love to be proven wrong, the political change needs to come in the workplace, then on the streets and then maybe in the halls of State legislatures and Congress.

      Though President Obama has been weak on standing up for the working class and unions, I can hardly fault him for not passing card check. I can however fault him for not increasing the penalties for companies who fire employees for union activity. Right now, the punishments are slaps on the wrists and so there is really no obstacle to firing people at the first word of union activity.

  •  A Couple of Points (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    israelfox87, 6412093

    I'm the political director for a public employee local and I just wanted to add a couple of points:

    *"The two major umbrella unions are the AFL-CIO and SEIU" -- the AFL-CIO is not a union, but rather a coalition of unions.  SEIU, I work for an SEIU local, is part of the Change to Win labor coalition.  SEIU is a single union and not an umbrella for multiple unions.

    *Private sector unions, on the whole, are regulated by the National Labor Relations Board.  Public employees were specifically excluded from the National Labor Relations Act.  Public employees are given collective bargaining rights through state governments.  For instance, in Connecticut where I live and work, public employees didn't win collective bargaining rights until 1978.  In Connecticut, public employee labor unions fall under the oversight of the Connecticut State Board of Labor Relations, and not the NLRB.

    *Another thing to keep in mind is the size of your worksite.  Many union organizers I know and have worked with are hesitant to organize worksites smaller than 40 employees.  The thinking is that the cost of negotiating and administering a contract is not cost-feasible at a small worksite.  Personally, I'd like to see small shop organizing, but most unions are not blessed with an overabundance of resources.

    *"Card check" is a right-wing term that I avoid.  Majority sign up is a better and more accurate description of the process.

    *Unions negotiate and administer contracts.  And, the other political work of unions always routes back to the members and the contract.  Why does SEIU support marriage equality?  Because we have gay and lesbian members.  Why is SEIU playing a major role in the fight for comprehensive immigration reform?  Because we have a lot of immigrant members.  

    37, male, NY-14 (born), NJ-9 (raised), MA-1 (college), CT-1 (now)

    by kalu on Tue Jun 11, 2013 at 08:12:14 AM PDT

    •  You are right (0+ / 0-)

      about small shops not getting much attention.  I hope the IWW and similar groups can help fill that need, like when the IWW went after Jimmy Johns and Starbucks, where thousands of workers are broken into small shops.

      Decades ago, I infiltrated and organized several small shops.  But under Reagan, the NLRB ruled against the small shop doctrine.  

      The doctrine meant in a work place with 10 workers, for instance, you could assume the boss knew about an organizing campaign, so if a pro-union worker was fired for no good reason, the NLRB could infer it was retaliation.

      Without that protection, small shops became more difficult to organize.

      Orly, it isn't evidence just because you downloaded it from the internet.

      by 6412093 on Tue Jun 11, 2013 at 10:39:05 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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