Building a Labor Union from the Ground Up
Workers group together in a labor union to achieve greater strength than they have as individuals when it comes to pressing employers for better wages and/or working conditions. When employers don’t meet demands, union workers may go out on strike, leaving their duty stations and forming picket lines to discourage replacement workers, known as “scabs,” from taking their vacated jobs.
After a century of making gains, the American union movement has become moribund over the past few decades in the face of a dissolving industrial sector, anti-union right-to-work laws, active opposition by conservative politicians, free trade agreements, outsourcing of jobs, and other factors. However, there has been recent union-building activity in the economy’s service sector.
To organize a union, the task is to get more than 30% of the work force at one’s place of business to sign a petition. The petition is then submitted to the National Labor Relations Board, which will call for an official election in which the entire workforce will decide whether it wants to form the union.
Throughout this process, organizers will be opposed by management.
Here are some tactics and problems you will face:
- The employer will exercise “free speech” rights to denounce the union, hinting that it would sooner shut down and relocate the business than recognize an “outside party.”
- It will hold “captive audience” meetings whenever it wants; the entire work force is subjected to a barrage of antiunion speeches and videos. Organizers, on the other hand, are not free to call such meetings on company property and more typically have to talk in secret to workers who fear they will be harassed or fired if the boss finds out they’ve been talking to a union organizer.
- Supervisors will hold frequent one-on-one meetings with workers, pressuring them to have nothing to do with the union; supervisors are also instructed to watch for, and stifle, any signs of pro-union activity.
- Company attorneys will attempt a variety of legal maneuvers to counter organizer activities.
- The employer may fire pro-union workers, just so everyone else on the job gets the message.
- There is rarely any support for the organizing campaign from the local media, politicians, the community, or even a national union headquarters; organizers are left to fight pretty much on their own against heavy odds.
To meet this kind of opposition, union organizers have taken to:
- Talking to workers in their homes, where they can speak openly.
- Soliciting support from friendly local organizations, influential residents, activist priests and ministers, etc.
- Making contact with the local media to tell why they are organizing.
- Calling town hall meetings, inviting the public to hear the workers tell their side of the story.
- Collecting dossiers of any evidence of the employer’s misconduct such as safety violations, especially where it affects the community, then publicizing whatever evidence they find.
- Advertising in the local newspaper, describing conditions on-the-job.
- Distributing leaflets throughout the community and at entrances to the workplace.