How to Organize Your Workplace

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How to Organize Your Workplace

A step by step guide

Try an experiment with me. Take a regular wooden #2 pencil and snap it in half. Easy, right? Now take a bundle of 10 of them and try the same — you can’t do it! This is the purpose of a labor union: when we act alone we are easily defeated, but as a collective we cannot be beaten.

A labor union is a way for you and your coworkers to bargain collectively together and negotiate for better wages and working conditions. No company, organization or institution can function without its workers. Using that power, you and your coworkers can demand real changes that will materially impact your life.

Organizing a union isn’t easy, but here is a step by step guide to winning your first contract!

Step 1: Talk to your coworkers

The core of any union is the collective relationships between coworkers. Bosses like to set rules that discourage us from talking to one another; rules like: “don’t talk to anyone about your pay” or “don’t be negative.” If we want to build power in the workplace, we need to talk to one another about how we actually feel about the work. Ask your coworkers questions that go below the surface level: how do they feel about the workplace? How would their life be different if they had more power at work? Or if they had higher pay? Why does it matter to them? If they’re happy with how things are at the workplace, ask “do you fear that things could change for the worse?” Power is built through relations, so build your relationships!

Step 2: Build a leadership team

A core task of anyone who seeks to build power in a workplace is to identify the natural leaders. Most all workplaces have people who lead others — who are they? Who organizes the social events? Who buys the birthday cards? Who do people listen to and respect? Who is willing to take the time to do work of building relationships? How do those people feel about the idea of having power in the workplace? Once you’ve identified your team of leaders, pull together a meeting and come up with a plan to get the rest of your workplace on board!

Step 3: Execute your plan

This part of the unionization campaign requires a lot of discipline. Make a list of everyone who works at your workplace (not including management). Is there anyone on that list who is likely to snitch before the time is right? How are you going to make sure they don’t find out. Look at everyone else on that list, who is the right person to talk to them? When are they going to have that conversation by? Keep that list updated regularly and make sure you note where everyone stands. Use a 1 - 5 (1 being strong supporters, 5 being strong opponents) coding system so that you know exactly where everyone stands. Aim to get two thirds of your coworkers on board and get ready to go public.

Step 4: Go Public!

When you and the vast majority of your coworkers are ready to go public, get ready to pass out “authorization cards” to the rest of your colleagues. An authorization card is a document that you and your coworkers sign that authorizes your labor union to be your bargaining representative for better wages and working conditions. If a majority of your coworkers sign an authorization card, you can ask your employer to voluntarily recognize the union. If your boss decides to contest unionization, you will need to hold a vote administered by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Step 5: Vote!

If it is necessary to hold a vote, it will be a secret ballot administered by the NLRB. All you need to win is a majority of the voters -- so make sure you get all your supporters to go and vote. Your boss is allowed to campaign against you, so you’ll need to be prepared to convince people to not become “no” voters. Think of ways to build solidarity with your coworkers by all wearing a union pin, or by having folks sign a public letter of support. Make sure all your people feel comfortable holding the line while the boss makes wild threats or promises if people vote for or against the union.

Step 6: Bargain!

Once your union has won legal recognition, it’s time to negotiate your first contract. Identify what the top issues in your workplace are and build a bargaining team to fight for your issues. Sit down face to face with your boss and attempt to reach an agreement. When you’ve reached a tentative agreement, all the members of the union get to vote on whether or not they approve of the contract.

Being in a union means that you have a democratic voice in how your workplace is governed. Building an organized democracy in the face of repression by a boss is difficult work, but the rewards are tremendous.


Check out Episode #3 of our podcast to hear firsthand what its like to organize a workplace!

Lev HirschhornComment