Unions are such a pain in the ass really. Anyone who has dealt with a union understands. Then again, so is trying to get through to customer service at your bank, or the warranty division of a company that made one of your household appliances. Unions can be bureaucratic and hard to navigate in the same way dealing with the permit process to build a house or a building, or opening a childcare centre is. Paying union dues can feel as exciting as paying taxes.
But unions, we may finally be coming to realise, are absolutely essential to democracy. Wild levels of income inequality have led to wild levels of political inequality. Turns out that when you destroy the most effective tool that ordinary people have to challenge the powerful elite in their workplaces, you destroy democracy itself.
Chapter 2 of Timothy Snyder’s bestselling 2017 book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, is a directive titled ‘Defend Institutions’. It begins with his summary of why institutions matter to ward against tyranny:
‘It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institution you care about — a court, a newspaper, a law, a labour union — and take its side.’
In a world of widening income inequality, the foundering of the democratic electoral process, and rampant sexual and racial inequality, I take the side of unions. Despite their numerous problems, unions alone have the potential to match the power of giant corporations and massive wealth and solve the many social problems we face now.
But most workers who are unionised today have no idea how their workplace became unionised. They showed up, got hired, and found a union card or a horrifically outdated union membership form in triplicate, still layered with carbon paper, buried in their folder of paperwork at new employee orientation. The carbon paper alone tells most younger workers that union means ‘last century’.
Today, the odds of a successful organisation drive are stacked against workers, in spite of the fact that polls show strong support for trade unions amongst the public. It is vital to understand what kind of campaigning on the part of unions is needed to close the gap between those favourably viewing unions and those having unions. Union organising, and for that matter, most organising, is a craft, and the knowledge that wins a campaign is founded on experience. Workers who have never been through that experience — and most haven’t — need an experienced, skilled union organiser. This wouldn’t be true if the rules for unionisation were fair, but the rules are heavily stacked in favour of employers.
How do union organisers help workers beat those odds? There are two key methods that animate two key principles behind any successful union drive and any union development. The methods are leader identification and structure tests, and the principles are democracy and participation. Leadership identification is grounded in the belief that natural leaders already exist among workers, long before organisers or activists get involved. These natural, or organic, leaders have no title, but they are people whom other workers trust, whom they turn to for help when they aren’t sure how to get something done. Structure tests are mini-campaigns designed to help assess the level of worker participation by work area, be it a unit in a hospital or a shift at a fast-food restaurant.
A good organiser must be able to recognise organic leaders. Fortunately, there is a tried-and-true method for identifying these leaders, and though it’s not complicated, it does require good listening skills and a lot of patience and discipline. To identify leaders effectively, an organiser has to ask most of the workers by work area variations of the same question, which is: Who is the worker you turn to when you need help understanding something? There are more questions, but they are all a variation of this single question. Once an organiser hears the same name over and over, they will then use a structure test to assess whether this worker really is the worker that most everyone else relies upon and trusts.
If the identified informal leader can get everyone in their own work area to do something, like sign a petition to management, then it’s likely they are the natural leader among their peers. Structure tests are always done by hand and face-to-face, not using online tools, because, in addition to assessing the capacity of workers to get their co-workers to do something, they also help build solidarity because they force workers to engage in face-to-face conversations. This was already important before the advent of social media, but it’s even more important today because chatting late at night on social media is very different than when a worker looks another worker in the eyes and helps them work through fear, ambivalence, and all the normal things that happen when a union buster shows up.
Identifying worker leaders is one method of ensuring high participation in a collective effort, which is one of the key principles in helping workers win. High participation is defined by successful union organisers as a supermajority of 80 per cent or more of any given constituency engaging with one another in a collective effort (for a strike, no less than 90 per cent). The other key principle is a commitment to democracy, which means breaking down the barriers — including directly confronting racism and sexism — that divide workers and weaken them in the fight for their common good.
Given this, there are two ways the battle to unionise is fought today: in either what is called a hot shop, or as part of a strategic industrial or geographic campaign. The difference is significant. In a ‘hot shop’, the employer did something horribly wrong, which enraged a majority of workers, and they rushed into a drive to organise. Most hot shop efforts in our current climate fail, despite the agitation (‘heat’) for a union.
Building unity quickly when a boss does something bad is very different from sustaining a super-majority of workers who are united, and also equipped to remain so, when the union busters show up. The conditions in the second type of unionisation fight, strategic sectoral or geographic organising, are different. This involves organising workers in a region or industry that workers, through their union or set of unions, decide to target for strategic reasons.
Strategic organising campaigns, unlike hot shop battles, tend to be fought by experienced organisers, drawing on workers already in the same union but in a different unionised facility. The non-union workers in these kinds of targeted industries or specific locations are likely to be dealing with a union that is actively trying to improve collective bargaining standards in their sector or region. More workers in a collective bargaining relationship to the employer, and in relationship to the sector, means more power for those workers, and this generally suggests that the union not only has a vision for workers’ futures, but also the resources and staff competencies to back that vision.
A strategic campaign usually begins with strategic research. Which industries can’t be offshored? Within these industries, which employers are expanding and flush with cash, so that if the workers win, they can pull up to negotiations knowing there’s money to make real improvements? Which industries and employers have groups of workers who are skilled enough that their employers can’t easily replace them? Do the workers have some kind of other important campaign asset — for example high public prestige?
Both of the multi-year strategic campaigns I was hired to direct early in my union organising years had two equally important motivations. First, the state or region was key for emerging geopolitical reasons: the industries involved were in a red or Republican state, and the national unions I worked for had a long-term goal to shift the politics of the area to pro-worker and pro-union, that is to say, blue.
Second, the industries and employers involved were making a killing financially and were not unionised at all. In each case, in southern Connecticut in the late 1990s and in Nevada in the mid-2000s, we achieved both goals: We unionised thousands of workers and shifted the regional politics from Republican to Democrat. The former victory is the truly hard one to achieve; the latter happens quite naturally after successful unionisation or a great contract win. Why? Good unionisation or contract campaigns, and certainly strikes, help clarify whose side the employer class is on; it becomes easy to see this when your employer is forced out from behind the curtains into showing their overtly anti-worker side.
Real-life struggle reaffirms the idea that workers can still win and overcome all sorts of obstacles. Unions prove that in today’s strategic sectors — chiefly the service sector, where schools, universities, hospitals, and health care systems are growth industries — workers still have power. Of course, there are many sectors of workers where using the strike weapon is not as reliable, where there are many low-wage workers who are instantly replaceable, like small grocery stores — but that was also true a hundred years ago. The key to rebuilding working-class power is a more intense focus on questions of strategy — the strategy of which workers to focus on, and why, when, where, and how.
The mostly female workers who dominate the service sector of the economy — sectors increasingly under attack from accounting firms, hedge funds, and investors who attempt to suck the life out of education and health care, to turn students and patients into profit centres — have the capacity to hold the line on corporate greed. Building strong, democratic unions in strategic sectors made up of enough workers who are hard to replace, and workers who have a kind of moral authority in mission-driven work, is a strategic choice of leadership, not something dictated by the constraints of global trade deals.