By Ben Sichel
What gives unions their power?
On the surface, the answer is simple: strength in numbers. A single worker has little power to negotiate wages or resolve conflict with an employer, but a united group of workers does.
This is the union movement’s foundational and most important principle. But often, it can feel to union members like this principle has been forgotten.
In between contract negotiations, many unions function mainly as a service provision organization: a small group of professional staff and/or elected officers work full-time at an office, fielding members’ phone calls and representing them in grievances or disciplinary hearings.
The result is that many members tend to see “the union” as an external organization, something like an insurance company, rather than a collective of workers. Need help sorting out your dental benefits? Want to go on maternity leave? Call the union.
This kind of service provision is extremely important, as it allows members to enjoy the benefits negotiated into their contract. However, when it comes to what most would argue is the primary function of unions — fighting to improve and maintain that contract — it’s not enough.
Mobilizing vs. Organizing
Unions’ power comes from their capacity for collective action. If a group of workers feels their employer is treating them unfairly, they can take action together, with the strike being the most powerful tool in the toolbox.
In the leadup to a strike, unions typically begin to mobilize their members. If contract talks are going badly, union leaders might invite their members to come to a rally, make a post to social media, or write to their elected representative.
Once the moment of crisis has passed, though, those mobilizations tend to quiet down, and most members don’t engage with their union until the next round of negotiations. For many members, this may be just fine: they’re happy to leave “union work” to core volunteers (usually around 5-10% of members) and paid union staff.
But experienced union organizers note the importance of deep, sustained organizing – not just mobilizing – In order to make significant, concrete gains for members. This organizing needs to be well planned, methodical, and most importantly, it needs to focus on building power.
Organizing tactics can vary: they can include actions like petitions, rallies, marches, letter-writing campaigns, wearing union pins or colours on a specific day, surveys, and pledges for strike-readiness.
Effective organizing, however, involves tracking how many members participate in these actions, as well as who participates and who doesn’t; and in developing strategies to constantly increase participation over time. Union reps or stewards need to develop organizing skills, such as having tough one-on-one conversations with members who are hesitant to participate in union actions, and identifying key “organic” leaders among groups of employees who can help influence their co-workers.
Organizing, according to labour educator Jane McAlevey, needs to be “focused on the people who don’t agree with you.”
“[W]ho are the people not coming to our meetings?” McAlevey says. “Who are the people who have never come to an action? Who…are the workers who aren’t following us on social media? Who are the workers who run away from the rest of the union when they see them walking down the hall, duck into the bathroom, or turn their heads the other way?”
The objective should be to build a union in which a large majority of members consistently participate in union-led actions. Then, if contract negotiations stall and the union needs to strike, members are already used to exercising their collective power – power that is essential in order to make real contractual gains.
Effective organizing techniques have been employed by labour and political organizations for over a century, and are laid out in detail in many books and courses. (Two that I’ve found personally useful are McAlevey’s Organizing for Power course, and the Secrets of a Successful Organizer series by Labor Notes.)
Facing tough labour battles
In recent decades, employers have become very good at keeping worker job action in check.
In the private sector, large employers can threaten to simply shut down or relocate a workplace if workers take collective action, or seek legal injunctions against picketing (which then allows them to get around strikes by using replacement workers).
In the public sector, governments routinely end strikes by passing laws declaring them illegal, under threat of harsh punishment.
How can workers overcome these blunt tactics? By remembering what gives unions their power, and working over the long term to build and maintain that power.
When a government legislates a striking union back to work, or a court grants an anti-picketing injunction to an employer, workers usually grudgingly comply with the law. This has been the case in most recent cases in Canada, such as the Canadian Union of Postal Workers’ strike in 2018, the Teamsters strike at CN Rail in 2019, or my own Nova Scotia Teachers Union’s one-day strike in 2017.
Often, unions file court challenges after the fact to question the validity of the laws. These cases can take years winding their way through the court system, result in hefty legal fees, and produce uncertain results.
The alternative – defying anti-strike laws – is risky. Union coffers can be drained, individual members can face discipline, and union leaders can even be sent to prison, as when Canadian Union of Postal Workers president Jean-Claude Parrot served three months’ time in 1978.
Sometimes, however, taking risks can pay off. In 1999 the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses stayed off the job for 10 days despite legislation forcing them back, and ended up making significant gains for their members. The union was fined, but succeeded in having the money from the fines earmarked for professional development for nurses.
In 2018, salt miners in Goderich, Ontario drew upon solidarity from their community to defy a picketing injunction, which helped bring a 12-week strike to a close.
It may not always be clear how to react in the face of an employer’s heavy-handed tactics. It is clear, however, that a union whose members are well-organized and accustomed to collective action will be more prepared and powerful in a crisis.
So: no matter when the next round of bargaining starts – it’s time to get organized.