By Doug Nesbitt
Editor of Rankandfile.ca
If you want a union in your workplace, it’s hard to know where to start. Talking union on the job will get you shushed by co-workers, or worse, fired my management. The fear of retaliation is real. So here’s some basic advice on how to get things started.
The first thing to know is you have to begin organizing before you even contact a union for help. Most unions are only going to help you and your co-workers if they see the possibility of winning.
Know Your Co-Workers
So where do you even start? Talk and listen with co-workers and get to know everyone’s issues. This will help you identify the common issues that people have. Is it wages? Scheduling? Bullying? Lack of benefits? Identify who you think is pro-union and anti-union. Who is on the fence? Who are the most influential people on the job?
When your shift is over, document all this information in a notebook, or on your computer. Keep the information safe and don’t share it. Not yet, at least.
Get a copy of the employee list, and use it to build your own organizing list. Keep it updated. The easiest way is taking a photo of an employee list or work schedule on your phone. Work schedules might not have everyone’s name on it, so keep checking them against your organizing list.
The list helps you collect and organize contact info like phone numbers, addresses, whether they drive or take the bus, etc. It helps you prioritize your organizing work. If your workplace has several departments, you’ll be able to identify where you’re weakest and where extra effort is required. Document everyone’s individual issues, and whether people are hot, cold or lukewarm to a union.
The list is critically important for building a union, and having a list with all the above information is the type of thing union organizers will jump at when you approach them for help.
The Committee is the Union
Once you’ve got an idea of who is solidly pro-union, it’s time to form a committee.
What does a union committee do? For a start, it does all the list-building work mentioned above like getting to know every co-worker, identifying issues, getting contact info, rating their position on unions. But the committee does this as a team.
Don’t invite just anyone into the committee. You don’t wanna tip off management. Pro-union coworkers can be tested with tasks before they’re invited to form or join a union committee. For example, get them to get a copy of the employee list, or get contact info or talk with their co-workers and get info on what issues they have. If they’ve proven themselves, invite them on board and have them swear an oath to the union.
It’s easy to make a committee of friends or people in your own department, but the committee is the union, so it can’t just be a clique.
Don’t wait for an incident or crisis at work to organize. Patiently but persistently lay the groundwork so there’s already a union presence (the committee) when shit hits the fan.
You or the committee can build the union “low and slow”. It doesn’t have to be a rush, but it’s also true that the longer you and the committee is operating, and the more your committee grows, odds increase that management will be tipped off.
Preparation is Key
Make sure everyone on the committee has signed a union membership card. If the shit hits the fan and you and your co-workers are disciplined or fired because of union organizing, that card affords you some legal rights because the employer will have committed what’s called an Unfair Labour Practice.
Truthfully, this kind of legal protection doesn’t really guarantee anything, but filing a ULP with the labour board could get you your job back, or lead to some kind of penalty for the employer that helps your co-workers unionize. Basically, it’s better to have signed that union card because it gives you more potential legal rights and options.
Preparation also means understanding the union advantage for your kind of workplace, and how that connects with your co-workers’ issues. What are wage rates and benefits at a union equivalent of your workplace? How could a grievance procedure handle a bully manager? What kind of legal protections can unions bring?
Get ready for the hard questions, too. Where do the union dues go? I’m not going to work here much longer, so why should I support a union? Aren’t we going to lose our jobs? These are all difficult questions to answer if you haven’t had to handle them before. This is where a committee is so important. Talking these issues through with co-workers is how you can learn honest answers to these questions.
Part of building a union is learning and understanding the union certification process in your jurisdiction. Understanding it means you’ll be able to rattle it off clearly and pretty quickly. The union certification process will be covered by provincial law for 90% of Canadian workers. Workers in federally-regulated industries will be governed by the federal Canada Labour Code. Most unions have this basic information on their websites.
The Boss Fight
Odds are you will have to file signed union membership cards with the provincial labour board to trigger a union vote. Win the vote and you will have a legally-recognized union that can bargain a contract with the employer.
Depending on the province, you won’t need a majority of co-workers to sign union membership cards to trigger the vote. But it’s best to have a supermajority sign. Some unions don’t even file the card with the labour board until two-thirds of workers have signed.
The period between filing these cards and voting is often the hardest part of the union drive. It’s what union organizers sometimes call “The Boss Fight”.
Leading up to a vote, coworkers will likely face endless anti-union BS and sneaky tricks from the employer. One-on-one meetings and group meetings with managers, owners, “consultants” and corporate executives are designed to spook everyone. People who speak up at mandatory group meetings will be identified as troublemakers and management will find a way to punish or fire them.
Employers and their union-busting consultants will say unions are greedy, dues are costly, union “rules” make your job worse, and a union will force the company to close down. They may fuck with scheduling, paycheques and work tasks. They’ll also try divide and conquer. Some people will be made an example of. Some co-workers might be offered individual raises, easier work tasks, and even promotions.
The union committee’s job is anticipating these tactics and preparing co-workers for this counter-attack. It’s work that needs to be done regularly before the union cards are even filed with the labour board. It’s before the cards are filed that workers need to know how a union can improve working conditions, how collective bargaining can give them a voice in work conditions and provide protection from management abuses of power. You don’t want to be caught playing catch-up on these issues. It’s a recipe for defeat.
The union committee can’t be just about signing union cards. It’s a place to train union organizers and learn together as a team. Strengths and successes, setbacks and lessons can be examined together so the committee becomes better at what it does.
Beyond the Boss Fight
Having a committee means having a stronger workplace union after you win union certification. If you’ve partnered with a bigger parent union, they can bring staff, resources and knowledge to your doorstep. But without a strong committee as the nucleus of a new workplace union, all that means little. A union’s power resides in workplace organization and collective power. Otherwise, it’s a paper tiger.
Choosing what parent union to work with is important, too. Each union is complex and so are its pros and cons. Some unions will have more potential power in your sector because of numbers. Others might seem more democratic but have few resources and little knowledge in your sector. Some unions will offer great support in your union drive, but little support after you’ve won the union and go into bargaining a first contract. If there are several unions in your sector, think beyond your own parent union. Reach out to the other unions and workers in your sector and build links.
Ultimately, the committee’s job isn’t just formal organization – who signs union membership cards – but training and building up each other as trade unionists and cutting through co-worker fears that are going to be stoked by management. Knowledge is power. Understanding the boss’s game is key. Forging a positive vision around resolving longstanding issues and improving workplace conditions is essential.
Last but not least, union organizing always comes with risk and sacrifice. It is a battle and there will be casualties – harassment, firings, betrayals, and even possibly defeat. But nothing changes and there are not victories without struggle.
About the Author
Doug Nesbitt is the co-founder and editor of Rankandfile.ca. He has been involved in union organizing campaigns in call centres, home care, cleaning services, retail and education. He is currently writing a book about organized labour and the Common Sense Revolution in Ontario.