For a union bargaining team, a contract survey can be one of your most useful tools. But like any tool, it works best for certain jobs, and there are things that it just can’t do.
Contrary to what you might think, contract surveys are not the place to start finding out the core issues motivating your membership.
If you don’t know what the membership wants, you won’t know to ask a question about it. For example, if your union represents hospital workers and you don’t know that there have been attacks on guards at night, you won’t know to ask a question about safety and staffing.
So why do a survey at all? Because it gives the union’s bargaining team useful information and helps build unity on the job. Surveys can be helpful in a number of ways.
Get members involved. Contract campaigns ask more of the members at every juncture, from wearing buttons all the way up to walking off the job. Asking members to fill out a survey is an easy first step that will help set the tone for wide participation in your campaign activities
Gather contact information. Working cell phone numbers and emails are the foundation of any contract campaign. If you can’t reach your members, you can’t take action.
Assess your strength. You should track how many surveys you get from each department, shift, or building, and use the data to assess where you are strong and where you need to do more organizing. If you can’t get members to fill out a survey, you certainly won’t be able to get them to wear a button or strike.
Identify and evaluate leaders. You should also track what percentage of their group each steward, business agent, or committee member delivers. The people who can motivate their co-workers to fill out a survey now will be the most effective at motivating those same coworkers to take bigger actions later.
Show unity. If you craft your survey correctly, you will have some questions that most members answer the same way. You can use the results at your union meeting as evidence of unity—building members’ confidence in each other.
What to ask
Get specific. If you ask general questions you will get general responses, which are not useful and can even be misleading. For example, when asked, “What are your top contract issues?” many of our members responded with two words: “More money.”
So this contract is all about wages, right? Wrong. When the same members were asked how they would split a dollar between wages and retirement, the majority answered 50/50, or even favored putting more of the money in retirement accounts.
Include questions that target groups. Teamsters Local 814 represents about 800 workers in the commercial moving and storage industry who are employed by 21 companies.
We’re located in New York City, so it’s quite a diverse membership—ranging from 55-year-old Nigerian immigrants to 22-year-old military veterans working on their college degrees at night. They all fill out the same survey and work under the same contract.
Before we draft a contract survey, we identify each group that may have different core concerns—and make sure the survey includes questions that address each.
For example, our B-tier members, who make 80 percent of top pay, are overwhelmingly concerned with being promoted to the top tier. Our survey asked respondents how important this issue was to them.
As we expected, all the B-tier workers responded that it was a top issue. In a show of solidarity, most A-tier workers also rated these promotions as a top priority—giving us a sense that the union was united on this point.
This convinced us that promotions could potentially be included in a package of core demands that we could, if necessary, strike over. It also gave us a great statistic to use at our contract meeting to demonstrate that our union was united around a single bargaining agenda.
Gather data on the respondents. Ask them for their contact info, title, shift, tier, years of seniority, whether they have a smart phone, and whether they use the union’s website—even if you already have this information in other places. You will need it later on to analyze your responses. Besides, it’s a good chance to update your list.
Make an argument. Our contract survey asked four questions about the increasing non-union competition, including this yes/no question: “Will increasing non-union competition make it more difficult in the future to secure the raises and benefit fund increases that we need?”
These were leading questions. They pointed toward the idea that the biggest threat to our contract was the growth of non-union employers—a fact that members who don’t attend union meetings may not have been aware of.
The section ended by asking for volunteers for the union’s picketing effort. Many members did sign up.
Gather some information you might not have. We asked each member to rate the service of our health plan administrator. This question had never been asked on previous surveys, and we genuinely did not know what responses we would get.
It turned out that 92 percent of our members were satisfied with the medical plan and staff—a fact that helped us make informed decisions as plan trustees.
Leave a space for write-in proposals. The most interesting part is the writeins. Sometimes members have ideas for proposals that you’ve never considered, especially on small things.
At one of our shops, the members have their birthdays off as a paid holiday—all because one member suggested it on a bargaining survey many years ago.
Use your data
Our local used the online service Qualtrics to store and analyze our surveys. Most members filled out hard-copy surveys, since many did not have easy access to a computer at work. We entered them into Qualtrics afterward.
Qualtrics makes it easy to run statistics on your results. Want to know what members under age 30 and working on the second shift think about the health plan? Click a few buttons and this program gives you the answer.
The data came in handy when our bargaining committee and executive board met to go over the results of the surveys and draft a list of bargaining demands. We made sure to include a core issue for each group, and one that polled strongly with them in the surveys.
The next step was the fun part—kicking off the contract campaign. Our staff used the contact information from the surveys to phone bank and text members to attend a contract meeting.
Over 200 turned out. We handed out copies of the proposal, distributed buttons with our campaign slogan, and presented the statistical results of the surveys, which showed overwhelming support for our demands. Members voted to endorse the proposal and wore their buttons the following Monday at work.
Having this meeting and presenting the survey data fostered solidarity—and we ended up needing it.
Management fired back with proposals that undercut seniority rights for top-tier workers, but mostly left lower-tier workers alone. It was a moment when the union could have splintered and lost the campaign outright.
But the B-tier members remembered that the A’s had supported their promotions. In turn, the B’s backed up the A’s. We took a strike authorization vote to show management that we were still united, and 99 percent voted yes.
This was a tense campaign. The contract dragged on three weeks past expiration, without a strike or movement at the bargaining table. But members held together until the five largest moving companies signed the contract—improving the retirement benefit, creating an ongoing system of promotions from B to A, and securing wage increases and medical plan improvements.
This set the stage for the other companies to sign on as well. In a final show of unity, members ratified their new contract with a 98 percent yes vote.
This piece was first published by Labor Notes.