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There has been inspiring growth of support for unions and increased organizing and strikes in the past few years. Despite these signs of progress, little seems to have changed. Workers at Amazon, Starbucks and Trader Joe’s have a union but no contract. What’s going on?
One of the greatest misunderstandings of what it means to unionize is that we have to follow the prescribed steps laid out by federal or state labor law. It is drilled into us that to have a union we need to gather signatures, request a vote to have a union, bargain the contract and then enforce it. We are told that we shouldn’t organize towards a strike until the bargaining begins.
This has been the predictable sequence of events since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 and many state labor relations laws since the 1960s.
It has also resulted in decades of predictable failure and defeat.
It is long past common knowledge that labor law doesn’t work for workers who want to organize for power in the workplace.
Labor law isn’t broken, as many of our union leaders like to repeat, it was designed to prevent organizing. Since it went into effect, labor law has been revised, interpreted and enforced to provide employers a powerful tool to block organizing altogether.
If you doubt me, take a look at how Amazon and Starbucks have not only refused to bargain with the new unions in their workplaces but have fired organizers, refused to meet and will not bargain in good faith. The companies drag their feet knowing that employee turnover will drain the union of momentum and core members will leave for other jobs. Even if the NLRB orders them to rehire fired organizers they pay no penalty other than back wages minus any income they earned in the meantime.
Doing more of the same thing will not prevent this anti-union hostility. Following the same path will lead us to one more defeat after another.
I have been a member of a number of unions and all of them have been led by mis-leaders. Whether intentional or not, our leadership lacks either knowledge of labor history or how to organize for power. In many cases they lack both.
In the public sector, the interests of many union leaders are interwoven with local elected officials. They provide generous campaign donations, free labor during campaigns and political cover. In exchange, weak public-sector contracts are bargained with the expectation of little to no trouble from the workers.
It does not have to be like this. Workers with trouble at work can organize anytime. When we organize we are a union. Having a union is not a formality. That formality was fabricated as the result of labor law in order to legalize and standardize how the boss and workers relate to one another.
We do not meet on a level playing field. Like playing the New England Patriots or Houston Astros, the game is rigged — to favor the boss. As the Golden State Warriors know quite well, the refs are lined up against you.
Instead, one path to worker power is to forget about labor law or even, as union labor lawyer Joe Burns argues in his new book, violate it.
But even if you aren’t ready to go that far yet, the answer to our predicament is to organize every day as if you plan to strike even if you never use that word.
There are many ways to do that, whether you have a formal union or not and whether or not you are prohibited from striking by your contract or law.
Find a “small” reasonable issue that many of your co-workers care about and organize a meeting to plan how to take action about it. Write a letter or petition describing the problem, tell them what you want, and set a deadline for their answer.
Deliver the letter in a “march on the boss” with a group of co-workers without making an appointment. Tell them to announce their response to everyone.
If you aren’t satisfied with their response, escalate your action.
Think about these actions, what we call tactics, as being on a heat scale like a temperature gauge. Starting lukewarm with a small reasonable issue presented in a letter or petition is non-threatening to your co-workers. Asking them to sign starts the necessary face-to-face relationship we call the “one-on-one” conversation. It brings in more co-workers at your and other related worksites, allows you to gauge the level of support, and ask people to join the organizing.
If the boss refuses to give you what you want, gradually keep turning up the heat with new tactics. Each new, hotter action making this reasonable demand will attract more attention and support. It will also generate publicity and public support. When the bosses see they have trouble, they will be more likely to meet and give you some or all of what you want.
Some bosses will not be that wise. As the temperature keeps rising, you may need to plan disruptive actions. A strike can be a powerful disruptive action but you will want to build towards that. The more actions you take, the more co-workers you bring into the organizing, the greater your threat of disruption to both your co-worker and the boss. You are now building towards a credible strike threat. This is your strategy.
If the boss thinks giving in will be less costly for them than further disruption or a strike you have won. These small victories provide momentum for the next organizing campaign which starts tomorrow. People love a winner and will flock to join you. Your next issue should be slightly bigger and hotter. That will excite more people to get involved. Keep following this strategy until you gain more power over your work.
This is your organizing campaign. The goal is not simply to be recognized and bargain a new contract.
You also do not need to go on strike but you will be ready when you need to.
Organizing 365 days a year builds your union and your power.. A union is not simply an organization. It’s a group of workers organizing for power. Workers cannot win just by bargaining. We cannot just call a strike and expect to win.
Organizing is workers asserting their collective power at work to change work — with or without a formal union, collective bargaining, contract or even the right to strike.
Our disruptive power at work is the leverage that forces the boss to give us what we want.
Following the same losing strategy is collective begging from a boss who is winning.
When we organize everyday as if we are preparing to strike it will be the boss that starts begging — for us not to strike.
Robert Ovetz is editor of “Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle,” and the author of “When Workers Shot Back,” and the new book “We the Elites: Why the US Constitution Serves the Few.” He trains workers to organize credible strike threats. Follow him at @OvetzRobert
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