I work at a big social network. Our bosses are doing some shady shit the employees aren’t happy with. Not only do they go against our values, but I think they may actually be detrimental to society. We’ve tried talking to them about it, but we feel powerless, and we’re afraid of retribution. We also don’t feel like we have any representation. When shit goes wrong, we go to HR, and HR covers for the company. So me and some folks at work have been talking about unionizing. They’re ignoring us as individuals, so we think we’ll be able to do more if we speak with a communal voice. But we have no idea how to actually form a union. We found a section on the AFL-CIO’s website with “Four Steps to Forming a Union” and we thought, oh great, four steps is easy. Step two was “contact a union organizer.” Dude, that might as well say “summon a wizard*”! I don’t know any union organizers. Help!
Yeah, that’s a hell of a drop-off isn’t it? One of the biggest hurdles to unionization that we’re gonna have to deal with is that we don’t speak each other’s language. We (and by “we” I mean the big WE — let’s just say tech workers) don’t know how to how to find, much less talk to, a union organizer. Most of us have no history with unions. And union organizers have no idea how to talk to us. They’re much more comfortable talking to industries they’ve been dealing with for a long time. We’re newcomers to the union world. What we do is still a mystery to many people. We’re an odd bunch. We have trouble explaining what we do even amongst ourselves, and unions like things in tidy little categories, like plumber, electrician, baker.
The thing is, if we learn to talk to each other, both parties benefit tremendously. We get the collective spine we need, and unions get access to a young industry that ensures they remain relevant into the future. So we’re gonna have to build a common language. (For now, we may have to settle on a good translator.)
Luckily, I happen to know a union organizer. I called up my old buddy Chad Manspeaker, who works for the IBEW (that’s the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and yes, we need to deal with the “brotherhood” part), and he very patiently helped me put together this step-by step guide that may be a little more helpful than what the AFL-CIO made.
What the hell is the AFL-CIO?
Great question. The AFL-CIO is a federation of unions. As of this writing, 55 national and international unions live under their umbrella. They offer guidance. For you nerds out there, think of the AFL-CIO as the W3C — with all the negatives and positives that entails. Their hearts are generally in the right place, but they can move a little slowly, and they might be a tad too far away from the real action. That said, they’re a good place for folks like us to start, because they have a giant Rolodex of trade-specific unions they can point us toward, and they can even open doors for us. So we’re going to use them as a first contact.
Talk to your co-workers
Before you go reaching out to anybody, you gotta get your ducks in a row. A union is a collection of people with the same goals, so your first requirement is people. My guess is that you’re not the only person in your workplace thinking of improving your working conditions. Let’s find out who else is interested.
Not so fast, though. We’re not just going to message people on the company Slack channel, Brad. Not even the employees-only channel. Your best bet is to talk to them outside of work. (I have a theory that unions fell out of fashion when people stopped taking smoke breaks. But don’t start smoking just to form a union.)
Start small. Invite a few co-workers you trust to lunch and bring the topic up on the way there. (Pro-tip: This small group should include a diverse cross-section of your workplace, both culturally and departmentally. You’ll get a lot more support if the union isn’t hatched by four dudes named Brad, Chad, Thad, and Steve. If you make a diagram of your company it’ll help you see if you’re missing any departments.)
Make sure you can’t be overheard. Then widen the circle. Hopefully, you’ll be able to convince a big enough group that unionizing is at least worth having a conversation about. At which point you’ll need a place to meet in private. (If you’re in San Francisco, hit me up! My office is available and your privacy in ensured. If you have spaces to offer in other parts of the country, leave them in the comments.)
Oh, and this should go without saying, but since someone recently told me their boss “wouldn’t let them form a union” I’ll go ahead and say it: Don’t ask your boss if you can form a union. They don’t get a say. And the NLRA (National Labor Relations Board) protects your rights to engage in “concerted activity.” But honestly, the best thing is to keep it on the down-low. And remember: If unions didn’t work, your boss wouldn’t try so hard to keep you from forming one. You have the right to organize at work, as long as it “doesn’t interfere with production.” So have your conversations in the parking lot, on the way in and out of work, etc.
Do I call a union organizer now?
Not yet. A union organizer’s job is to help you form a union, not to form it for you. You’re going to have to do this yourselves. They’ll help.
Okay but seriously, all this secrecy is freaking me out
I get it. It can be a little daunting. But ask yourself where that fear is coming from. You’re afraid of retribution. You’re afraid of getting labeled a troublemaker. You’re maybe even afraid of getting fired. That’s justifiable after what happened at Kickstarter. Here’s the thing: Those legit fears come from working without a net. Organizing yourselves is the net. You have very little protection from being fired for random crap right now. Even if you’re wrongly fired, it’s your word against theirs. That’s the whole benefit of the union — they’re the organization that protects you from shit like being wrongly fired. That’s one of the reasons you’re forming one. So going through this now means no one has to live with that fear anymore. Including you.
Your first, second, and maybe even third meetings
Now that you’re all together in a space where you feel safe talking, it’ll be a good idea to give everyone a chance to be heard. Remember that not everyone at work is having the same experience that you are. Some people may have it even worse. Listen to what they have to say. Even if you end up deciding not to unionize, this will be a worthwhile exercise.
Things may get feisty. And, frankly, you may want to push them in that direction. Agitation is important in first meetings. If people know there are problems but don’t want to do anything, that usually means they believe nothing can be done. Fear paralyzes action. Questions like “What would you fix about your job if you could?” are good starts. Their answers are where your issues list is gonna come from. Digging in on each person’s issue can help to motivate them to see that a union can help solve their problem. They just have to decide if they actually want to fix it.
None of this is gonna be easy, but it’ll be worth it.
Remember, even if you’re the person who set this all in motion, no one is looking for another boss. Get other people’s input on setting an agenda and figuring out what you’re hoping to get out of gathering everyone together. One of the goals of the first meeting is to form a committee of co-workers to do the work of organizing, should you decide to move forward.
Let’s go over some possible outcomes:
- Everyone agrees it’s time to form a union. It’s unlikely this would be the outcome of the first meeting. But hey, if it happens, go with it. It means it’s time to call a union organizer. I’ll tell you how in a second.
- Everyone agrees something needs to change, but they’re not ready to commit to a union yet. They still have a lot of questions. This is a very realistic scenario. See if you can get everyone to meet one more time, in a week or two. That’ll give them some time to think about it. Work on getting answers to some of their questions. Encourage everyone to quietly spread the word. Try to get more people to come to the next meeting. You may also think about calling in a union organizer if they’re willing to answer some of those questions. (They will be.)
- Everyone agrees something needs to change, but a union isn’t the answer. This could happen. It’s possible that people won’t be into the union idea, but maybe they’re ready to take some other action, like a signed petition to management or a walkout. Bear in mind, however, that these actions will definitely tip your hand, and you’d be doing them without the protection of a union. They’re a valid way to go, though. But since we’re talking about unions today, let’s put a marker in those for later.
- Turns out most people are fine with the status quo and were just looking for an excuse to vent and drink a few beers together. Well, yeah. That could happen too. It’s not a total loss, though. You’ve found out something about your co-workers. For whatever reasons, and some of them might be valid (family, health insurance, immigration status), your co-workers aren’t in the same place as you are right now. Thank them for coming and drinking your beer. And then decide what you want to do. Might be time to move on to another workplace.
Ok, let’s bring in an organizer
All right, you got here! So either your workplace is ready to form a union, or you’re interested enough to bring an organizer in to ask questions. Either way, this is a big step. Congratulations on taking it, not just for yourselves, but for the future workers of your company. It takes guts, and you should be feeling good about yourselves right about now. Also a little scared. That’s natural.
Here’s what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna contact the AFL-CIO. This is what they’re there for. They even set up a nice easy form for you. Just fill it out. (Pro tip: Give them a personal email address, not your work one.) They’ll email you back in a few days.
I tried this myself and it totally works. I got an email from an organizer here in the Bay Area who’s totally excited about working with tech workers. We set up a call. (Okay, here’s a thing you’ll have to deal with: These folks do their business over the phone. You can do it.) We talked for a while. He was very friendly and asked lots of questions. In fact, I got him to come do an event at our office soon, which you’ll be invited to. Stay tuned.
Your goal here is to get a union organizer to come talk to you. It’ll work out better if you pick the location. Make sure it’s a place you’re comfortable in. (Pro tip: One of the first things the organizer is gonna ask you for is a company org chart. Have one handy.) And take some time beforehand to tell them a little bit about what’s going on in the workplace, as well as what kinds of workers they’ll be meeting with. Engineers? Designers? Young people? What are folks’ main areas of concern? Prep them a bit.
Let’s make it official
With the help of your union organizer, things are gonna pick up speed. You’re gonna have guidance from a pro with this part, so I won’t go too in depth with it. But in a nutshell, you’re gonna have to get the rest of your co-workers on board. At least a majority of them. So your little ragtag team is gonna have to get really good at persuading people. Which isn’t as hard as it sounds. These are the people you work with. You know them.
Once you’ve got a majority of your co-workers on board, it’s time to hold an election on whether to unionize or not, which again, your organizer will walk you through. Tally the results, and if the yays have it, congrats. You’ve just formed a union! You’re also now protected by the organization that sent the organizer. You’ve got back-up. And you get to sing Woody Guthrie songs.
There’s a lot more to come, like choosing union leaders and negotiating a contract with the boss. But here’s the good news about that: You’re no longer one individual going into your boss’s office alone. You’re a union. And your little union will have the backing of the bigger organization. You never have to be afraid again.
There is power in a union. Or, as Billy Bragg would say, “if you mix empathy with activism you get solidarity.”
*I stole this joke from Derek Powazek, who made it on Twitter. It’s a good joke, Derek.
If you have a question, email me and I’ll be happy to answer it. Maybe. If it’s a good question and answering it could help a lot of people, I’ll be more likely to answer it. “Should I quit my job because my boss is a dick?” is not a good question (and you already know the answer anyway).