How to Build a Union from Day One
Anti-union people often discourage workers from fighting for a union by telling them how long it might take to get a contract. But the truth is, you don't need a contract to have a strong union.
Back in the early days of the 20th Century, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the most militant union of its day, adamantly refused to negotiate a contract. The founders of the IWW were the creme of the crop of the labor movement back then.
They included William D. ("Big Bill") Haywood, James Connolly, Daniel De Leon, Eugene V. Debs, Thomas Hagerty, Lucy Parsons, Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, Frank Bohn, William Trautmann, Vincent Saint John, and Ralph Chaplin, among others. Between them, they had hundreds of years of labor struggle experience.
When they said, “you don’t need a contract,” they knew what they were talking about. To a man, and woman, they believed in class struggle unionism. That means that each labor skirmish was part of a war, called the Class War. No one wanted to be tied to a truce with the capitalists, even if it was only for three years.
The Preamble of the IWW (also known as the Wobblies) made their philosophy perfectly clear:
The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.
Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.
We find that the centering of the management of industries into fewer and fewer hands makes the trade unions unable to cope with the ever growing power of the employing class. The trade unions foster a state of affairs which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another in wage wars. Moreover, the trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers.
These conditions can be changed and the interest of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.
Instead of the conservative motto, "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work," we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, "Abolition of the wage system."
It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.
How Class Struggle Trade Unionism Works
Years later, I had an organizing mentor whose name was Bob Hollowwa. He was called Red in his younger days, because his hair was red, and for other reasons.
Bob was one of the top organizers during the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) in the 1940s and later. He organized for the Warehouse and Longshore Workers Union (ILWU), and half a dozen others. He became the District Director of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union, which coincidentally was Big Bill Haywood’s union when it was called the Western Federation of Miners.
If you ever saw the blacklisted film, The Salt of The Earth, then you know about the Mine, Mill union. When Bob met with the Salt of the Earth miners, they took a strike vote. Bob supported the strike, and for that he was fired by the top leaders in Denver, who did not want a strike at that time. Otherwise, he would have been in the film.
At another mine, before he was fired, Bob was having trouble with the shop steward, who was an old IWW member. A contract had been negotiated for a number of mines in New Mexico. This mine’s members, especially the shop steward, did not want a contract. They did not want a truce, even temporary, with the boss.
Bob told the steward that he had to post the contract on the bulletin board so that the members would be able to read it. It took Bob several visits to get compliance from the fiesty old Wobbly. Then on a visit to the mine, he noticed the contract on the bulletin board outside the mine entrance. It had been attached with a butcher knife through its center. Such was the attitude of union members in the old days.
Today, we don’t fight against a contract, only a bad contract. But what to do when the employer, or their slick union-busting lawyers, won’t agree to any contract? I was faced with this problem over and over when I was a union organizer and negotiator. I learned from Bob Hollowwa and others that there is really no difference between organizing skills and negotiating skills. Bargaining a contract is simply an extension of the organizing drive, and must be pursued with as much drive and commitment as winning a union election. Both organizing and negotiating involve bringing the power of the working class together.
Forming a Union
A union exists in the hearts and minds of its members. It doesn’t exist primarily at a union hall at some address downtown. This is a fact that even paid union representatives often forget.
The union is created when two or more workers come together to improve their pay and working conditions. Once it is formed, these new members can decide how the union will function, how much dues will be, and whether or not they want to call in an existing union to help them.
Be careful if and when you call in an existing union. You may end up becoming spectators in a contest between management and the union you called in, both of whom will often use words when talking to each other that you can’t understand.
In many cases, it makes sense to work within an existing union. At other times, it may not be necessary.
Pros and Cons of Forming your own union versus joining an existing union
Here are some key issues to resolve this question:
Joining an Existing Union:
An existing union has the resources to hire employees (union staff) to research your company, help you organize, negotiate a contract and handle grievances and arbitrations.
Union staff can explain to you how other nonunion shops won a union and how to negotiate a contract.
An existing union can usually provide you with a place to meet away from the boss.
Forming your own Union:
Your own union will be more informal than an existing union. You can decide your own timetable, elect your co-workers to fulfill needed functions, such as organize and chair meetings, focus on different goals such as reaching out to more workers to join, collect dues, and ultimately, negotiate a contract.
A National Labor Relations Board staff member can answer most of your questions about filing for an election, and what the employer can and cannot do during the election and what your recourse is if the employer tries to cut pay and working conditions, or drags its feet in negotiating. This can teach workers how to gain power in the workplace. Once you have a union, even before having an election, you have more freedom at work than ever before, if you make use of it.
Collective action, which you used to form a union in the first place, can continue to be the driving force in building a strong union.
Here are some examples of organizing without a contract:
The employer cannot commit unfair labor practices (ULPs) unless you let them.
When the employer does something bad to an employee, or to all employees, such as cutting pay, changing hours of work or making some other change in working conditions, that’s called a grievance when you have a contract. A grievance is usually settled through the grievance procedure (which is part of the contract). If there is no resolution, most contracts provide for binding arbitration.
If you don’t have a contract it is an Unfair Labor Practice. A ULP is filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB will make an attempt to have the workers and the company agree on how to settle the problem. Otherwise, the NLRB schedules a hearing where an administrative law judge makes a decision. The judge’s decision can be appealed to the top levels of the department, or even to court.
Chaos is your friend when you don’t have a contract. It is also the employer’s enemy. Keep causing chaos without putting yourself at risk. All workers should “work to rule,” that is don’t do any more work than you are required to under the employer’s manual. Don’t take overtime if you can avoid it. Don’t work early or late. Don’t correct the supervisor if they make a mistake. Make the employer long for the relative labor peace of a union contract.
The good things about the ULP process is that it doesn’t cost the union or employees anything. The union can file as many ULPs as there are violations by the employer. In many cases, the more ULPs, the better. The process can be handled by a worker. An NLRB staff member will help you fill out the ULP charge. If they believe the labor law was broken, they will do most of the work to win the case.
In a way, the NLRB is like a prosecutor who wants all parties to abide by the law. No lawyers are needed, however, employers almost always turn it over to a high-priced attorney. Your employer doesn’t like to pay expensive lawyers, so you win again. Once there is a contract, the NLRB’s role is greatly diminished. The workplace returns to relative normalcy, but don’t get complacent. The employer will still try to violate the contract, while the workers must take advantage of every benefit it contains.
The ultimate weapon for workers is the strike. There are two types of strikes. There can be a strike over economic conditions. In this situation, workers can be replaced by other people (scabs) who want their jobs. The second type of strike is called a ULP strike. This strike results from violations of labor law by the employer. Workers cannot be permanently replaced, if on a ULP strike, and provided the NLRB determines the employer committed an unfair labor practice. This means the workers have a better chance of winning the strike, as well as winning good conditions at work, and a strong contract.
What to do if you win your election but there are only a few of you?
This happened in Buffalo, NY recently when six workers at a Starbucks won a union election. Since Starbucks is a multi-billion dollar corporation, the odds are stacked against the six workers.
Here’s one thing you could do if you’re caught in this type of situation. Form a community union. No one ever said all the workers have to have the same employer.
Here’s how it would work. Go next door from your workplace and talk to the workers there. If they’re interested, give them union cards to sign. Get them to sign up other workers in your town or city. Talk to as many workers as possible.
Hold meetings in the park. If you’ve got Zoom, you don’t need to rent a union hall. You also don’t need paid staff members, if you have dedicated union members. Therefore, dues can be very low, maybe $5 a month, just enough to print more union sign-up cards.
If an employer is giving hell to one group of workers, bring the whole union down for a rally. Boycott the evildoer. Maintain a picket line in front of the shop until they agree to respect their workers’ rights. If you’re really serious about it, you could have hundreds, even thousands, of unionized workers within walking distance of each other. You would not only have a strong union, you’d have a new way of life.
Now let’s get busy forming a powerful labor movement.