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Advice to new labor organizers


We are in the middle of an exciting surge in the labor movement. New workers are organizing to take on the boss. If you have been organizing and building momentum, what comes next? We are often told that the next step is to hold a representation election to begin negotiating with the boss. What we do next will test the strength of our fledgling organization to continue organizing on the shop floor and in the community. It will determine how effectively we can wield power to pressure the boss to bargain.  

Despite what we are told, telling workers who are organizing that they must first seek official recognition as a union in order to begin the formal collective bargaining process is not the whole story. Negotiations can take many forms. Workers can use petitions, marches on the boss, and create a workers council when setting up an independent and solidarity union. While this strategy may lead to formal bargaining, it is not required or even entirely necessary. As one of us wrote in this op-ed, workers with sufficient power at work can use these tactics to extract concessions from the boss. 

Workers can decide to go the traditional route by collecting signature cards, request voluntary recognition or participate in sanctioned union elections. This prepares them to bargain with the employer for that elusive first contract.  

What often gets left out is what these new unions should be prepared for next. When a newly organized union bargains its first contract there are several critically important issues to consider.    

Remember that a union is two or more workers “coming together to take action in order to collectively improve their working conditions,” not a formal organization. According to the National Labor Relations Act, a union is a form of “self-organization…[for] mutual aid or protection.” Contrary to what many people think, a union is not a service or advocacy organization or a charity. A union is an expression of workers’ shared self-interest at work.  

After months of one-on-one conversations, organizing committee meetings, mapping the workplace, card checks, elections, pressure campaigns, petitions and marching on evasive bosses, remember why you organized in the first place. 

No matter what happens, it’s essential to keep organizing. The reason is that organizing brings in newly hired workers into the union, brings others in from the sidelines, reengages lost energy, develops the union culture and builds momentum towards the contract campaign

Building momentum by taking escalating actions supports bargaining efforts by creating a credible strike threat. Among the available tactics for an escalation campaign include button and sticker days, flyers, petitions to support bargaining priorities, informational picketing, “work-to-rule” and “sick out” actions and publicly targeting the boss. Winning a strong first contract is always the result of wielding power in the workplace. This reminds the boss of the workers’ power at the bargaining table by demonstrating our power via direct action.   

It is critically important for workers to remember that we are part of a collective process that decides what we want to accomplish. Is the objective of forming a union to bargain over what the NRLA lists as “rates of pay, hours, and working conditions,” health benefits, diversity, equity, and inclusion, educational opportunities and career advancement? Is the focus on better work-life balance, control over scheduling, and participation in setting staffing levels? Do we want to confront a bully boss and improve transparency and accountability at work?  

While the list of objectives we can pursue are unlimited, they are not all the same. Some goals are about making work more tolerable while others are about creating workplace democracy. As Labor Notes editor Alexandra Bradbury explained in a recent article by another of us, “Are factory workers making an electric or gas-guzzling car or something else? Are bus drivers charging fare, or do bus drivers have a say in where the route goes or how often it goes?”  

How we answer this question is vital for our workers’ organizations and unions, workplaces and communities. Answering them will require a transparent democratic union culture that engages members in a discussion that goes beyond collective bargaining and includes struggles beyond but connected to work.   

Bargaining that goes beyond wages, hours and working condition is commonly called “Bargaining for the Common Good.” The strategy was popularized by the success of the Chicago Teachers Union demanding smaller class sizes and community involvement in public education. Since their successful 2012 strike, the “common good” has become a popular slogan among the progressive wing of the contemporary labor movement. Unions have begun demanding stipends for high quality childcare, that employers build housing for their workers and that companies address climate justice. They have also begun making racial justice and immigrant, queer and trans rights central priorities of organizing.  

This strategy has seen concrete examples of what works and principled criticisms of what doesn’t. Genuinely demanding that employers bargain over the common good requires a different labor movement than the one we have now. It requires a strategic vision of how we get past the current socio-economic system to one in which workers’ democratically control production and services to meet the needs of local communities. It also requires that we transform our economic system so that we steer away from the climate catastrophe that threatens the survival of humans and many other species on this planet.     

To do that we need to remove two major impediments to worker power found in nearly every collective bargaining agreement. Those of us bargaining new contracts need to vigorously oppose no-strike clauses and management-rights clauses (MRCs). No-strike clauses, which prevent workers from using their most powerful tool, speaks for itself. MRCs, on the other hand, are less understood.   

Management-rights clauses, sometimes called “reserved rights” or “management prerogatives,” gives management virtually unlimited power over all decisions at work.  As we wrote about in a recent article, they empower the boss to control scheduling, hiring, firing, promotions, discipline, how and what production occurs, where it is located, how to use property and financial policies.  

MRCs are a stealth weapon against our organizing, strategies, objectives and workers’ power. As we argued in a previous op-ed for The Chief, “It’s time to fight management rights.”   

According to labor attorney Robert Schwartz, MRCs are a dangerous pitfall when bargaining a first contract. Schwartz, who writes for Labor Notes and has a popular series of practical books on collective bargaining, urges workers bargaining their first contract to prevent MRCs from being inserted or limit their effects by adding language demanding notice of actions that would have a “significant impact” on workers.     

If workers continue to be limited to only bargaining over wages, hours and working conditions, we will continue to be stripped of our power to not only adequately protect our members but to address the systemic threats to nonunion workers, the entire working class and humanity as a whole

As new organizing and union elections continue to spread, many new workers will go to the bargaining table for the first time. Whether we bargain for the common good, workplace democracy or democratic control of the economy, one thing is unavoidable. We will have to and directly confront management’s prerogative as a first step to removing all the legal obstructions to the full and free development and survival of the working class.

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

Kevin Van Meter is a union organizer and author of “Guerrillas of Desire: Notes on Everyday Resistance and Organizing to Make a Revolution Possible” and is currently writing his next book: “Reading Struggles: Autonomist Marxism from Detroit to Turin and Back Again.” Follow him @AmericanWork47


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