As a former union official with 24 years experience (many of which were spent as an Organizing Director with campaigns in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico), I have read with interest about the myths regarding how union organizers influence your workers to vote for the union in article after article authored by “union experts”. It seems that these experts have little to no real world experience with the union (low-level organizers within the union or HR professionals who worked on a handful of campaigns), or dare I say that they are making up stories to sell their services to unsuspecting and vulnerable clients who are in panic mode when being pursued by the union. Either way, I am going to set the record straight and discuss the realities of how unions get to employees and how by being a “good manager” you can greatly increase the odds of victory against the union if faced with a campaign.
Back in the 90’s, I worked with the AFL/CIO Organizing Director, Richard Bensinger, who is currently the International UAW Organizing Director, to build the organizing curriculum for the Organizers Institute in Maryland. We also put together a think-tank composed of the brightest minds in the labor movement to handle multinationals and union mergers on a global scale. We established intense two week training programs for lead organizers where we took into consideration every possible problem that could arise in an organizing campaign including how to control organizers, and talking to the media. We made accommodations for “our people” in hotels so that we could test our perspective lead organizer’s ability to “house call” and test the his/her communication skills. We wanted to know with 100% confidence that our newly “enhanced” organizers had the ability to sway skeptic employees and their families into supporting our “cause”. We also put them through psychology classes which focused on how to “package” the union messages.
After this intense two week course we shipped everyone across the country to participate in current organizing drives with AFL/CIO affiliated unions. We wanted to set professional organizing standards that were consistent across the board.
To truly understand how unions work you have to understand how they think. You have to know which unions are more sophisticated than others and which ones have stricter organizing standards and guidelines making them a greater danger to your organization.
I sat on many think-tank groups where our only responsibility was to project 10 to 20 years ahead and plan out a path for the labor movement’s influence into the future.
Today, I get very frustrated when I see training videos and articles that paint a very simple view of the complexities of how unions work. Keep in mind that it is true that there are very ignorant organizing departments out there who have some union organizers that resort to what can only be described as stupid unethical tactics, such as openly threatening and putting the fear of God into the voters. Any well trained organizer knows that this actually can be considered good fortune for many management teams and will avoid these tactics unless absolutely necessary. When necessary, it is important to have pressure applied to certain workers in order to have them behave in a manner that is detrimental to management cohesiveness. The time and place has to be thought out thoroughly and implemented carefully to be successful. It is very different when you are dealing with the unions own members. Unions do threaten and scare their membership for their allegiance. Unions can be very hard on their members (in fact this was a specialty of mine when I was a union leader).
In my Confessions of a Union Organizer newsletter, I outline true stories about some of my experiences as an Organizing Director. I go into detail on how we attacked companies and took away the good will felt between the employees and their management teams. Some people would call these tactics dirty tricks and underhanded but we believed that we were just exposing the weaknesses of management (unions are more powerful than ANY one person) We simply exposed the antics of the poor management teams. We never went into a full campaign without knowing everything about the supervisors, owners, and company involved. We were like an “infrastructure inspection team” looking for weaknesses in the foundation. If they were severe enough we would calculate the financial risk versus the reward of new members and move forward with the campaign once the risk was to our liking.
There are many categories of union organizing drives from the union perspective. When you have union density on a company or industry level we were organizing based on those representation levels. Unions look for campaigns against companies with multiple attempts to organize because with every attempt the odds of winning the next campaign are increased significantly for the union. There are also corporate campaigns and many other types.
Organizing drives can be very complicated, but I am going to talk in general about one union organizing philosophy that my department perfected which was how to win the hearts and minds of the workers and the control of the floor.
First I want to say that there are far too many times when management teams are caught flat footed when they receive a petition notice. In all reality, the average front line supervisor knows almost nothing about unions and how to spot union activity in their department. This still surprises me but it gets worse. Many mid-level managers also have no working knowledge of how unions operate. These managers are fortunate that some organizers fit the “ignorant” stereotype profile that so many so-called experts portray when describing union organizers. Unfortunately for management there are also many who do not fit this stereotype
When I give management presentations about union tactics, I always show pictures from my union days with myself and Richard Trumka, myself and John Sweeney, myself with Jimmy Hoffa and many other union national leaders and ask the people in attendance if they know who these people are that I am pictured with. I am surprised when someone actuality knows any one of them. Most times, nobody has any idea who they are and have never heard of them (with the exception of Hoffa) or the AFL/CIO or Change to Win Association. To me this is unacceptable. When I was serving as an Organizing Director, the first thing my teams would do was to get “mini bios” of everyone (pro-company and pro-union/management and employees) to learn how best to expose their weaknesses to the workers.
The ability to win the hearts and minds of workers depended on many things that happened before we ever came into the picture. I never let my organizing teams try to “cold call” start any organizing drives, The workers had to reach out to US to prove to us that they were worthy of our assistance because it had to be THEIR campaign. We determined if the issues were personal enough to hold their attention throughout a campaign. Anger and mistrust for management was a key ingredient for us. No one ever organized workers who have great working relationships with their immediate supervisors. We took the “building trust phase” very slow and calculated every move we made before committing to a campaign. I had one hospital organizing drive where it took more than a year before a petition was filed and the hospital was completely shocked when they got the petition notice.
By going slow and building trust an organizer can pull out all the stops and replace any personal connection with management with mistrust and anger. It can never be about the organizer but the workers organizing committee needs to take ownership under the union’s supervision. A good organizer will give them details about the actions management will take and when it will happen as you predicted. This would make the committee even more empowered. The smart organizer will expose all of the union’s weaknesses before management starts talking about them by putting their own spin on the union pitfalls. The smart union organizer knows that they need to control the floor and what happens in the company or organization being organized. Bring all factions together and, for a shot time, force them to be friends. Force these former factions now “teammates” to support and defend any worker in trouble with management. A good organizer will keep workers busy and focused on the win.
Many times we handed out blank wish lists before the election and asked voters to start documenting their demands to the company in contract negotiations. This simple but powerful task kept everyone focused past the vote and kept a positive attitude within the unit; in other words, get them to almost taste the improvements before the election.
We depended on management responding to our tactics which kept them off balance. Management was most effective when they understood that they had to take away the internal organizers soapbox which was hard when no one trusted their most direct tool, the front line supervisor. When management took direct actions to limit the abilities of the internal union organizers within the National Labor Relations Act they made the mistake of trying to identify the internal leaders with the idea that they could convince a few head union supporters to change their minds so that the others would follow causing a loss to the union. This couldn’t be further from the truth. This actually empowers the internal organizers with new found attention.
Supervisors often think that union supporters and internal organizers are the real audience but here is the truth. It is the employees who are watching the internal leaders. When they see management trying to convince the leaders to change their minds it actually solidifies their power and gives them the perception that internal organizers have a real insight into the situation. They come to believe that the bosses are very scared of the internal organizer.
Smart management teams spend no time trying to convince the internal leaders to change their opinion and only makes sure they are doing their jobs correctly which actually takes away their soapbox and their “go to person” status.
A smart organizer knows they are never the ones to personally do anything during the campaign other than herd their flock. If the workers themselves don’t lead then they become a losing cause and the union will most likely pull the election. Management must understand how these things can direct and control their strategy to win. They have to remain calm, cool and collected at all times. During a union campaign, a manager must never over react to union tactics. A good management team is one that understands that the only guaranteed win is when an election never takes place. A smart management team knows they need to take the necessary steps to insulate their company from union attacks before the organizer starts talking to their employees. It is important to remember that unions are like a stream running downhill - it will always take the path of least resistance and pursue targets with weak management teams rather than targets with strong and prepared leadership.