Union 101
Photo: Kevin Taghabon

Worker Power 101

Despite all the criticisms, unions are around because they’re the strongest way to win better pay, better benefits, better conditions and more control over your own life. The best path to victory is to build a union where the voices and interests of everyday workers – the “rank-and-file” members – steer the decisions, actions, and demands of the union.

Now, how to do that? Building power is a story that starts by changing our mind about hidden truths:

  • Believe you’re not alone.
  • Believe you can change your life for the better.
  • Believe you have time and potential to learn new skills.
  • Believe you can come together with almost-strangers in a common cause.

Once you believe these truths, you’re set for a worthy process of building power. A union is fundamentally just a group of coworkers, coming together, to make changes at their workplace.

That can look like fast food workers raising their wages and winning a reliable three-month schedule that lets them plan their lives. Or it can look like office workers finally getting off the freelance contract wheel and securing steady hours with benefits and paid vacation time. Or like workers getting more control over their workflow so that an overbearing manager can’t harass them constantly about results.

Whatever the issue, you’ve got support! Check out this guide to get started. You can contact the People’s Labour Project at peopleslabour.ca for more help.

Get Sorted:

1. Start with you. Strong unions take dedication. Be firm about your long-term, collective commitment.

2. Grow the circle. A co-worker or two is enough, but to go far you need crewmates. It’s useful to know who shares your union ambitions. A joke or casual conversation can help you test the waters.

3. Figure out first approaches. Who’s likely to support the goal? But don’t talk about it to supervisors or anyone you think might reveal your plans before due time.

4. Have a winning plan. Know the simple legal rules of forming a union where you are, like the percentage of workers who need to sign on before you can file to hold an election (often around 40-45 per cent). You’ll also need a practical plan to get around 65 per cent support to have supermajority strength, and ideas for how to win.

Get Started

5. Have serious conversations. Once you have a plan, it’s time to start talking to almost every co-worker to learn their stories and get a sense of what people think about unionizing. Remind everyone: you’re still in a quiet phase!

6. Identify leaders. You’re looking for who has followers; who people listen to. They’re important to growing your campaign in the long run.

7. Build & grow an Organizing Committee. Form a representative core of all your coworkers. Remember different shifts, work types, and departments. Aim for diversity across ages, languages, identities, cultural backgrounds, personalities. Where are the relationships, bonds, loyalties and possible conflicts?

8. Prepare for the bossfight. In every conversation, let people know — and let them tell you — how the bosses have tried or will try to fight, misinform, and roll back campaigns.

Get Set

9. Evolve from quiet to loud majority. You may start by asking people to meet up or join a private chat group; then sign an open letter; then showing up to the boss’ office together. The power of your union will be measured by what you can do together.

10. Determine union options. If you think you’ll join a bigger union, start auditioning some. Contact unions and meet with their staff organizers to ask hard questions about the support you can expect. Which unions, you wonder? Sometimes your industry or region will make for some obvious options, and sometimes you’ll need to do a bit of research. You can always contact People’s Labour Project for help navigating this part. Or you may decide to form your own independent union, which is not as hard as it sounds, but a different challenge.

11. File officially. It’s time to go public! This is the most high-stakes part of your campaign so far. You go to your Ministry of Labour with more than enough signatures and you tell them you’re a union of workers. Now you have to win that status with a certifying vote, usually a few weeks later.

12. Rally community & assets. Now it won’t hurt to call in resources from your networkers to resist the boss’ pressure: media coverage, customers or volunteers, or general supporters.

Get Good

13. Win the vote. The big push to mobilize your people and win by a large margin is crucial. Certifying your union is certainly a moment to celebrate and feel proud.

14.  Win at the bargaining table. Once you win union recognition, then you bargain for a contract with better terms, more respect, dignity, and fairness. Anticipate tricks and delays from the employer. A strategy of maximum power at the table is needed to get leverage for a clear win.

15. Defend your contract wins. Bosses are counting on your union getting rusty, inactive, or divided. It’s your own power that gives you the ability to enforce your contract and prevent clawbacks, harassment, or other violations.

16. The struggle is real, so make it a life of purpose. Your union can’t be a one-time campaign. The knowledge, skills and bonds you build must be directed into becoming a living organization that reflects the will and strength of its members. Shared work feels lighter. We become different creatures, with greater strength, and a wider web of people who will show up for us.

The People’s Labour Project offers free training, coaching, and advice to workers ready to come together, fight the boss, and improve their lives. If this sounds like the next step for you, reach out by filling in a simple form at peopleslabour.ca.

This article appeared in the 2022 Dec/2023 Jan issue.