Above Photo: Millions of workers can form a union right now, even when union certification or a contract may be impossible or many years away. Despite North Carolina’s ban on public sector collective bargaining, municipal workers in Charlotte have organized a union with UE Local 150, winning wage increases and the reinstatement of unjustly fired workers. (UE Local 150.)
Win a union election, and it’s a long road to a signed contract. Lose a union election, and workers may think the fight is over.
But win, lose, or not even close to an election, workers at all kinds of workplaces can fight for their unions and win demands here and now. It’s a strategy called “pre-majority” unionism, and the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC) is here to help navigate it.
Where an election or contract victory doesn’t seem possible for years to come, workers are often ignored by existing unions that don’t have the resources to support them. But their continued organizing is key, we believe, to helping the labor movement grow.
While they may not be able to win official recognition or a contract right away, these workers can still build shop floor unions and fight for and win improvements. This type of pre-majority strategy is open to all workers and can even lay the basis for long-term organizing in important sectors of the economy.
In a pre-majority union, workers organize and act like a union even when winning a contract does not seem realistic any time soon. In other words, it’s about being a union whether or not the bosses recognize that union as a legal entity they are required to bargain with.
Versions of this approach have also been called “minority unionism” or “solidarity unionism.” Sometimes their supporters have been opposed to union contracts on principle, based on a belief that signing a collective bargaining agreement, which almost always contains a no-strike clause, inhibits workers’ ability to fight.
But most pre-majority unions we have researched are not necessarily opposed to union certification and a contract. Many see elections through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) or voluntary recognition by the employer as an eventual goal.
Here are the main categories of workers that take this pre-majority path:
- Public sector workers in conservative states, where the path toward union recognition would require legislative overhaul. Some states, like Texas and Tennessee, ban collective bargaining in the public sector.
- Private sector workers in “right-to-work” states where winning an election is unlikely in the near term due to the anti-union climate and low union density. In South Carolina, for example, just 1.7 percent of workers belong to unions.
- Private sector workers at huge national or multinational employers, including chains and high-turnover workplaces, where the workers have concluded that successful elections covering the entire company are unlikely in the short-to-medium term. An example is the Alphabet Workers Union, which is organizing at the nearly 200,000-worker parent company of Google.
- Private sector workers who have won an NLRB election but whose employer drags out negotiations for years. For example, though the campaign at Starbucks is winning many elections, it will take time to build up sufficient strength at Starbucks’ 9,000 U.S. stores to force the company to bargain a contract.
Pre-majority unionism is a crucial tool if the labor movement is to grow at the scale we need.
In many ways the day-to-day activities of pre-majority organizing are not that different from regular union organizing. Workers should still talk with co-workers, form an organizing committee, develop common demands, inoculate against likely boss responses, and take collective actions to build power and confidence over time and win improvements at work.
Workers in pre-majority unions have many of the same traditional organizing rights as those in certified unions. In the private sector these are protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and include the right to strike and other forms of collective action, such as petitioning or a group visit to the boss. In the public sector workers are protected by their constitutional right to freedom of speech and association.
Where pre-majority unionism differs most from traditional union organizing is the trajectory of how the organization will develop over time. If the short-term goal isn’t an election or voluntary recognition followed by formal collective bargaining, then workers must understand their organizing as a more patient process.
The differences are reflected in the questions we get asked by workers the most: How do you sustain the organization over time without a contract? How do you convince workers to pay dues to a union when their work is not covered by a union contract? How can we develop enough power to protect workers from retaliation?
The greatest challenges that pre-majority unions face include:
- Maintaining the confidence of enough workers that the union is “real.”
- Taking credit for wins that result from organizing. For example, both Starbucks and Amazon have given company-wide wage increases, and it’s important for workers to know this was in response to union organizing.
- Expanding the numbers involved so the union doesn’t turn into a small clique.
- Maintaining long-term financial support through dues collection and subsidies from whichever union the workers affiliate with.
Falling down on these questions is the reason pre-majority unions can stall out, if they don’t have a strategy to tackle them from the beginning.
But pre-majority unions also have advantages. Pre-majority unionism gives workers a way to build the lasting strength necessary to take on hostile employers over the long term. It allows workers to win widespread gains through direct action at any time—not just during bargaining every three or more years. And there are no contractual “management rights” or “no-strike” clauses that can inhibit organizing.
Workers in some pre-majority unions can also build “wall-to-wall” unions across job categories, since they are not constrained by decisions made by the NLRB or local employment bodies about which workers are allowed to be in a particular bargaining unit. Workers often report that this cross-job solidarity adds major strength to their organizing.
Examples from labor history and current organizing show the possibilities.
The longest-running pre-majority union that we know of in the private sector is the United Electrical Workers’ (UE) Carolina Auto, Aerospace and Machine Workers Union in North Carolina, in existence for over 30 years at a factory now called Cummins Rocky Mount Engine Plant. Workers there decided to pursue pre-majority unionism after witnessing repeated narrow losses in NLRB elections at local factories in the 1980s and 1990s.
Since they won their first campaign for a paid holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1990, they’ve won reinstatement of workers fired unfairly, shorter shifts, and better benefits and pay. They’ve also won several unfair labor practice charges protecting their right to distribute union materials.
The largest active, nationwide pre-majority campaign is the Communications Workers’ United Campus Workers, with thousands of members at public universities in a dozen states that prohibit public sector collective bargaining. The union has a list of wins on many campuses, including stopping job privatization and raising wages.
From 1989 to 1993 the UE’s Plastic Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC) organized nationally at 100 plastics factories. The union thought that factory-by-factory elections would not succeed without the workers first feeling like part of a larger, more powerful movement, especially given an absence of unions in the plastics sector. So UE pursued a campaign across multiple employers as a way to raise confidence.
Pursuing the idea of “sweep elections,” PWOC built networks of activists across multiple workplaces, hoping to build to a breakthrough election that would spark more election wins across workplaces where workers were already organized. While PWOC ran out of funding before it could achieve a full “sweep,” it won several NLRB elections, some $1-an-hour wage increases, and many local shop floor fights.
Despite the many roadblocks, legal and otherwise, to worker organizing, the good news is that all workers can start organizing now—whether or not they have formal NLRA organizing rights, work in the public sector, are considered independent contractors, work for a small family-owned company, or work for a huge corporation.
Don’t wait for union organizers to show up—you can form your own union on your own, right now. Contact EWOC to discuss!
Colette Perold and Eric Dirnbach are volunteer organizers with the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), a joint project of the United Electrical Workers and the Democratic Socialists of America.
For more information on pre-majority unionism, including detailed case studies of the Carolina Auto, Aerospace and Machine Workers Union, the Plastic Workers Organizing Committee, and the United Campus Workers, see EWOC’s report here.