Here is a fact: unions are rapidly getting more tech-savvy after a slow acceptance of online organizing as an effective strategy. Things are changing fast as labor unions discover the internet’s power to deliver employees access in an even more advantageous way. The internet enables reaching people from coast-to-coast and north-to-south and even internationally. Couple this with the fact the next generations of potential union members (millennials, Gen Z) utilize technology for everything – connecting with family and friends, finding information resources, working remotely, shopping, and making appointments.
The internet is the ideal forum for union organizing, but there is another dynamic. Employees interested in joining forces for a stronger voice are increasingly starting with issues-based organizing within their companies. It’s not an NLRA protected labor union campaign, so it’s tempting to think it’s not as serious. That’s a mistake for two reasons.
Issues-Based Organizing Campaigns
One reason is that the issues-based organizing has proven to be successful at pressuring employers to meet demands and at interfering with productivity through walkouts and protests. The second reason is that issues-based organizing is only a heartbeat away from labor union organizing. Employees feel empowered by joining together to bring change, are familiar with the advantages of a collective voice, and begin to think in terms of a bigger, louder, and more inclusive voice. It is a perfect setting for labor unions.
What is meant by an issues-based organizing campaign? Think of it as a way for workers to use their influence to bring about specific changes. It could be one issue or multiple issues. Though issues like pay and workplace safety are typical issues, the issue-based campaign can address matters like your organization’s environmental sustainability policies and practices, involvement in projects considered irresponsible because they violate social equity or human rights, and the status of temporary workers who couldn’t join a traditional labor union. Millennials first drove the issues-based organizing, but now there are growing numbers of Gen Z workers who also embrace technology as a source of empowerment.
Employees Empowering Themselves
It may seem a bit farfetched for employees to organize over corporate values issues, but that is what they are doing. There are now several examples of online organizing platforms that employees are using to start and run organizing campaigns based on one or more issues. Coworker.org is a nonprofit funded by the New Venture Fund and accepts contributions. It’s an online issues-based organizing site that enables workers to start and manage petitions asking for(demanding) change. To understand the difference between a traditional union organizing campaign issues and the type of issues the online organizers address, check out Coworker.org’s ideas on how it can empower employees.
- Ensuring jobs are safe and secure (typical union issues), but the nonprofit adds “satisfying” to the description
- Helping employees shift power in a changing economy
- Creating digital tools and communities that employees can use to advocate for change
- Preventing employers from dismantling labor and employees rights through the use of technologies like data mining, surveillance, and fissuring of the workplace
- Helping workers find financial support for organizing
- Helping gig workers get fair pay and treatment
It’s only fair to say that Coworker.org is more innovative and more advanced than the typical labor union thanks to its use of technology, so it’s not surprising younger generations of workers are turning to this type of organizing source. For example, Coworker.org partnered with employees in the tech sector to launch the first-ever crowdfunded mutual aid nonprofit designed to help the tech industry and independent contractors. They say they face retaliation for workplace organizing. Using the language of unions, it’s called the Solidarity Fund.
In another example of the kinds of issues employees believe they should have a say in, Etsy employees used Coworker.org to start a petition objecting to some top management decisions. Etsy employees believed management was violating its commitment to not be a “typical corporation” and lead by example in environmental sustainability, diversity, and inclusion in tech, portable benefits, and tax code simplification for microbusinesses.
When management laid off 20 percent of the workforce and some projects were canceled, employees believed “values-aligned efforts” were threatened. The employees wanted the company to provide health insurance to sellers, explain to the Etsy community why projects were canceled, recommit to sustainability, and more.
Online Platforms For Organizing Employees
Then there’s Frank, an online platform for privately organizing employees on campaign issues like ending forced arbitration for sexual misconduct cases and calling to form a workplace diversity and inclusion committee. Traditional issues like wages and workplace conditions are some of the issues, but there are templates for organizing on topics like ethics, getting an employee reinstated that others believe wrongfully terminated, the bias in the workplace, ending pay secrecy, and others.
Employees create a campaign on Frank from scratch or by using a Frank template. The campaign includes a description of the issue, a demand letter, an invitation to coworkers to collaborate, and attachments that add context. The campaign goes live and invites coworkers to join in the discussion and sign on. Once a minimum of 51 percent of workers sign on to the campaign, the demand letter is sent to managers. If management fails to respond, workers can vote on the next steps to take, such as wearing unity items like pins, going public, coordinating a sick out, and so on. Employees are encouraged to take action.
Another tech-based program that is sure to become a popular organizing tool during 2021 is the Clubhouse App. This is an invite-only drop-in audio app for a social network based on voice. People worldwide can talk, listen and learn from each other on any issue they wish to discuss. Since it’s by invitation only, a manager couldn’t listen in on a group of employees who want to discuss unionizing, for example. UnionProof just recently discussed the implications of the Clubhouse App for employers.
The professionals at UnionProof anticipate many changes to union organizing in 2021.
Legal but Independent Labor Union
There is another twist to organizing online in Unit, also an online organizing platform. This platform helps employees form independent unions that are considered legal labor unions that give employees protected rights under the NLRA. The union is not affiliated with the powerful national labor unions. It intends to keep the power of organizing and negotiating in the hands of employees rather than the large labor unions.
An independent union is formed that is ‘run by you, your coworkers and nobody else – each of you gets a vote,” says the Unit website. Employees utilize Unit to invite coworkers and sign a digital union election petition. When 70 percent of coworkers sign the petition, and the petition is sent to the NLRB, a union vote is held, and a contract is negotiated. The unit takes care of contract management and reporting to union members. The Unit fees are .8 percent of monthly earnings, and employees set their own membership dues. All the membership dues go towards the workplace and are not shared with a national union. The Unit Union members can vote to join a national union like the AFL-CIO.
All About Maintaining Positive Employee Relations
All of these issues-based platforms have one thing in common – they offer employees a way to connect. The second thing they have in common is that employers who fail to respond to independent organizing campaigns are likely driving their employees to a national union. Certainly, some employers ignore independent unions – or try to – as indicated by the fact the platforms address “next steps.” It is important that you adhere to the best practices in employee engagement because improving positive employee relations can prevent independent organizing and prevent a union from organizing.
Organizing in any form is organizing. Following are some of the most important principles to keep in mind as employees find new ways to organize.
- Always respond to employees, whether it is a suggestion in a suggestion box, a formal grievance filed, or an independent union demand letter
- Implement feedback systems to stay on top of issues that employees care about, including social media
- Strengthen transparency on issues like projects initiated or canceled, environmental sustainability, social equity, and diversity, and inclusion because employees want to work for companies that practice Corporate Social Responsibility; also be transparent on the company’s union-free philosophy
- Train your managers and supervisors on ways to strengthen employee engagement
- Train your managers and supervisors on union practices, organizing strategies and language; the NLRA; TIPS, and FOE; detecting signs of employee organizing and what to do should signs of organizing become evident
- Strengthen the positive organizational culture because employees who are interested in organizing probably do not feel supported or fear retaliation should they bring up issues
- Utilize a variety of communication channels that involve all layers of the organization to ensure the entire workforce is engaged, i.e., senior manager videos posted online; training and information podcasts for mid-managers and supervisors; website and enterprise social media for employee access; union focused “dark” website taken live to reinforce the company philosophy on labor unions
- Celebrate employee accomplishments and their contributions to organizational success
With online union organizing growing, it’s important to keep the company’s stance on unions front and center, rather than waiting for obvious union organizing signs. The organizing may be easily taking place under the proverbial radar.
Tech-Based Collective Voice
Employees are turning to technology to find a collective voice that can exert pressure on their employer. That voice believes it should influence issues that management has historically seen as only belonging to management. Our advice at Projections, Inc. is to never underestimate the power of independent unions to disrupt your business, harm your company’s reputation, and impact your ability to hire and retain the best talent. An independent non-NLRA sanctioned union is only a hop-skip-and-jump to a formal labor union.
Developing positive employee relations has never been more important than it is today as younger generations of workers expect to influence how companies are managed, operated, and impact communities and resources, and they want inclusion in decision-making. It’s a brave new world of union organizing.