Amazon workers are squaring off with one of the most dystopian employers in modern history as they attempt to unionize in a climate of harsh (and often illegal) union-busting. Redditors and TikTokers launched a large-scale cyberattack on Kellogg’s that helped force the cereal and snack manufacturer to agree to a new contract with the 1,400 workers it had previously tried to fire.
This momentum has started to move the needle, with union membership rising modestly in 2020 from 10.3% of all public and private workers to 10.8%.
That increase might seem almost too small to warrant mention, but it interrupts over 60 years of near constant decline since membership peaked in the United States at 35% in 1954.
With the pandemic-induced labor shortage giving workers even more leverage and a wave of successful unionizing efforts driving momentum, that trend is expected to continue in 2022. So, if you’ve caught a case of union fever, you’re far from alone.
But if you feel like you don’t know enough or aren’t qualified to organize your coworkers, let these TikTokers help you change your perspective and formulate a game plan.
First Thing’s First: What Even Is the Point of a Union?
Let’s start with the basics. We’ve all heard the term but what exactly does a union do? How do they work? Why would you want to start one?
All Things Labor explains the basics:
In short, it’s about getting together with your coworkers to negotiate better terms of employment with your employer. On your own, it’s hard to negotiate for things like higher wages, better benefits, or safer and more flexible working conditions. But together, you can combine your power in order to improve your chances of getting those improved working conditions.
Outside of work, you can vote, protest, and use other collective tactics to pressure your government to meet the collective demands of the people it represents. While that system has its flaws and corruption, your right to vote and to protest are two of your most powerful tools for influencing the laws and privileges of being part of this society.
Without a union, though, you lose much of that power the moment you step into your workplace. Private employers aren’t held to the same standard of constitutional rights that our government is.
In the words of influential labor organizer, Stan Weir, “Why is it that when a worker hits the time-clock, he or she gives up the rights enjoyed as a citizen on the public sidewalk outside the plant?”
Think about it. At the workplace, you might be subjected to arbitrary drug tests and warrantless searches of your locker or desk. Your employer might be monitoring your email, phone, and written correspondence. These are all things our own government can’t legally do without just cause and a warrant.
Even when it’s not legally sanctioned, many employers thrive on loopholes that make it easy to violate civil rights without getting caught. Discrimination in the workplace is illegal, for example, yet just 12.7% of the 1.8 million discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) resulted in settlement, resolution, or legal action. That doesn’t even scratch the surface of discrimination that went without formal complaints filed because intimidation tactics made workers too afraid to do so.
Wage theft is also illegal but workers lose an estimated $15 billion every year to illegal tactics including, as The Labor Lawyer points out, docking pay as punishment for showing up late:
Or deducting more from a tipped worker’s paycheck than they’re legally allowed:
Or just straight up taking a percentage of your tips:
Or forcing you to continue working after you clocked out:
Or forcing you to wait to clock in after your shift started:
Or forcing you to arrive before your shift starts to get ready:
Or making you clock out for bathroom breaks:
If any of those tactics sound similar to “company policies” at your job, your employer is probably engaging in wage theft and forming a union is one of the best ways to fight against illegal and unfair workplace conditions like those.
Ok, but How Would I Even Go About Forming a Union?
So you’re ready to be the radical dissident you want to see in the world — or maybe you’re just curious what the actual process of unionizing might look like (totally hypothetical, boss, I’m just asking for a friend).
To start, listen to The Nurse Erica explain the steps of forming a union:
She explains it in the context of unionizing a hospital or healthcare facility but the basic steps are the same for everyone:
- Talk to your coworkers.
- Get a majority of them to sign union support cards (from the union you want to be affiliated with).
- Submit those union cards to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
- Wait for the NLRB to determine eligibility and set an election date.
- Vote for unionization. If you get a majority, you’re unionized.
- Negotiate your first contract.
Union Dad has a good multi-part series on how to tackle that first step (which can be intimidating if you’re not sure how your coworkers will respond).
First of all, remember that the goal of these talks are to “find out who’s having similar problems. Find out what the concerns are.”
Union Dad recommends trying to “meet outside of work to talk about it. Grab beers. Have dinner. Whatever.”
At this stage, you don’t want to preach the merits of unions so much as just find out what issues your coworkers care about.
As Union Dad explains, “don’t try to create frustration that isn’t there.” Instead, create space for your coworkers to talk about what frustrates them.
Finally — and this will likely take more than one meeting or conversation — you’ll want to move the talk toward solutions. In Union Dad’s words, that means sharing the vision:
“Connect what we want changed and how a union can help change it.”
The bare bones process is pretty simple. The hard part comes when your employer gets wind of the organizing going on and chooses to fight it rather than voluntarily recognize your union. Read more on that later.
Honda Wang shares some helpful resources that go more in depth on how to start a union — and how to connect with organizers who can help you through the process.
All Things Labor also shared some sources and strategy ideas from her experience in organizing:
What Will My Employer Do When They Find Out?
The short answer? Probably try to stop you. With a few exceptions, most employers are going to be anti-union and they’re going to try a variety of legal and illegal tactics to manipulate or force you and your coworkers to give up on unionizing.
One of the most common tactics you’ll see first will be managers and supervisors sharing their anti-union opinions with employees in an attempt to convince you that you either don’t need a union, don’t deserve a union, or don’t want a union.
Hey_Molombo does a pretty great impression of what an employer “sharing their opinions” might sound like here:
You might also start seeing anti-union propaganda appear around the workplace. The Nurse Erica reads out just such an anti-union memo she found posted in an employee breakroom:
Some illegal tactics you might encounter include:
- Threatening to fire or take away benefits in retaliation for organizing or joining a union.
- Threatening to close the location if employees vote for a union.
- Asking employees about union activity or their union sympathies.
- Offering benefits to employees in return for voting against or not supporting the union.
- Transfering, laying off, terminating, assigning difficult tasks, or otherwise punishing an employee for supporting a union.
- Transfering, laying off, terminating, assigning difficult tasks, or otherwise punishing an employee for filing an unfair labor practice complaint with the NLRB.
If your employer tries any of those, file an unfair labor practice complaint with the NLRB. It will take months and might not go anywhere but, if your employer is ultimately found to be in violation of the law, the NLRB will crackdown on that behavior.
When Amazon workers failed to get a majority vote to unionize in Bessemer, Alabama, they filed a complaint with the NLRB, citing illegal union busting tactics like the ones Attorney Ryan mentions in this TikTok:
After a few months in limbo, the workers finally won the right to have a new vote while Amazon won’t be allowed to use some of the union-busting tactics it had used previously.
More recently, news has come out about illegal union busting tactics happening at Starbucks. Counterpoint Politics highlights some of them in this TikTok:
A couple of days later, More Perfect Union shared this TikTok about Starbucks employee, Brittany Harrison who recorded and exposed a mandatory union-busting meeting she was made to attend:
Starbucks employees have filed charges against the company for these alleged violations. After the NLRB reviews the complaint, the company may be forced to stop all or some of them.
In short, it’s worth filing charges, even if it takes month and, in the meantime, you’re still having to fight against the same union busting tactics.
But What if I Can’t Start a Union Because…
Even if you want to unionize, you might feel like your circumstances are different or you work somewhere where it’s just not possible. Let these TikTokers address some of the most common concerns holding employees back from organizing a union:
You might not know this but, even if you aren’t a citizen, you still have the right to organize.
As All Things Labor explains, the NLRB won’t even ask you about citizenship status.
It’s still an uphill battle and your legal rights are a little different than a documented worker but if your employer tells you that you don’t have the right to unionize because of your immigration status, they are lying.
If you’re in California, the worker’s rights clinic provides free legal support that can help you navigate the process. Look for similar immigrant legal aid in your state.
I Live In a Right to Work State
Right to Work states, as The F HR Project explains, are simply state where workers can work in a unionized job without being forced to join the union or pay dues.
While this law does decrease union bargaining power since they may not get enough funding, you still have the right to unionize:
For private sector employees, you can unionize the same way you would in any other state. For public sector employees, some states (like North Carolina) do have restrictive laws around collective bargaining, but it’s still possible.
My Coworkers Aren’t Interested
All Things Labor has dealt with reluctant coworkers herself. “Remember to be patient,” she advises in the TikTok below:
Take the time to build relationships with your coworkers so that they have reason to trust you when you start talking about a union.
I’m Too Introverted or Shy
You don’t have to be loud and aggressive to organize your coworkers, according to All Things Labor. In this two-part series, she gives some tips on organizing when you’re more introverted:
What it boils down to is this: Focus on asking questions rather than trying to make grand speeches.
Questions like the ones she suggests in the her video help your coworkers define their key issues. Then, all you have to do is connect that to how a union can help them address those issues.