A checklist of things a workplace committee should have in place before petitioning for an election with the National Labor Relations Board.

The IWW has a good track record when it comes to winning workplace elections. But what does it take to get from a successful election to a first contract?

Mainstream unions have paid staff and experts like lawyers, and broader financial resources to help steer and manage this process. A union where rank-and-file workers run the campaign themselves needs to have this kind of practical knowledge and preparedness amongst its members.

Below is a checklist* of everything you want in place before petitioning for an election, followed by some reflections on what this checklist implies. It is tempting to shortcut this list, and to think “our case is different” or “it’s ok because our workplace is small” or “some of this doesn’t apply to us” or “the situation is too urgent to get all of this” or “our employer is too progressive to fight back.” But the historical record shows that the fewer things you have on this list, the less likely you are to bargain a contract.

Legal
  • A local labor lawyer who has formally agreed to assist, and a plan for how to pay for their services
  • Knowledge of what NLRB region you are covered by and the means of contacting the office for that region
  • A basic understanding of the NLRB election process: what you need to petition for an election, what the likely timeline will be, etc.
  • Knowledge of how to file an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) complaint
  • Campaign members who have explicitly agreed to put their name on a ULP / give depositions
  • Workers trained in their basic legal rights: what the boss can and cannot ask them, what kind of activity is protected, what constitutes retaliation
  • Preparedness to file for unemployment insurance should workers be terminated
Organizing
  • A good proportion of workers holding Red Cards – mainstream unions aim for a minimum of 60% if not more
  • A complete contact list for the shop: names, numbers, email, home addresses, shift, position
  • 1-on-1s with everyone in the shop, except those who are close to the boss
  • A social map of the workplace
  • A physical map of the workplace
  • A workplace organizing committee of at least 20% of the workforce and representative of all shifts, positions, job sites, and social groups
  • Regular committee meetings
  • The proven ability to accomplish tasks as a committee
  • A list of grievances identified by workers in one-on-ones
  • The proven ability to take action in the workplace, with ideally at least one successful direct action campaign tackling a grievance and winning
  • The (repeated) inoculation of everyone in the shop, especially to:
    • Red-baiting of the IWW
    • “We can’t improve the workplace during negotiations, and that will take months or years”
    • “We can’t improve individual terms of employment during negotiations”
    • Firings
    • Arbitrary discipline
  • An escalating direct-action plan for firings and other forms of retaliation, with worker commitment to participate
  • Means of tracking retaliation: copies of past schedules, records of past discipline or lack thereof, dress code, etc.
  • Worker training in keeping a workplace journal, and worker preparedness to record conversations with management
  • Role-plays of captive audience meetings and one-on-one meetings with the boss
  • As many workers as possible having completed the Organizer Training 101
  • A meeting scheduled for after the election, regardless of the outcome
  • Good outreach strategy for new hires in the case of shop turnover, and a subcommittee prepared to handle this
  • Resources: some money in the bank, and a replenishing source of funds (ideally dues)
  • Contact with the broader IWW, including the local or nearby branch, the Organizing Department Board, the General Executive Board, General Headquarters, and the General Defense Committee, as appropriate
Research
  • Knowledge of who owns the company, the boss’s relationship to the owner, and the company’s “organizational chart”
  • Some basic understanding of the business model and sources of profit or income
  • Public contact information for the shop
  • Personal contact information for the bosses and owners
  • Knowledge of, and contact information for, major clients, customers, donors, suppliers
Materials
  • Banners
  • Picket signs
  • Leaflets for customers or community members
  • Pamphlets for new workers
  • Union pins, stickers, or other swag
  • Knowledge of how to apply for a permit, if necessary, and how much it costs
  • Possibly other picket or protest materials such as folding chairs, tents, coffee urns
Media / community support
  • A press release written and ready to go
  • A phone list of supporters in the area who can mobilize a flying picket
  • A contact list of sympathetic labor reporters in the area, including name, phone, and email
  • A list of sympathetic unions, including name, phone, and email of contact persons
  • A list of other sympathetic organizations respected in your area, such as churches, including name, phone, and email of contact persons
Negotiations
  • A team of workers who have affirmed they are willing and able to sit in on contract negotiations, even if these take months
  • A lawyer and other individuals with relevant expertise (perhaps outside IWW members) willing to sit in on and/or advise the negotiation process
  • An escalation plan for bringing pressure during contract negotiations
  • An understanding of the negotiation process, including how the law relates to it: timelines, “good faith” and “bad faith” bargaining, binding arbitration, etc.
  • Inoculation for all workers in relation to the negotiation process, including what it can and cannot likely accomplish (management rights clauses, etc.)
  • An overall agreement or sense among workers about
    • the grievance process they want in the contract
    • the discipline process they want
    • bread-and-butter issues: (ideal) demands and the minimum acceptable
  • A strategy for refusing a no-strike clause

As you can see, you have to do a tremendous amount of work in order to set yourself up to succeed in elections and bargaining.  Maybe the fact that it’s so much work is the reason people are tempted to take shortcuts.  Some of the temptation to take shortcuts also comes from the belief that winning an election puts you in a safer position to organize.

But organizing is not something you want to be doing after filing for an election. As much as possible, this should have been done beforehand. It is much harder to organize after filing, because that’s when the boss’s union-busting begins, including captive meetings, propaganda, possible retaliation, and threats and promises, all of which contribute to an atmosphere of tension and alarm. That makes this a much harder time to try to do outreach, or to get folks to focus on basic tasks like company research or workplace mapping, or even to think affirmatively about what they want, rather than defensively reacting to the boss’s intimidation.

In the vast majority of cases, employers do not come to the bargaining table simply because an election has been won. Therefore, workers must have a plan in place to put pressure on the boss to negotiate. You might even say that elections (and even contracts) do not shore up the workers’ position in and of themselves. They put down on paper things the workers already have the ability to win from the shop floor.

Contract issues such as how grievances are to be handled, how discipline is to be handled, and bread-and-butter issues like wages, should be discussed amongst workers before they file for an election and before they come to the bargaining table with the employer. Before the employer starts throwing offers around (or, more likely, stonewalling), workers should know what they want, and what they are and are not willing to settle for.

Looking through this checklist, it’s worth asking oneself, realistically:

  • How many one-on-ones would it take to get to this point, from where we are now?
  • How much time will that take?
  • How many hours of committee meetings?
  • How much work in general?
  • How much money?

The answer to each of these questions is a variation on: “a lot.” Things are time-consuming because the IWW model is based on workplace committees. We are not an organization of staff — or superheroes. The union is the workers. No one individual is able to carry the weight of the campaign. The effort has to be collective or it will not do well.

Outside expertise and help should always be secured in relation to formal, legal processes like elections and contracts, but it will accomplish nothing without a strong and functioning committee. Even mainstream unions don’t petition for elections or attempt to bargain contracts without big support numbers among workers, a strategy for bargaining, and an active workplace presence (even if they do tend to act above workers’ heads). In the case of a worker-led union like ours, however, nothing at all can be accomplished without a broad, representative, active workplace committee. (And once you have one, you may ask yourself whether the tradeoffs of bargaining within the NLRB framework are worth it, but that’s another article.)

Elections can be relatively easy to win in a small workplace. For an organizer, that’s really seductive. However, winning an election, in and of itself, does not actually improve your position in relation to the employer; it just kicks off a pretty brutal battle. Bargaining efforts, and entire campaigns, soon falter if they don’t have the ability to bring pressure from the floor to force the employer to the table and to negotiate the contract workers want.

*This list was adapted from one prepared by the IWW Starbucks Workers’ Union: “Checklist Before Going Public”