How To Use Digital Tools To Gauge Support for Unionizing Your Workplace
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Unionizing starts with conversation.
Initiating conversations with coworkers to gauge their interest in forming a union may be the most important step in the unionization process. Without the support and solidarity of coworkers, efforts to organize will fail.
So, how do you find coworkers that are sympathetic to unionizing and willing to go on that journey? How do you start that conversation?
The short answer: very discreetly.
Discretion is Key to Early Conversations
You may want to shout through the halls at work that you are fed up and are organizing a union, but don’t. Now is not the time to go public with your intent to unionize. Quite the opposite, in fact. At this point, you will want to be as discreet as possible to keep management from finding out for as long as possible.
That’s because even though most workers have a legally protected right to join a union, most employers don’t support the idea of their employees forming unions. The sooner management finds out about such an effort, the more time they will have to push back against organizing and the sooner they will engage in union-busting activities. This makes it much more difficult to build support among your coworkers, especially in this early stage of the unionization process, notes the Communication Workers of America (CWA).
The element of surprise is the greatest advantage organizers have at the beginning. “The only thing that you can do on an organizing campaign is operate under surprise,” says Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW). “If an employer knows that you’re signing cards and doing things like that, they will come after them tooth and toenail.”
Think of this step in the unionization process as a fact-finding mission in which the goal is to gather as much intel as possible as quietly as you can before embarking on the more public parts of the journey. That starts with connecting with sympathizers and building an issues platform that resonates with the majority of workers.
How to Find and Engage Sympathetic Coworkers
The first task in this mission is to find coworkers who have grievances at work and/or those who look favorably on unions. They are the ones who will be most likely to join an organizing drive. That said, don’t discount anyone. The key to success here is not assuming anything about how someone may feel about organizing.
And remember, you aren’t trying to build up a majority support just yet. You simply need a small group of employees who are dedicated to forming a union in the workplace.
“Don’t be afraid to talk to people and open up,” says Molly Katchpole of the Writers Guild of America East (WGAE). “One big benefit [to unionizing] is that you get to know people that you didn’t know before and it breaks down silos that the company has in place, to its benefit.”
But finding the “right” people to talk to can be challenging, especially when working under a cloak of secrecy. Data and digital tools can help.
Mark Zuckerman, president of The Century Foundation, suggests looking at places where people advocate for better working conditions like Glassdoor, Coworker.org, and other employer review sites. There you can find people who are speaking out so you can learn more about what issues workers in your workplace or industry are talking about.
Social media feeds can also be a source of information on others’ feelings towards a company or unions in general. Mining coworkers’ feeds for that kind of information may require extra time and effort, but can increase your chances of finding those sympathetic to unionizing.
Once you have a good idea of who to talk to, you’ll want to engage them without making them feel uncomfortable. Prepare yourself with talking points that may garner their interest. You will also want to be prepared to ask questions.
Remember, you are not making a sales pitch for joining a union, yet. At this point, it’s about building a relationship and connecting a person’s self-interests with the work of a union, according to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). In doing so, you plant the seed of possibility.
The Right Questions to Ask
Approaching the subject of unionizing from an issues perspective is the safest way to gauge interest without pushing the idea. The Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 29 suggests questions such as:
- What are the most important issues facing you at work?
- How do you feel about labor unions?
- Would you support exploring the idea of a union?
- Do you know other unionized workers in the industry? If so, what issues are they most concerned with?
As you receive answers, look for common themes that may guide future conversations as well as serve as the foundation for the issues platform for unionizing.
Digital Tools can Facilitate Communication and Engagement Between Coworkers
When starting to engage with coworkers, be careful about when and where you have these conversations. It’s important to follow NLRB rules about discussing unions in the workplace. Essentially, you can talk about unions during break times and in common areas, but not while working. The exception here is if the company allows any non-work related conversations during work time, then they have to allow for union talk.
To avoid any missteps and to keep things confidential, it’s best to engage others in these conversations outside of the workplace. Digital communication tools can help.
“Social media tools allow you to have conversations,” writes Alex White, a union campaign strategist and activist. This makes them the perfect tool for connecting with others about unionizing.
For starters, they facilitate communication between coworkers regardless of location. This is especially important for connecting with employees in other departments or locations. Secondly, social media platforms allow users to participate in private chats. When people feel safe discussing unions, they are more likely to actively engage in dialogue. That combination of access and privacy makes social media tools ideal for discreetly connecting with potential union sympathizers in the workplace.
Just be sure the conversations happen as private direct messages, not as public posts.
Not everyone has social media accounts. Email is another digital tool that allows organizers to start conversations with potential supporters. Like social media, email users can access their email accounts from anywhere with mobile devices. Also, like social media, email facilitates two-way conversations.
The most important thing about using email is to make sure you use private email addresses, not company emails, warns the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 668. In 2019, the NLRB ruled that employers can prohibit the use of company email or technology to discuss non-work-related issues, which includes unions. So be sure to get personal email addresses.
Another secure mode of digital communication is text messages. If you can get coworkers to give you their personal phone numbers, you can start conversing with them via text messages which they can check just about anytime, anywhere. It’s a private method for engaging with someone to gauge their interest in unionizing without putting them on the spot with in-person conversations.
If you prefer face-to-face communications, video calls may be the perfect tool for you to engage with others outside of the office. “It’s sort of like an electronic home visit,” says Jamie Horwitz, owner of union-focused marketing agency PRWRK.
Video calls give you what other digital communication tools cannot — visual cues such as facial expressions and body language that give you insights into how someone feels or reacts to your questions and comments about grievances and unionizing.
A communication tool like UnionTrack ENGAGE can be helpful as it centralizes digital communication for organizers. It facilitates real-time conversations via email, text and social media all through one platform. Coworkers can ask questions, share concerns and make comments regarding work issues and unionizing the workplace to stimulate conversation.
Any of these methods of communication can help you initiate conversations and build support for organizing the workplace because they facilitate private chats outside of work. While there is certainly the risk that someone could share the communications with management, these are the safest tools to use to keep the company from finding out too soon about the possibility of its workers organizing.
The Do’s and Don’ts of These Initial Conversations
Making connections with like-minded coworkers is critical to the success of your unionization efforts. It’s a delicate step in the process because you want to get people talking, but you don’t want management to find out or to make your colleagues uncomfortable. Consider these tips as you prepare to engage with others:
- Do embrace technology, but don’t rely solely on it. Yes, digital tools facilitate connections that may not be possible to make in the workplace, but they can inhibit your ability to build a personalized relationship with coworkers. Talking in person with others is crucial at this stage because it’s “not only the most effective form of communication in building support, but also the most secure,” says a representative of the Writers Guild of America in a story for Motherboard.
- Do ask questions in private chats, but don’t poll people publicly just yet. While you do want to gather as much information as possible about workplace issues affecting workers, you want to do so in a personalized way so you connect to others.
- Do be careful, but don’t operate within a silo. While your own location or department may be your safety zone in terms of finding sympathizers you can trust, limiting your outreach will limit your success. You will need a majority of employees when it comes time for the vote, so reach out to others in different locations and departments.
It’s important to take your time and get this part right. Remember that now is the time to build a strong foundation for the unionization effort, and the relationships you form now are critical to your success.
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