After the Win: What Happens After a Successful Union Election?
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While it is certainly a major victory and a cause for celebration, a successful union election isn’t the end of the road in the unionization process. There is still a long way to go to reach the ultimate goal of forming a union — securing a collective bargaining agreement.
There are a number of tasks that must be accomplished between the election win and contract ratification. Each step is fraught with the dangers of management-led union-busting campaigns intended to keep the newly-formed union from winning its first contract. If that happens, the union dies before it even has a chance to thrive.
And it does happen. Lawrence Katz, professor of economics at Harvard University, explains that “maybe 25 to 30 percent of the cases where unions win elections, they never get a first contract.”
That’s why it is so important that union leaders know and understand what happens after the vote. They need to maintain the energy that carried them through the election win to secure that critical first collective bargaining agreement.
“The real fight begins after voting to unionize, as workers race against the clock to secure their first contract before decertification risks shattering the union before it gains momentum,” writes Fortune Magazine reporter Paolo Confino.
The Path Forward After a Successful Union Election
It would be ideal if the election victory came with universal acceptance of the union and the assurance of a first contract. Unfortunately, neither is guaranteed. That’s why union organizers and leaders must be prepared for what’s next.
The Union Election Must be Certified
If a union vote is held through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the election results are not final until certified by the Board. While this can be done quickly, challenges and objections by the employer can delay the process.
Legally, the company has seven days to file challenges and objections, and the certification results are withheld until those issues are resolved. In the meantime, management can continue its union-busting efforts to overturn the initial victory or, at the very least, sow enough seeds of doubt about union representation to keep employees from becoming registered members of the union. This would weaken the bargaining unit’s power.
It’s incumbent upon organizers to be aware of what employers legally can and cannot do to delay certification. The union must confront those challenges and move on to membership sign-up and bargaining as quickly as possible.
Member Sign-Up is Critical to Building a Strong Union
Workers are not union members automatically just because they signed an authorization card or voted in the union election. Everyone who wants to become a member must sign up, and getting as many paying members as possible is critical to a union’s ability to operate.
Consider the situation the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) is currently facing. In the 1970s, the union had about 80,000 members or about 2 percent of the estimated 3.3 million farm workers, report Melissa Montalvo and Nigel Duara in an article at CalMatters. Now, membership is around 6,600 according to the U.S. Department of Labor. It’s been a constant uphill battle to grow membership, and the membership loss has hurt the UFW financially, write Montalvo and Duara.
Getting workers to sign up as paying members can be particularly challenging in right-to-work states where employees can still enjoy the benefits of union representation without having to pay dues or fair-share fees.
Organizers must effectively explain and demonstrate the benefits of union membership to encourage workers to join in any state. This means employing various methods of communication to spark and grow engagement between the union and potential members. “We have to make sure to put more work into signing folks up,” says Rob Baril, president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1199NE.
Potential Members Need to Understand Union Dues
Explaining union dues may be the most challenging part of encouraging members to sign-up, especially in right-to-work states. But it’s something every leader and organizer must be prepared to do because, as the Communications Workers of America (CWA) puts it, one of the key union-busting tactics of employers is “making inaccurate and misleading statements about the union or union dues.”
Before people give up their hard-earned money for union dues, they will want to know why they are doing it. “They need to know how much they are and what they are for,” says the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE). It’s up to union organizers to provide explicit details of how the union uses the dues monies and show examples of outcomes of that investment.
Every Local Needs a Basic Structure and a Leadership Team
Each new local union must decide on its structure and elect a leadership team. This can be driven by guidance from the national union, but is usually left to the discretion of local organizers. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters notes that “members of each local elect their own officers, devise their own structure, and vote on their own bylaws, compatible with the International Constitution and Bylaws.”
It’s important for the cohesiveness of the unit that all members participate in elections for leadership and governance, so organizers need to be transparent about the process and encourage everyone to be involved.
Some People May Not Understand Collective Bargaining
The real strength of the union is negotiating contracts. “It seems that union-contract negotiations offer a cornucopia of options to develop and build deep and broad solidarity,” explain Jane McAlevey and Abby Lawlor, a senior policy fellow at UC Berkeley Labor Center and a legal fellow at the Public Rights Project, respectively.
But not everyone may be clear about what collective bargaining is and why it’s so important. Explaining the nuances of contract negotiations can be critical to getting workers to join the union and engage in conversations around key issues that will drive contract negotiations.
Management May Make Negotiating Difficult
Until an agreement is reached and a contract is ratified, employers still have the opportunity to derail negotiations on a first contract. The law only states that they have to start “good faith” negotiations; it does not dictate that they have to reach an agreement. So, employers will often continue their union-busting campaigns to stall negotiations for so long that members despair of ever reaching an agreement and give up.
“Corporations interested in disempowering their unions drag out negotiations—sometimes for years—with the result that, even among successful union elections, just over half of unions take more than one year to win a first contract, and 30 percent are unable to win a contract within three years,” writes Aurelia Glass, a research associate at the Center for American Progress.
If workers are aware of these tactics and how to confront them, they will be more likely to stay motivated to secure that first contract even if negotiations drag on over a long period of time.
Communication is Critical to Bringing a New Union Across the Finish Line
Maintaining momentum is the greatest challenge after the union election victory. The job isn’t done until the contract is ratified, but enthusiasm often wanes during the time between the union vote and the contract vote. That’s why organizers must prioritize communication with workers and members. They cannot let apathy infiltrate unionization efforts.
“An active union is a strong union,” according to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). “And without a doubt, strong communication is critical to increasing member participation.”
Communication platforms like UnionTrack® ENGAGE® allow union leaders and organizers to easily connect with members and potential members to encourage participation in the unionization process after a successful union election. This goes a long way to ensuring the union is able to secure its first contract.
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