By Colette Perold and Eric Dirnbach
Pre-majority organizing encompasses all the challenges of worker organizing that you’ll find anywhere. As with any organizing strategy, a large group of workers must come together and build power and confidence over time to challenge their employer and fight for workplace improvements. But a pre-majority organizing strategy which achieves neither union recognition nor a collective bargaining agreement has particular challenges of its own that merit further discussion. It also has some advantages, since it doesn’t follow the traditional organizing route.
The main advantage to pre-majority unionism is the most important one of all: when it’s the only type of unionism available, pre-majority unionism is a valid, time-tested, and powerful tool that workers can pursue to win demands, fight for justice, and build the labor movement. Workers can win material gains while also learning how to organize, often strengthening their parent unions and the labor movements in their municipalities and states. Pre-majority unions are also a way to maintain worker organization in cases where a fight for union recognition is possible, albeit many years away.
Beyond the broader case for pre-majority unionism in deeply anti-worker contexts or within massive companies, pre-majority unionism has the following challenges and advantages.
When the main union organizing model is to get recognition and a union contract, other strategies may feel less real to some workers. Winning an election and getting official recognition are concrete achievements. A written, collectively bargained contract is a tangible accomplishment. Without these traditional organizing milestones, many workers may wonder what the union is really accomplishing, whether their dues money is being well spent, and if this effort is worth the risk. There are not enough well known examples of pre-majority organizing that can inspire workers to see this as a viable path.
Pre-majority unions organize at their own pace around the issues they care about without going through the often tortuous NLRB process that employers have learned to fight. Moreover, workers often find it easier to win improvements at any time, not just during contract negotiation periods. They are also not bound by no-strike or management-rights clauses that are standard in union contracts.
Pre-majority organizing does not have any built-in milestones like filing for a union election, winning the election, or bargaining a contract. Moreover, victories will likely not come until significant organizing has happened and enough workers have been brought into the union. So there may be problems with keeping the active union members motivated and engaged early in the process, whenever things seem to be moving slowly, or during the inevitable periods of low activity. Demoralization can easily set in. Furthermore, if the union isn’t constantly growing and organizing, it is likely shrinking and getting weaker with worker turnover. It’s critical to find ways to motivate and excite members on a regular basis.
Progress in pre-majority organizing can still be measured, and can be done by internal benchmarks of the union’s own choosing. These may include celebrating reaching a certain percentage of union membership in the workplace, publicizing actions taken by the workers in the workplace or legislatively, and claiming all the victories achieved along the way.
The pre-majority union may never reach formal recognition, and there may never be official acknowledgement from the employer that union activity forced it to make an improvement. There is also no law that entitles workers in non-recognized unions to representation during disciplinary meetings with management. For workers in recognized unions, these rights are called Weingarten Rights, and they offer protection and lend additional legitimacy to the union.
Pre-majority unions can indeed achieve informal or de-facto recognition. If the union organizes enough members and gains enough strength, the employer may engage in unofficial discussions on issues the union brings to its attention. The union can facilitate this by creating a stewards network or committees authorized to deal with the employer on issues. Particularly important is how the union sets up structures to deal with worker grievances that arise. The union may never have a formal written grievance procedure with the employer, but if the union is strong enough, it may develop informal procedures for defending individual workers against attacks from management.
In traditional unions, workers are covered by binding contracts and are able to maintain concessions from their employer over the lifespan of that contract. They have legal measures in place to help them bargain up to better conditions for the next contract. This means traditional unions are not constantly in the position of defending every single win.
Additionally, without a written contract, pre-majority unions may not have a central document outlining improvements that the union has won. It can be common for a pre-majority union to campaign over an issue, only to find that the employer made an improvement in response to that campaign—but without crediting, acknowledging, or meeting with the union at all.
Sometimes employers even go out of their way to create elaborate justifications to convince workers that the union had no relation to the improvement. These rationales can be convincing. Common ones include: the employer was already planning on giving it; they’re just keeping up with inflation; the workers met certain (arbitrary) efficiency quotas and therefore deserved it; or the boss was just waiting for a certain change internally in upper management. This way of dismissing the union’s impact on workplace improvements is harder in traditional unionism because a contract itself is a clear acknowledgement of all the concessions the union forced management to make.
It’s therefore critical for pre-majority unions to make it clear to all the workers which victories it has won through its organizing. All those improvements have to be defended from then on through continued organizing.
The union can win gains at any time, rather than primarily through contract bargaining every set number of years. Employers also have a harder time “third-partying” the union in pre-majority unionism. “Third-partying” in this case means defining the union as the union staff with their own agendas, rather than the workers themselves fighting for justice.
In traditional unionism, there can be a tendency for workers to think the contract itself is what matters, or that “the union will handle things,” and ultimately disengage from building their union. In pre-majority unionism there is no mechanism for this to happen because workers must be actively engaged at all times. While the need for constant militancy in pre-majority unionism can lead workers in some cases to get burned out, in others it has been a powerful way to learn how to remain a fighting union over time.
In the private sector, workers who are active in pre-majority organizing have the same legal “concerted activity” protections as workers in traditional campaigns. In the public sector, workers have their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly, and in some states, explicit organizing rights. That said, there is always the risk of retaliation against union leaders, especially when a campaign is not very public. It’s critical for any union to defend its members against retaliation, otherwise workers will be more reluctant to join. A pre-majority union will probably not have a written grievance and arbitration procedure to rely on and will have to take more regular direct action.
A pre-majority union has many of the same organizing rights a traditional union has. In the private sector, this includes filing Unfair Labor Practice charges, public campaigning, and protests. Depending on the state, this may also be true for workers in the public sector. However, a pre-majority union also has the ability to strike, stop work, and hold other similar job actions that traditional unions typically are barred from doing during the contract period. Overall, the best defense against the possibility of retaliation is to have a union strong enough that the employer doesn’t want to risk a confrontation.
Since the early stages of building a pre-majority union require intensive commitment from a core group of activists without seeing major initial gains, it can be easier for that core to maintain their commitment to organizing if they’re doing it with a group of friends. This is understandable, but if not actively combatted it will ultimately undermine the union’s goals. As Ed Bruno (Director of Organization of the UE during the PWOC campaign) explains, if the union comes to be associated with one closed-off friend group (all young workers, for example, or all workers from the same part of town) and isn’t building out its base enough to wield genuine power at work, it can end up proving to other workers why they don’t need a union!
This can be a problem in any kind of union organizing, but is extremely easy to fall into in pre-majority organizing. This is due to the lack of workplace-wide bargaining, the lack of a built-in mechanism for dues collection, and the absence of the default diffusion of workplace gains throughout the entire workplace that unions achieve once they’ve won a contract. Contractual unionism therefore evens the playing field, since all workers—regardless of difference—are impacted by the contract equally and, in about half the states in the U.S., have dues deducted from their paychecks automatically. This unites workers in the same or similar job categories across an entire workplace by virtue of their job rather than their identities or personal interests. This built-in incentive for unity emphasizes the workers’ collective class interests and makes it harder for bosses to play groups of workers off one another in order to weaken their power.
The ability of pre-majority unions to organize workers across job classifications can be a boost for unions trying to diversify their organizing committees. All successful campaigns and unions must involve a broad group of workers representing many jobs and demographics. A pre-majority union can involve all workers at a workplace, without being divided up into separate bargaining units—for example, production, office, janitorial, technical, or security staff. The goal should always be to build a leadership group, activist network, and membership base that reflects the genuine range of ages, genders, races, religions, workplace departments, and job classifications that exist in the workplace.
All unions need to constantly train and build the next generation of leaders to step up over time. Pre-majority unions, however, are particularly vulnerable if they fail to do this. There is no official recognition and written contract that guarantees at least some union presence in the workplace, even if the union becomes weak. If a leadership vacuum develops, or not enough activists are involved, the union ceases to function effectively and its power can quickly wane. The organizing will be unlikely to succeed if only a small number of workers are doing it, and frustration and burnout sets in. This problem often exists in traditional unions as well, but the risk is not as great.
Without as much reliance on traditional union staff to keep the union going, it’s clear the workers have to maintain their own strength. The continued presence and strength of the pre-majority union needs a strong leadership team, democratic governance, and an active membership. It’s also critical for pre-majority organizing to have a broad leadership and activist group to share the work and effectively build power.
Traditionally a union contract includes an agreement with the employer to automatically deduct funds from the workers’ paychecks and send them to the union. This is either the full union dues for members, or the smaller “agency fee” for private sector non-members in states without so-called “right to work” laws. Private sector non-members in states with “right to work” laws and public sector non-members in all states pay nothing. Without this agreement, the union has to directly convince each worker to financially support the union, and many may not feel that they need to.
Because there is no mechanism in place to diffuse worker wins throughout an entire workplace in pre-majority organizing, workers need to work especially hard to involve their co-workers in union campaign work at the same time that they ask them to become dues-paying members. Without being plugged into ongoing union work, workers who don’t have collective bargaining agreements may not realize how much union building is taking place, and may feel too removed from it to recognize the need for union dues.
If a traditional union is only as strong as its worker participation, this is all the more true for pre-majority unions. In some cases, the dues may not be enough to cover the union costs, which means further fundraising is needed, or subsidies from a parent union, if applicable.
The positives of not having employer dues deduction are that the employer doesn’t know the number of union members or who the union members are, which is key information that can harm the union. Moreover, pre-majority unions have to stay in regular contact with workers and be very responsive to their concerns, which facilitates organizing. When convincing their coworkers to pay dues, pre-majority union members use many of the same tactics that workers in traditional union campaigns use.
A parent union may assign outside organizing staff to assist the pre-majority union during its growth. There is a danger that these organizers, and other staff throughout the parent union, may feel that the pre-majority union is not making enough progress, or is not developing into a “real” union. It’s critical that the parent union have realistic expectations about what can be achieved in the short term and understand the ultimate goal of a sustainable union that can be achieved over time.
Because pre-majority unionism is generally less staff-centric and more member-driven than traditional unionism, a union staffer being out of touch with the membership may end up having less of a negative impact on the union overall.
During the establishment and early growth phase of the pre-majority union, it often needs heavy resource assistance from the parent union (or a committed, well coordinated volunteer organizer network). There has to be enough patience for a multi-year campaign before the union is established enough to run on its own with the dues it collects from its members. If there is no parent union formally assisting this effort, the workers should recognize that it may take even longer before it’s strong enough to win significant victories. Workers should be prepared to develop and grow the union over many years.
Successfully getting off the ground to the point where workers are winning wide-reaching victories means the union has been built in a true grassroots way, from the bottom-up.
As in all union organizing, there comes a time when the workers have to decide whether to remain underground or go public. In traditional union organizing the path is clear: workers usually stay underground until they have signed up over 30% of the workforce (though best practice is to wait for 60% to 70%) to announce their support for forming a union. In pre-majority organizing, with fewer built-in benchmarks, the decision is a more dynamic one and must be based on a sober assessment of where the union’s strongest support is and how management is likely to respond. If support for the union is very weak, management may not feel enough pressure and may wave away the union as a few pesky workers.
But if the union is strong enough to pose a threat but not strong enough to force management’s hand, management may introduce a slower, more savvy, and less antagonistic version of union busting. For example, they may let the union continue to organize all while offering individual promotions to garner favor, encourage workers to spy on one another, or create workplace improvement committees to co-opt the union efforts. In these cases, the union can become what former UE officer Ed Bruno describes as the “canary in the coal mine” or an “adjunct to HR,” indicating to the boss where the problems are so they can fix them before the union can start agitating effectively. It’s what CWA’s Katie Romich calls “organizing the bosses before organizing the workers.”
If the union is in this position but its support base is unshakeable, inoculation and savvy responses can be enough to maintain or even gain support at this stage. Given the slow initial build in pre-majority unionism, these calculations about when to go public always require careful strategy and must be rooted in the reality of the workplace dynamics. For pre-majority unionism, the union has the flexibility to go public at any time, and doesn’t have to worry about timing it to an NLRB election filing.
In traditional organizing, workers can opt to organize within a job classification that the union assesses has the best chance of winning. For example, organizing might happen among production workers at a factory if those workers are assessed as very pro-union, but won’t have to encompass the clerical workers in the same factory if those workers are assessed as anti-union. Organizing within one job classification can be easier because you need to identify only a small number of workplace issues that the majority of workers will share. This usually makes the organizing quicker and more powerful from the start.
Pre-majority unionism has a major advantage when it comes to defining who gets to be part of the union within a given employer. Organizing for an NLRB election often forces workers to separate into bargaining units based on what the NLRB decides is a “shared community of interest.” Deciding who’s part of this “community” is not completely up to the workers, but instead can be influenced by the employer and is based upon job classifications, responsibilities, and worker levels of training or education. This straight-jacketing works as a tool of the bosses to separate workers from one another.
Instead, in pre-majority organizing, workers often pursue what’s called “wall-to-wall” organizing, meaning all workers across all job categories can join the union. In these cases, workers often report that organizing across job classifications has been a fundamental source of strength for their union: it adds more people power more quickly and can make it easier to expand membership. More vulnerable workers often feel safer joining the union when they see their less precarious coworkers stand up for themselves and others. And it generally contributes to a sense of solidarity, with workers across an entire employer learning how connected their struggles are, and how important it is to remain united.
In wall-to-wall pre-majority unions, setting union-wide campaign priorities can be difficult, since different types of workers will have a wide range of workplace concerns. The main pitfall to avoid is trying to run multiple campaigns at once without a sober assessment of which workplace issues will generate the types of support needed to carry them to victory and, in turn, result in membership expansion. Without these assessments, pre-majority unions can succumb to “kitchen-sink” or “laundry-list” style organizing where the workers try to tackle every workplace issue they can find at once. This often results in the same small group of workers supporting all the campaigns at all times—a recipe for watered-down wins and worker-organizer burnout.
If strategic, winnable priorities are set, having the wall-to-wall network in place to get support from workers in non-affected job categories can be a major boost for a campaign. One way to set priorities is to take on campaigns that are employer-specific rather than job-specific, such as budget transparency, legislative actions, tuition waiver or educational programs, or workplace safety issues. Another approach is to collectively decide to focus on a set number of job-specific campaigns, setting goals and success markers for each campaign, then taking turns supporting the different workers’ campaigns throughout their campaign arcs. It is crucial for pre-majority, wall-to-wall unions to have strong mechanisms in place for setting union priorities with a realistic plan-to-win for each campaign.
Traditional union organizing is usually all or nothing: either you win union recognition and a contract, and then become a union, or you fail to do this and “lose” your union. This all-or-nothing mentality in traditional union organizing confines workers’ union activity to artificial time tables. It also leaves out pro-union workers at workplaces that have lost elections, are far from being able to file for an election, or have won an election but can’t get a contract.
“Organize now” is the motto that several pre-majority campaigns use. There is no need to wait for union staff to show up or for legislation to tilt in the workers’ favor since pre-majority organizing can start at any point in time. Not sure if you’ll reach a majority? Not sure if you have the legal right to form an NLRB-recognized union? Not sure whether the unions in your area will want to take on your fight? None of this matters for pre-majority organizing. The time for you and your coworkers to be a union—whether your boss recognizes your union or not—is always now.