As prominent campaigns of the last few years have demonstrated, winning a union election does not always immediately lead to serious negotiations, improved working conditions, or better wages. The fight to improve workplace conditions can be a long one, and that’s something that many organizing committees struggle with.
One strategy we should keep in mind when we can’t wait for the slow work of building a large organizing committee or calling for an election is short but impactful collective actions on the managers when workers are “stirred up” about a shared issue. Even without majority support, we can intuit what grievances we share with our co-workers and act when we have a group that is ready.
Medium-sized workplaces often have serious issues in one department that aren’t shared across the whole workplace; this is where minority actions can be useful. Worker groups can learn how to put pressure on the boss, and how to articulate specific demands. Workers can grow comfortable explaining that the boss needs their cooperation to get the work done.
These tactics are especially useful when workers are stirred up about a shared concern that can be fixed relatively easily. For example:
- Serious heat stress conditions, resolved with 10-minute breaks every hour in a cool place
- Unfair and serious discipline, replaced by progressive discipline
- Eliminating the late notice of mandatory overtime
Small actions in an issue campaign can take the form of a short petition with a specific demand or even a “march on the boss” by a small but organized group at the start of the shift. To be effective, we should think about the details:
- Who will speak
- How to avoid making threats
- Making it clear that you’re not threatening to quit, only trying to make work better
Especially in smaller workplaces, the lead group could be as small as five to six workers, communicating that they’re speaking for a larger group. Sometimes these actions will accomplish small gains, which will serve to encourage workers “on the fence” to believe that change is possible.
In one case, a group of workers in a large industrial bakery in Chicago won heat stress breaks with a small petition, backed up with community supporters “visiting” the plant. Near Cincinnati, a small group of Amazon workers won religious accommodation with rest breaks for a group of Muslim workers observing Ramadan.
Sometimes the boss will be upset about this sort of action. Workers should calmly explain why small changes will be easy to implement. They ought to keep it positive, explaining that they want to improve the workplace to set workers up for success. If the boss threatens workers with firings, remind them it’s against the law and that it might be easier to negotiate a compromise. He needs the workers to get the job done.
These actions are not a substitute for a union drive but rather a way for workers to learn how to pressure the company if they move towards a union election down the road. By adding this tactic to our arsenal, we’ll sustain our organizing efforts for longer.