We live in a world filled with anti-union myths. We’re not taught how to organize unions in school and many people don’t have direct experiences as or with a union member.
Anti-union campaigns exploit this reality and prey on people’s fears.
When you’re building support for a new union or a union campaign, it’s crucial that people be prepared for management pushback. In union organizing, it’s called “inoculation”. Inoculation in the medical context literally means treating someone so that they can develop immunity to an infection. In the union context, we want workers to be immune to management’s tactics to break up new unions.
The union-busting playbook
Across industries, employers deploy the same talking points and tactics and often hire expensive anti-union law firms to prevent workers from exercising the right to form a union. Make no mistake: the goal of management’s campaign is to dissuade workers from forming a union. Key elements of an anti-union campaign are to:
Delay “Give us time to fix things internally.”
Distract “We’re having a pizza party.”
Divide “Unions create conflicts.” Do you hate me? We’re like a family.”
When inoculating, you want to help people understand why there would be an anti-union campaign - it’s not two equal sides having a debate about the merits of unionizing. Management could stay neutral or silently but they are choosing to put energy and resources into interfering with workers’ democratic right to form a union. Why are they so afraid of sharing power with the people who make the company run?
Inoculation should be a part of every organizing conversation. Start by asking about their issues and what they would want to see changed at work and use that to introduce the idea of organizing. (“If we had a union, management would have to bargain with us over salaries.”) Once you’ve introduced the idea of unionizing, it’s important to inoculate them against an anti-union campaign. You want to show your coworkers that you know what to expect. Make sure they’ve got all the information and support they need to withstand pushback from management. Here are some places to start:
Start by asking them questions
The conversation is always a balance between giving people information and making sure that you’re listening to and learning from your colleagues. Start with a question like, “What do you think management would do if they found out about organizing?” If they think that management will be supportive or neutral, you can let them know that while that would be the right thing to do that people should be prepared for pushback. It’s also a chance to help people differentiate between the layers of management - someone’s direct supervisor may be supportive of unionizing but the orders will come from high level management who may never interact directly with workers. If they think that management will oppose, ask them why. Often, people will say things like “they don’t want to share power” or “their only concern is making money”. This gives you a chance to reflect on how powerful a union can be in shifting the power dynamics at work.
Give specific examples of talking points and tactics
Talk through some of the most common anti-union myths and how to debunk them. Let people know that they should come to you with questions and that they should question the intention behind every management communication.
Example: “One of the ways that bosses try to scare people is telling workers about union dues, implying that people will make less because of them. The reality is that we only pay dues after we win a union contract and we vote on that contract before it goes into place. If management brings up dues, it’s to try and freak people out. With inflation and rising gas prices, every day our paychecks are worth less - has management ever voiced concerns about how these changes will impact our bottom lines?”
Turn fear into anger
Organizing a union is a right and every worker deserves a job with dignity, respect, and fairness. If people are afraid of their employer, that points to the precarity of the positions that people are in and how essential it is to shift the balance of power.
Example: “We’re at will employees. That means that we can be fired at anytime. The only way to change that is by sticking together and forming a union so we can negotiate a contract.”
Show that there is a plan to win
Management will do everything they can to minimize the power of unionizing. When an organizer shares specific next steps and the action plan to build a strong majority, it helps people see that there is a way forward.
Example: “We are building a strong base of support before moving forward. That way we know that no one is on their own. The more people we can talk to, the faster we can move. I haven’t been able to reach anyone else in your department - do you think you could introduce me to a few people?”
It’s not a one-time thing
People need boosters to stay immune to anti-union campaigns. Anti-union campaigns are not fair fights. Management can compel people to attend an “informational” meeting every day without having to offer equal time to the union. If there is an active effort by management, don’t assume that people’s support is unwavering. Track support and the status of outreach conversations and ask people directly where they stand. Give people things to do so that they don’t feel like the campaign has stalled out (they can talk to coworkers in their department, for example).
Solidarity is the antidote
Dealing with an anti-union campaign can feel like playing defense and it can be tiring. You may need to respond to management’s misinformation campaign but try to keep on message - that workers deserve a seat at the table to negotiate their working conditions. Stay focused on the issues that people care about and what they want to win in the long-term.
Your union is your community and a strong community can withstand pressure from management. Keep inoculating people but also think about what you want to build together. Amazon workers in Staten Island cited social events and potlucks as a way to build community and support for the union.
Forming a union is a legal and political process - but it’s also an emotional and cultural shift for people to start to see themselves as part of a collective that has and can exert power to make change.