When imagining the typical union member, the first thing that probably comes to mind is someone with a bullhorn in hand taking action at a strike or some other campaign. And if you're new to this, that makes a lot of sense.
Whether we’re talking about political parties or sports teams, any organization is often known by its most vocal members. But in both of those cases, as is true with unions, a group is only as strong as the sum of its parts.
Not every member needs to be as hands-on in the nitty gritty as members of your bargaining committee. Some members may want to support you from the sidelines and others may have privacy concerns and fears of employer retribution for engaging in union activities. All of these approaches are valid, and as an organizer, you should hear out your membership, actively work against anti-union messaging, and have a deep understanding of the stakes and perspectives held by each of your members.
Anxieties over being too public with union activities are bound to come up, so here’s a rundown on a few aspects of the process to know when it comes to privacy.
Who knows I signed a card?
To start a union without voluntary recognition from your boss, you need at least 30 percent of a staff to express support for the effort by signing cards and sending them to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) When you sign a card—whether it be a physical card that looks like the one below or through a digital tool like this one—the only groups who should legally know who signed are your union and the NLRB, unless you’ve publicized your support on social media or explicitly make it known to your boss. Once organizers decide they have enough cards, they'll submit what's called a representation petition through the NLRB's online portal. If collecting physical cards, they will need to send them to your regional NLRB office.
To get cards signed, a union will campaign to identify a majority of signers in a workplace and keep tabs on who's in and who isn't. The tactics in a campaign to get cards signed depend a lot on your industry, the layout of your workplace, and the tools an organizer decides to use. It also depends on if you and your coworkers choose to affiliate with a larger labor organization, but workers should expect to be contacted over the phone, by email, in person over a coffee, etc. Once a sufficient amount of cards and signatures are collected, a union will use them to petition the NLRB for an election. At no point in this process will your identity be shared with management.
Who knows I voted in an election?
When it comes to elections, regardless of if you participate by mail or at your job, how you vote is confidential. Just like when you vote by mail in political elections, a double envelope system is utilized to make sure ballots are confidential. The inner envelope indicates a yes or no vote on the union, while the outer one contains information regarding who the worker is.
You might remember this from the Amazon warehouse campaign in Alabama. Once the voting period is over, the NLRB counts and removes inner envelopes from outer envelopes in a closed-door meeting with both sides present, allowing union and management representatives to call into question the validity of ballots. After removing inner envelopes from outer ones, the NLRB counts the anonymous votes.
Now, we won’t lie to you, current regulations on the books have not stopped companies from repeatedly and systemically breaking federal laws. There’s ample evidence and well-documented cases out there on this subject. Regardless of what illegal threats or forms of surveillance are thrown at you, that should never stop you from banding together to create better working conditions.
How about when I vote on a contract?
Just like when you vote in a union election, your vote on a tentative contract agreement is protected and private.
What if my boss invites me to a private meeting?
If you haven't heard of Weingarten yet for unionized workers, pay close attention. Once a union member, your Weingarten rights play a big role in one-on-one meetings and you ought to know them. Originating from a Supreme Court ruling on the subject, you're entitled to union representation if you're invited to a meeting with management that you believe to be disciplinary in nature. It's the union equivalent of asking for your lawyer to be present before talking to law enforcement.
Also, note that it's illegal for your boss to spy on you during your efforts to organize a union.
What about my personal social media?
This is where things get murky. Like in posting about anything, if your settings are public, anyone can see what you say so be cautious. When in doubt: keep your social on private. For more on social media tips and caveats, we have an article you should check out.
What if I have a privacy complaint?
You should first reach out to your union leadership to discuss any privacy concerns you might have. But if warranted, contact the NLRB directly with any concerns you have by phone at 202-273-3733 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.