Taking your union public is an inevitable step that every organizer and organizing committee must make. It can come before cards are signed or after the results of an election are certified, but at some point in or after the process, you’ll have to.
Talking with an experienced organizer you trust if you know one is a great start, but recognize that each campaign is distinct in its relationship with management, size of potential bargaining unit, and general collective bargaining goals. These varying factors play a role in when and if you go public before your union is legally recognized.
The realities you navigate on a day-to-day basis may be unique, but there are general contexts worth considering when it comes to how out in the open you are as an organizer.
When and Why?
These questions are a good baseline for you to consider:
- How would going public benefit the campaign or put your efforts at risk?
- Does your organization have a history of unionization?
- How has management historically responded to such unionizing efforts?
Announcing a unionizing campaign early can be advantageous. Being out in the open makes it easier to quickly reach coworkers and harder for bosses to take action against you since your efforts are publicly documented, but it does allow them more of an opportunity to mount a counter-campaign to sow dissent.
A 2019 report out of the Economic Policy Institute estimates that organizations across the U.S. spend an average of $340 million per year on hiring staff to stop unionizing efforts in their workplaces. It’s pretty wild that they’d rather spend money on these services than bettering the quality of lives of their staff, right? Regardless, going public too early, without an understanding of what the majority of your staff wants or without an organization in place, can allow management enough time to convince workers that the status quo is good for them.
Waiting to announce can also be beneficial. A study out of Cornell University on unionization efforts in the late 1980s found that win rates among unions was 62% for those that had at least 70% of a workplace send in cards before a petition. Waiting until you have overwhelming support to send cards and go public could be wise since you’ll eventually need a majority of support among staff when it comes time for an election. However, sometimes with larger organizing efforts, it’s tougher to reach a wider, spread-out workforce without a public-facing campaign. Plus, if you wait too long, management can find out about the union before organizers have planned a public rollout so make sure you’re intentional about keeping things quiet or ramping things up.
The point here is that knowing your office terrain and what dynamics are at play between coworkers and management will help you best determine the most strategic time to publicly campaign if you choose to at all.
A quick note for those still early on in the process: managers are not legally allowed to interrogate you about unionizing. You are not obligated to answer anything, and it's not a bad idea to just say "I haven't heard anything about that". If that happens, definitely note it because you may be able to file an Unfair Labor Practice.
Going public could mean taking your efforts to the national stage (think President Biden weighing in on the Amazon warehouse workers’ campaign in Alabama) or it could just mean actively campaigning in and around your office in full view of management. Going public could mean hiring a PR team to appeal to the greater public to put pressure on management to recognize a union or creating a dedicated communications team that works internally to educate staff about the union, debunk lies spread by management, and to help get out the vote when the time comes.
Whatever you decide, controlling when and how the existence of an organizing effort is communicated to a workplace is a crucial part of unionizing.