While the labor movement and union organizing can vary widely, there are some key elements that organizers and academics identify as crucial to the success and strength of a union campaign. One of these is the organizing committee (OC) - a group of workers who collaborate to move a union campaign forward with the goal of winning a union election or voluntary recognition.
What is an OC?
The labor movement can be full of jargon so, for clarity, typically, an OC refers to a group that is trying to unionize an unorganized workplace. At its root, it’s a group of workers who come together to change their workplace; OCs may form on an ad hoc basis or to address specific workplace issues, like health and safety concerns. The organizing committee dissolves once bargaining begins, when workers nominate a bargaining committee to represent them in negotiations with management.
What does the OC do?
On a day-to-day basis, OC members talk to their coworkers to develop union support, build a majority by signing authorization cards, and ensure strong worker participation in solidarity actions and meetings. In order to get to a strong majority and win an election, the OC works with organizing staff and advisors to make strategic decisions. For example, members of the OC develop a plan to approach management and go public; many do so by writing a “Why We’re Organizing” letter, like this one.
Even in a small workplace, one person can't talk to everyone. The role of the OC is also to respond to a crisis in the workplace - like an anti-union meeting or an announcement of layoffs - efficiently and effectively. The OC is also the primary point of contact between the workers and any paid or external union organizers or staff.
Why is an OC important to effective campaigns?
OCs create a democratic structure for workers to take action and build their union. Quite literally, you’re organizing an unorganized workplace. Having an OC creates structure so that work is distributed and not just taken on by the same people. A committee can also provide clear ways for new members to participate (for example - taking notes at the next meeting or volunteering for an action item). There’s a big difference between a cohesive group of people who are all committed to working toward a shared goal and a big group chat where everyone is trying to figure out the next step or what just happened.
Who is on the OC?
A representative OC has proportionate participation from each team/department, position, and locations. In order for an OC to be effective, it has to be able to reach all or most of the workforce and move the union effort forward by talking to coworkers, being public about their union support, and making strategic campaign decisions collectively like how to push back on an employer’s anti-union campaign. In order to best represent the range of experiences in the workplace, an OC should strive to include people from different demographic backgrounds and work experiences.
The most effective OC has workplace leaders, not just activists. At their most basic, leaders are people who have followers, meaning they can get people to do stuff. Leadership varies in many ways, including the person who everyone trusts to give advice or the coworker with the longest tenure. Activists are pro-union workers who move the effort forward (they may or may not be workplace leaders). If you’re building a union campaign at your workplace, think about your colleagues and who you would want representing you. Those are people you want to reach out to and develop their union support.
How big is an OC?
A guiding principle is that an OC should be roughly 10-15% of the total bargaining unit, but that can vary with size - a 200 person OC for a unit of 2000 people will be difficult to achieve and manage, while a 30 person unit may benefit from an OC larger than 3 people. Think about the size and composition of your workplace when building the committee. The goal is to have an OC that is large enough to reach all of your coworkers. Your employer has the ability to reach everyone quickly - we have to build similar structures.
Identify the areas and types of worker that need to be represented (organizing a school might mean thinking about who teaches different grades or subjects, for example). If you’re organizing a hospital and your OC has 5 members from the Emergency Room but no one from Surgery, someone needs to reach out to Surgery.
How does it get formed?
There aren’t elections for an OC because - ideally - it is formed without management even finding out there is a union effort. In many union campaigns, a union organizer or worker on staff with the union facilitates initial OC meetings and recruits participants based on support, leadership, and representation needs. Traditionally, a paid organizer manages the OC, including member recruitment; however, worker organizers can and should form and have a say in their own committees and structures whenever they can.
As you’re talking with your coworkers, ask them who they respect in the workplace or who they would want representing them. As people sign cards and express support, let them know that the committee exists or is in the process of being formed. If someone is enthusiastic about getting involved and being active, think about inviting them to the next meeting. Not every card signer and supporter will be on the OC - and that’s OK - but if there are people who you think would be strong contributors then it’s worth trying to recruit them. (Example: “We're having a meeting next week to make decisions about next steps. No one from your department has attended in the past, and we want to make sure that you're represented. Can you make it?”).
It’s important that the OC functions democratically and represents workers, but make no mistake - it’s a biased group. An OC is a group of people who want to form a union and are doing the work to make that happen. If someone is opposed to the effort, they do not belong on the organizing committee. You may get push back because someone feels like people are making decisions without their input, but everyone gets a say in whether or not they sign union cards. An anti-union worker does not have the right to derail an organizing committee, or attend a meeting just to report back to management. This doesn’t mean that an OC should write people off; the OC should make an effort to have 1:1s with anti-union workers without getting derailed.
Tips for an efficient OC
- Rotate logistics like note-taking, room reserving, agenda drafting, and meeting facilitation. Everyone has a role to play in building their union and rotating roles helps prevent burnout, distributes work more equitably, and gives new participants a clear way to get involved.
- Have a dedicated OC group chat (Discord, Signal, Slack, etc) that is not a work platform.
- If there are larger chats for the full unit, that is great, but be sure to maintain a place for OC to talk. Not everyone wants to be up in the minutiae of every decision and email draft.
- Set a regular meeting time, typically weekly. Consider holding it remotely to accommodate busy schedules and family lives. Google Meet is a free and easy way to host them.
The OC moves your union recognition campaign forward
The organizing committee is the first opportunity to set the tone for the entire union. It’s not a clique or a place to trash the company. It’s a group of workers facilitating collective action to build a more just and equitable workplace.