Independent Union Organizing Tactics

A Perspective by Dawn Mirand and John Barker   

As we emerge into the post-pandemic era, it appears that independent unions, sometimes referred to as in-house unions, are gaining traction and staying power. With the recent successes of Amazon Labor Union, Starbucks Workers United, and Trader Joe’s Union, it is not surprising that healthcare workers and the unions that represent them are considering how best to leverage independent unions to further organizing efforts within their industry.  

What is an independent union, and how does it differ from national labor unions and union federations? 

Independent Union: These are employer-specific unions that are worker-led movements to form their own union that is not represented by a national or international labor union or federation. While not directly represented at first, independent labor unions are often heavily influenced and wind up being affiliated with a national or international labor union or federation that covertly assists the independent labor union.   

National Labor Unions: A national labor union is an NLRB-certified union that represents workers in organizations across the country. As more employees vote to join the union, national labor unions establish local chapters. Typically, national labor unions have large financial resources because of the dues from thousands or millions of members and often have significant political power. Examples of national labor unions include the SEIU, NNU, and the NUHW. 

Union Federations:  A union federation is a group of unions. Union federations also have access to large financial resources and can have enormous political influence. The most well-known of these federations is the AFL-CIO.  

Independent Unions in HealthcareA Case Study  

There are many lessons to be learned from a recent independent union campaign in an acute hospital setting. Analysis and careful consideration will provide employers with insights into the urgency of openly addressing, or at least acknowledging, employee concerns. 

What led to organizing? 

While some of the tactics of an independent union campaign look different than a traditional organizing campaign, the catalyst to organize came down to several familiar issues:  

  • Staffing challenges 
  • Pandemic-related burnout 
  • Pay inequity  
  • Dissatisfaction with benefits 
  • Disengaged or unavailable leadership 
  • Unavailable leadership  
  • Feelings of being unheard and disrespected by leadership  
independent unions

Why did the healthcare workers choose an independent union? 

Like healthcare organizations all over the country, leaders from the organization involved in this case study faced unprecedented challenges relating to pandemic preparedness, financial hardships, staffing shortages, supply chain interruptions, and employee burnout. To meet these extraordinary issues, the leaders at this organization had to make difficult and challenging decisions about how to prioritize these competing demands. In many cases, this meant that it was not possible to give employee-raised issues the historical level of attention that employees had come to expect, and leadership communication and responsiveness was further exacerbated by a less robust orientation and training program for new, front-line leaders.    

Unfortunately, as has happened in many healthcare settings experiencing the same conditions, the employees began to feel unsupported and unheard. Over time, employee emotions flared, and the trust employees had for the organization quickly faded, culminating in an intense lack of trust at all levels of management. Employees adopted hostile perceptions relating to the lack of validation, insufficient communication, and failing to address the issues employees were concerned about.  

The employees concluded the only way to be heard and have their issues addressed was to form their own union to deal with the issues themselves. The message that solutions will come from “your coworkers” and that “your voice will now be heard” was a deeply resonating message, one that post-pandemic, burned-out employees were yearning to hear.   

How were the independent union’s tactics different? 

There were four major tactical differences identified in the case study, involving who controls the union, the author of the union’s message, the tone of the message, and who delivered the message.  

We are the union!” 

One major difference from a traditional, national labor organizing campaign involved who controlled the union, or at least who appeared to control the union. While a national union was quietly providing background support to the independent union in this case study, the local, employee organizers appeared to be the ones leading the organizing. They effectively leveraged a “no third party” campaign with their peers and promised that “we are the union.”  

A “no third party” campaign offers distinct advantages to independent unions:  

  1. Independent unions can leverage their limited size and scope to make potential members feel like they will have more input than they could have in a national union with vast memberships.  
  1. As an employee-led initiative, independent unions can effectively message that they are not limited by the constitutions or bylaws of international or national unions. Instead, they message that employees can create whatever rules they want. This allows organizers to more easily market union membership by tailoring their message to an employee’s individual issues and concerns.    
  1. It preempts, or at least limits, the employer’s ability to effectively paint the union as a sort of third-party threat that is working to come in and disrupt the direct relationships between leaders and their employees.   

It is important to discuss that while the independent union organizers were effective in peddling a “no third party” campaign, they received extensive support from an established union. Established labor unions often provide the following types of assistance to independent unions:  

  • Legal support to establish the independent labor union as a legal entity, to draft the independent union’s constitution and bylaws, and to advise on legal filings with the National Labor Relations Board and the Department of Labor 
  • Training employee organizers on union organizing tactics 
  • Advice on campaign messaging and technology use 
  • Assistance in negotiating collective bargaining agreements  
  • Guidance on collecting union dues 
  • Support during protected concerted activity, like strikes, picketing, online communication or corporate campaigns  
The Art of Labor Relations CTA

Authorship of the Message 

Another major tactical advantage involved who was authoring the message. While a national labor union provided support in messaging, this independent union was able to frame themselves as the authors. Rather than appearing to come from a third-party, the messages appeared to come from fellow colleagues. This led to more credibility in their messaging.   

Tone of the Message 

Another change involved the tone of the message. The union’s tactic employed a gentleness in communications that felt different from traditional campaigns with national labor unions. This increased the perceived authenticity of the message. Moreover, the “authors” were able to strategically leverage empathy and support for the shared experiences, a tactic that proved effective in garnering additional support for union organizing. 

Employee-Led Delivery 

The union was able to layer this gentleness of tone nicely with a more traditional tactic that discouraged overt campaigning and confrontation. Even in traditional organizing campaigns, national labor unions often utilize internal, employee organizers to help deliver the union’s message. However, this independent union was better able to leverage internal relationships that were fostered as part of the organizers “not third party” campaign, keeping the organizing extremely covert and well-hidden from unsuspecting management.   

Internal organizers were deliberate in reaching fellow employees unobtrusively during work hours and freely rounding unsupervised within all areas and departments of the organization. Had they been more overt and confrontational, managers would have perceived a greater threat to the organization. However, the organizers’ tactics were effective as management became convinced that employee interest in union organizing was extinct. The employees’ well-coached code of silence permeated throughout the campaign, misleading management into a false sense of “business-as-usual” complacency until the independent union filed the petition for recognition with the National Labor Relations Board. 

independent unions

Leveraging technology  

To employ their tactics, this independent union masterfully leveraged technology, effectively tapping into employee emotion and dissatisfaction.  Social media across multiple platforms used short video segments on Tik-Tok, Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook to include heartfelt coworker testimonials emphasizing the “we are the union”, “no 3rd party” messaging, as well as emphasizing unresolved, unvalidated employee issues. It is worth noting again that the independent union relied heavily on the advice, coaching, and experience of the well-established union advisors to implement the union’s social media strategy 

Employers can be hesitant to utilize social media due to several concerns, as was the case in this situation. Managing posted comments, leaving a digital footprint, and the possibility of maligning the company and its’ leaders can all contribute to the apprehension of utilizing social media. IRI has many social media solutions and can advise clients on best practices to mitigate these and other risks while simultaneously helping organizations leverage the powerful messaging of social media platforms.  

What should union-free organizations be doing now to address the risks of independent unions?  

Complexity and challenges continue to expand for employers, and the best weapon will be the ability to adopt a new mindset for employers to remain union-free from this new organizing opponent. Albert Einstein famously noted, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that we used when we created them.” The more we shift our thinking in both how to effectively address employee unrest as well as mitigating unionization, the better and more sustainable the impact will be to overcome this new wave of independent union organizing.   

Remaining a union-free workplace is often contingent upon effectively addressing all the catalysts for employee unrest. In our post-COVID world of transient employees, supply chain meltdowns, political turmoil, extremist politicians, and inflation/recession, there’s never been a more important time to leverage innovative strategies to mitigate union campaigns and to communicate with valued employees. Employees want to feel like they are working for a company that aligns with their values, and is attending to their needs, while making meaningful contributions to the populations served, particularly in healthcare.

This is a new era in the workforce, and this should be embraced: a convergence of technology, strategy, and purpose will assist in ultimately preserving union-free work environments.  After all, a new generation of prevention will be key.  

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