Independent Unions & The Rise of Employee-Led Organizing

IRI Podcast episode on Independent Unions

The biggest labor news of the past year has been the organizing efforts of Starbucks Workers United, an independent union led by Starbucks employees themselves. For many, this has been a new concept, but in reality, independent or in-house unions have been around for decades. How do these unions develop within a company and how can a company best respond to their advances? Our guest today is Mark Codd, Vice President and Managing Director for IRI Consultants. Here, he explains:

  • What inspired this recent interest in independent labor unions;
  • The organizing tactics employed by in-house unions;
  • Why "independent" unions are often not as independent as they may seem; and
  • The next phase in these independent drives, and what's at stake for the movement.

If you prefer to read along while you listen, we've done all the hard work for you! We listened back to this episode and took notes below, and access is free! 


Setting the Stage

  • The current circumstances of independent worker movements are influenced by working in a post pandemic world.
  • In the 1960’s psychologist David McClelland developed a theory about acquired needs. His theory stated that humans have three basic needs: for power, for achievement, and for affiliation. Mr. Codd believes the isolation from the pandemic created an increased need for affiliation with others.
  • This, coupled with the social turmoil of recent years, has created a social justice movement in the workplace.
  • The simple “transactional” nature of the workplace has changed over the years.


Get all the notes, links, tips, tricks and most important content from this episode - for free!

By signing up you agree to our terms

Independent Unions vs. Traditional Unions

  • One of the key differences between a traditional union and the independent unions is the independent union’s lack of a basic foundation in the labor regulatory environment - they are lacking experience, sophistication and history.
  • Worker support of independent unions is not an indictment of traditional labor unions, but a sign that people prefer to align themselves with the known, rather than the unknown. 
  • The decision to support any union is an important one for workers, because it’s a decision that can have a direct impact on their wages, retirement, health benefits, and more. 
  • It is very challenging for aspiring in-house organizers and independent unions to keep up with labor disclosure laws and compliance.
    • Lack of compliance can lead to criminal penalties for organizers.
    • As a result, many independent unions are quietly aligned with national or international unions, for support. 
    • Even with all of the publicity surrounding some of these unions, like Starbucks, the help they get from traditional unions is often not in the press or a part of the conversation. 
  • Some of the in-house unions may gain enough support, and eventually become their own larger union, but many of them lack the resources and structure to grow and advance.
  • The process surrounding the signing of authorization cards, for example,  is something national or international unions are well-versed in, understand how to comply with the law. Independent unions will sometimes make mistakes during organizing campaign, particularly with regards to making promises as to what can be reasonably gained or attained in the collective bargaining process.
    • For example, inexperienced in-house unions may make campaign promises about broad political issues, such as climate change, immigration, the war in Ukraine. These issues are simply not within the sphere of the collective bargaining process.

Signs of Independent Union Organizing

  • Management should not only monitor the workplace for union organizing, but create a positive employee experience.
  • Some of the indications of workplace union organizing are an isolation, a means of employees not committed to the organization’s core values, deteriorating job performance, absenteeism, people not seeking feedback, and increasing turnover.
    • This also shows that employees may not be as committed to the company, and do not share the organization’s goals.
    • Many employers even outside the independent worker movement should be on the lookout for these warning signs.

Independent Union Organizing Tactics

  • In order to understand the Independent Union process, HR professionals should become familiar with traditional organizing tactics. 
    • An example of a documentary that showcases union tactics is The American Dream, which demonstrates the reality of organizing in the workplace. 
    • Another example is the 1979 film Norma Rae, which is a fictionalized film about an organizing campaign.
  • Independent union campaigns do embrace some traditional organizing tactics. 
    • There is still a use of authorization cards to represent them for collective bargaining, they still have meetings, and use modern tools online for collaboration and organizing.
  • However, independent unions typically pursue smaller units of employees, focusing on a single location, department or job classification. 
    • These smaller units can keep organizing efforts quieter, as it eliminates the need to communicate with workers in public or online.
  • The local nature of an independent union may encourage local involvement in the campaign, depending on the nature of the community. 

What’s Next for Unions?

  • There is an evolution within union organizing. The last two years have been transformative, and an increase in affiliation. Mr. Codd believes a second phase of organizing is coming, which is negotiating, and that is a complex process.
    • During this second phase, the workforce is going to see whether the independent worker movement is capable of delivering on its promises. Workers, especially retail workers, are really counting on the independent union movement to deliver.
  • There has already been some frustration from workers represented by local independent unions, who are seeing a lack of progress being made on promises delivered months ago. 

The Power of Positive Employee Relations

  • The goal of most HR professionals is commiting to workplace improvements, and it is the secret for making companies a great place to work. 
    • One of the characteristics of a great place to work is a shared understanding and commitment to the goals and values of an organization, and that can naturally satisfy the need for affiliation.
    • The best companies aim for more than net operating profits, and exist to accomplish a superordinate and overarching goal. 
  • The concept of unionization is focused on the promises of one side of the relationship between a company and its employees. 
    • Employers have an obligation to be transparent and share their philosophies when it comes to unionization and unions in the workplace. Transparency helps attract workers and influence the behavior within an organization. 
  • The independent unions often lack the guidance and support of national unions; the challenge for employers is to address the issue of representation, but address the logistical challenges and educate employees on how the process works
    • Some of the employees who joined independent unions have gotten locked into less-than-ideal situations because they did not understand their options and the challenges that face an inexperienced independent union. 
    • Employers have to create a shared understanding of the representation process, because it can be very complex and can entail criminal liabilities if done wrong.

IRI Consultants

  • IRI Consultants has been involved in thousands of cases, working with companies who are going through labor disputes.
    • IRI can play an active role in part of an organization’s process to prepare for potential unionization, offering training, developing organizational tools, and more.
    • Communications can play a powerful tool in mediating the communications with employees, consumers, and leaders. 
    • IRI Consultants offers the Labor Relations Readiness Assessment which is a preventative tool to help organizations of any size and structure deal with potential union campaigns.  

Mark Codd Background

  • Ph.D. in Organizational Conflict from Nova Southeastern University
  • MBA in Human Resources Management & Services from The University of Texas at San Antonio
  • He began his career as Division HR Manager and Manager of Compensation with HB Zachry Company
  • Dr. Codd served as the Director of Labor Relations Group for Publix Supermarkets, Inc,.
  • He was an Adjunct Full Professor at Webster University-Lakeland, and is currently an Adjunct Professor/Instructor at both Nova Southeastern University and Florida Southern College
  • Currently, Dr. Codd is the Vice President/Managing Director for IRI Consultants

Links & References


Subscribe & Review The ProjectHR Podcast!

Thanks for tuning into this week’s episode of ProjectHR. If the information in our weekly conversations and interviews have helped you in your business journey, please head over to wherever you get your podcasts and subscribe to the show. We'd also love it if you left us a five-star review! Your reviews and feedback will not only help us continue to deliver great, helpful content, but it will also help us reach even more amazing professionals just like you!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email