How Independent Workers Unions Are Different… or Are They?

Employees around the country are forming an independent union in their workplace, but quite honestly, in many cases, calling them independent workers unions is a bit of a misnomer. Most of these groups of seemingly independently organized groups of employees don't manage the union organizing process alone, and they are mostly worker/employer-specific unions fronted by labor unions.

Understanding this basic concept is crucial because chances are many of these employee-formed unions can easily join labor unions eventually, should they decide they need more influence or backing in the workplace. You can stay union-free – of any type of union – by gaining a more profound knowledge of the reasons for employees forming an independent union and responding with a strategy to develop positive employee relationships.   

Independent Unions, Worker Unions, National Unions, and Union Federations 

Before beginning the discussion on independent worker unions, let's first review some terminology. 

Worker centers could be considered precursors to the independent workers' unions. These are operated by a non-union worker advocacy group and have strong ties to labor unions. They aren't labor unions, but they help employees address issues like pay and serve as a link for labor unions to employees who are not union members. UnionProof discussed their role in the blog What Happens Inside a Worker Center?

Following are the types of unions and their basic differences.  

Micro-units: Micro units are small groups of employees who vote to unionize. For example, the cosmetic salespersons in a department store form a union. It's a labor union in every respect, and employees are members of NLRB-certified labor unions. An employer is at risk of having to deal with multiple collective bargaining units when micro-units form. 

Independent Workers Unions: Worker/employer-specific unions are independent groups of employees who form a union not represented by a national or international labor union or a union federation. They may be affiliated with a labor union to obtain union organizing assistance, guidance on managing union dues, contract negotiating help, training, and support of union actions like strikes and protests. Some of these unions seek National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union vote authorization and union certification. Some independent unions don't go through the NLRB. The obvious advantage of NLRB certification is the employer will have to recognize the union, and otherwise, the employees will have to convince their employer to recognize their union. 

National Labor Unions: A national labor union is an NLRB-certified union that represents workplaces across the country. Employees vote to join the union, so national labor unions have many local chapters as members. Some employees choose to join a national union because they believe the union has more power to get the employees what they want from their employees. National unions have large amounts of money because they collect dues from tens of thousands or millions of workers. They also have political connections, giving them clout in influencing legislation. 

Union Federations: A union federation is a group of unions. The unions may or may not be national unions. The AFL-CIO and Change to Win (CtW) are examples of union federations. The AFL-CIO is one of the largest federations, with 57 different unions representing 12.5 million union members. Each member pays union dues, and the union pays dues to the federation. Member services include taking local union responsibility for finances and filing financial disclosure forms. They are influential bargaining organizations, too, able to call upon millions of union members from different unions to support a local union's cause or strike. Like national labor unions, union federations have enormous political clout, lobbying Congress for legislation like the PRO Act. 

You can stay #unionfree by utilizing knowledge of the reasons why employees turn to a union, and responding with a strategy to develop #positive #employeerelations.

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Can Employees Create Their Own Union? 

The legal definition of an independent workers union is a union not affiliated with a national or international labor union. Some of the largest and most powerful unions for employees in the private sector are the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). These are some of the most common union front groups for employees forming an independent union.  

What happens when employees want to unionize without joining an NLRB-sanctioned labor union? The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) gives employees the right to form a union, meaning it is legal to create their own independent workers' unions. However, the employees forming independent worker's unions may or may not be affiliated with a national or international union or union federation. The truth is many of the independent worker's unions are unions fronted by other unions – large labor unions who see the independent unions as a source of potential membership in the future.

Google's Alphabet Workers Union is a good example. Full-time employees, temporary employees, contractors, and vendors formed the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU), which now has 800 plus members. As UnionProof discussed, the AWU is not a National Labor Relations Board sanctioned union, but it's a union just the same. The AWU even uses the language of labor unions like "solidarity" and "reclaim our power" and "treated with respect and dignity." 

independent workers union

Partnering With, Instead of Joining, Labor Unions 

The reason the independent AWU union sounds and acts so much like a labor union is easy to explain. The Communication Workers of America (CWA) helped form this independent workers union. The CWA is an AFL-CIO affiliate union and has its own set of union members, i.e., the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-SWA), the Industrial Union of Electronic Workers (IUE-CWA), etc. 

Last month, employees at Activision Blizzard, a video game company, in conjunction with the CWA, filed an unfair labor practices suit with the NLRB, accusing Activision of both worker intimidation and union busting. The employees have staged a walkout, which has led to employees at other major video game companies to come together to ask for similar improvements in their workplaces as well. The employees at Activision Blizzard have not (yet) announced a push for a union, however, they have brought in a firm to conduct a third-party investigation into the issues that have been alleged.

Not all independent workers' unions disclose they are unions fronted by other unions. But many are, and this gives them a robust set of resources. Think about this: the Alphabet Workers Union is affiliated with the CWA, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. A relatively small group of Google workers has ties to one of the most powerful union groups in the country and didn't have to go through a formal union organizing campaign

Taking Independent Workers' Unions Seriously

The Buckeye Nurse Anesthetists Union (BNAU) is an independent union of Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs) at Ohio State University. It is affiliated with the Ohio Nurses Association (ONA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. Though the BNAU website makes it sound like the BNAU is an independent grassroots campaign, it's really an affiliate of a labor union that guides the BNAU members in the direction it thinks it should go.  

The Industrial Workers of the World (called Wobblies) is the union front group of the Burgerville Workers Union (BVWU) representing fast-food workers. The BVWU organizes acts just like a large NLRB-sanctioned union, even though it's a minority union (it doesn't have a majority of employees to win an NLRB election.) The BVUA leverages a lot of community pressure to address its issues with management.  

Some of the issues are typical union demands, like higher pay and pandemic-related health concerns. But not all of the Burgerville issues are typical. For example, Burgerville's management decided to temporarily close a location because of safety concerns for employees due to a nearby houseless encampment. The BVWU wants the company to consider a "care-based alternative" (August 14, 2021 post) in which the company invests in bias training and camp and surrounding community safety and health improvements, like water and bathrooms.  

The IWW is an anti-capitalist union that has no hesitancy in letting the world know it believes in making employers fear employees. It has a reputation for being militant and confrontational. It even says on the IWW website, "Yes, the IWW is radical." With IWW guidance, the BVWU has held multiple workplace actions and strikes, made numerous demands, and negotiated a collective bargaining contract. It sounds just like a labor union, but one with broader interests than just wages and benefits. The IWW is "famous for creating many new and innovative forms of striking against the boss." One of the tactics the union uses is gaining the full support of the community to harm the company's reputation and try to back the employer into a corner. 

The IWW believes in helping any number of employees. For example, 13 workers at Scotties Pizza attempted unionizing with the help of the IWW. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the pizza restaurant was shut down, and everyone was laid off. When it reopened, there were two employees. The unionizing effort fizzled, and the IWW was not happy. 

The Voodoo Doughnut Workers Union (VWU) is affiliated with the IWW. The union was supported by 52 people employed before the pandemic led to a layoff, and the 30 were retained. The corporate office does not recognize the union because the NLRB Certification of Results of Election said the ballot totals didn't support collective-bargaining representation. The company will not bargain with employees. Despite this, the Voodoo employees call themselves a union and act like a union. In June 2021, the employees went on strike, joined by community members, saying it was too hot to work. Some were fired for "job abandonment," and the story continues. 

The Role of Employee Resource Groups (ERG) 

What role are Employee Resource Groups (ERG) playing in the creation of independent workers' unions? Employee Resource Groups (ERG) were never intended to be pre-labor union groups. Yet, employers need to understand that there are cases where they become that very thing.  

ERGs are organized employee communities. When they become platforms for labor union organizing, it's usually because their employer didn't leverage the ERG in a value-creating positive way. They use the ERG as a "look at my company…we give women and diverse people their own forum." The issue employees have is when the ERG seems to be a new form of group tokenism in which your leaders don't leverage the ERG as an authentic source of new perspectives and ideas and doesn't use the ERG to learn about the needs of the employees in terms of things like addressing bias in the workplace.  

Independent workers' unions and ERGs can intersect. The Alphabet Workers Union listed three things it wants to achieve. One is to foster an organizational culture of care so that the first is last and the last is first. Second, the employees want to protect Alphabet workers, the environment, and society. Third, the union wants to "amplify the voices of employee resource groups." Forming Employee Resource Groups (ERG) is not enough. Employee groups can form and still feel powerless because members don't believe management is listening to them. 

Your workplace doesn't need an ERG to end up facing a union organizing drive. Employees can gather in the lunchroom for that matter and discuss their unhappiness with the workplace. So it always comes back to this: It is incumbent on your leaders to give employees an authentic voice – an honest voice for inclusion and belonging that triggers honest and genuine employer responsiveness (walk the walk).

independent unions

What Drives the Formation of Independent Workers' Unions? 

One of the differences between these independent workers union efforts and a labor union organizing effort is that workers apparently don't want to join a large union and become one among many. They want to feel special and able to decide for themselves what is important and the values and beliefs they want to share.  

That's what it's really all about. Employees don't want to feel like cogs in a union machine with no say in how their work, workplace conditions, or associations with leaders are managed. You should take note, though, that employees, especially in higher-paid positions, view the purpose of worker/employer-specific unions differently in many ways compared to the traditional blue-collar labor unions. The Alphabet Workers Union has a website that gives a whole webpage touting the reasons it works with the CWA. Included are statements like, "they support whatever fight the workers want" and "we are combining the struggle for the soul of Alphabet."  

UnionProof discussed the non-traditional drivers of unionization that are becoming more common as millennials and Gen Z make up a larger portion of the workforce. Alphabet tech workers are well-paid, get bonuses and stock options and enjoy their work. Their issues are often based on social causes, like diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and keeping projects and work aligned with the mission. 

So, when they say we "we are the union," they are talking about the employee empowered voice – a particular voice and not the voice of a large union. They want their voice to be the source of power and not the voice of labor union representatives. Following are some points that employees forming an independent union have said that are not about wages, benefits, vacation time, and health insurance, common topics of labor unions. They speak of values, humanity, social responsibility, and community of care.  

  • Have united voices with real power  
  • Establish democratic structures for decision making to empower the diverse workforce 
  • Empowered to keep employer decision-making aligned with social goals 
  • Affect real change in decision-making 
  • Promote business ethics and morality at the management level 
  • Promote justice in products and workforce management 
  • Create a safe work environment for speaking up 
  • Oppose perceived employer retaliation 
  • Holding a company accountable to workers and society 
  • Have a say in work performed 
  • Develop work relationships that are valued 

Independent unions focused on wages, safety, and schedules, like the Burgerville Workers Union (BVWU), which represents food workers. However, employees like the engineers at Google who formed the Alphabet Workers Union are mostly focused on gaining a voice with influence. They talk about things like feeling safe and about speaking up and that nothing they say is taken seriously or even considered by management. The employees believe the company violates its mission by working for certain military agencies and not being concerned about its impact on customers. The employees are concerned with the common good

Get Proactive in Developing Positive Employee Relations 

Some employers wonder why their employees want to unionize when they already get equitable pay and great benefits. The reason is found in the deeper meaning of "we are the union." Your leaders must not fall back on the ", but you get excellent benefits." They must be proactive in developing positive employee relations

Some workers believe that forming their own union is different than organizing under a massive union like the IBEW, SEIU, and IBT. In fact, they're almost the same. As an employer, you should develop a strong strategy for educating your employees on the truth about unionizing. If you want to stay union-free, you have to be willing to talk to your employees about labor unions and their tactics to know what they are getting into.  

  • Encourage them to ask the same questions they would ask a labor union. Where do union dues go? How are union dues spent? What if an independent union decides it wants to change the labor union backing it or drop backing all together? What control will the labor union fronting the independent workers union have in terms of decision-making?  
  • Explain the bureaucratic red tape associated with national unions and federations and how voices get lost even when an independent union  
  • Remind employees that labor unions of any kind discourage individuality and promote "groupthink." 
  • Ask employees to consider the loss of flexibility when they ask labor unions for help because labor unions don't work for free and without wanting some control. 
  • Remind employees that any type of union still has to get a consensus of its members before approaching management with issues, slowing down progress and causing a barrier to open dialogue that could easily take place between employees and management.  
  • Unions add negativity to the employee-employer relationship that is unnecessary. 
  • Big labor unions have specific agendas they push, which can hurt people who prefer independent status. For example, they want to push millions of independent contractors out of their jobs because they compete with union members and force employers to only hire people with employee status.  
  • Any union is associated with the bad behavior of labor unions
  • Discuss the fact that unions are less democratic, not more. Every union has a power structure, even independent unions, and someone will take control.  
  • Independent unions often have labor union backing, which means they get access to a powerful political machine, but that is part of the control factor. Employees lose the ability to remain politically independent when they accept assistance from a labor union. What if you hire a lot of independent contractors? Do their colleagues want them pushed out of their jobs because they aren't employees? 

Of course, your company will have to deal with many of the same challenges a labor union presents, i.e., strikes and walkouts, bad publicity, frequent demands for improvements, etc. You are advised to put the same effort and resources into staying free of independent workers unionizing as you do staying union free of labor unions. You need well-trained frontline supervisors who understand employee engagement; a high-quality management communication process that is transparent; equitable Human Resources policies implemented and applied fairly; opportunities for employees to utilize their voice and get honest feedback; and all the other positive employee relations building processes, systems, tools, and resources. 

positive employee relations

Deliver on What You Promise 

Businesses find themselves the targets of unions – independent workers' unions and labor unions – because employees believe management doesn't take them seriously and doesn't follow through. It is a common theme among employees that decide to join a union.  

For example, the large tech firms promised years ago to increase diversity and inclusion, and a decade later, the numbers are not anywhere close to the goals. The Diversity in Tech Report found that 32 percent of women and 38 percent of tech workers from underrepresented groups don't believe they have the same advancement opportunities as their white peers. Sixty-five percent of women say they experience bias in the workplace. The U.S. Equality Opportunity Commission Bureau reports Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous people account for 16 percent of the tech industry.  

This is just one example. Many of the independent workers' unions are formed because employees get impatient with promises made and not kept. What is truly different with the younger generations is that employees want to look out for each other and are willing to step up to do so, some putting their jobs on the line. For example, many Google employees joining the Alphabet Workers Union say the reason is they are united in wanting to help non-employees – contracted workers – get equal status in areas like benefits. 

Independent Unions are Still Unions 

Employees may be finding new ways to unionize, but as it pertains to you and your organization, a union is still a union. The best way to stay union-free is to develop positive employee relations and be aware of unionizing signs. At IRI, along with the Projections team, we have the expertise and resources to help your business develop a strong strategy for staying union-free through increased knowledge of union tactics and employee and leadership training. Let our knowledgeable team of experts help you navigate the path to positive employee relations with higher employee engagement and retention rates.

About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is Projections’ CEO and the founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.