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Union organizing is not for the faint of heart. It demands unwavering passion, dedication, and resilience. Organizing a successful union drive is not a simple or short-term project. The effort to prepare for, build, and launch an organizing campaign can take many months or longer and requires an investment of time and money that should be taken seriously. Despite this, organizing is incredibly worthwhile! Nothing compares to the exhilaration of winning a campaign to organize new workers. The wins are truly worth all the effort. Successful organizing fortifies the union’s membership base, increases revenue and strength, and builds more power to fight for workers when issues arise. This post is intended as a guide to the basics. Organizing can’t be fully captured within one piece – each step of the process has entire books and university courses dedicated to it, and there are many experts out there whom we deeply respect and admire. This is simply our attempt to break down the mission of organizing new workers into its fundamentals. It’s a call to get started. If you find yourself wanting to know more about particular areas of interest, reach out! We have many more insights, experiences, and resources to share. The Current Environment in Canada Unorganized workers are talking seriously about unionizing for the first time in decades, making it the perfect time for unions to ramp up organizing efforts. Until recently, Canada’s unionization rates were in decline for many years. The overall rate of unionization in 1981 was 38%, falling to about 29% in 2022. Things were especially bad in the private sector, where the rate went from 32% to 15%. Meanwhile, during that same period, the wealthiest 1% of Canadians’ share of the national income rose from 8 to 14%. Things began to shift In 2023 when a combination of post-COVID low unemployment rates and inflation gave workers a reason to ramp up collective action on a large scale. It also gave them the advantage, leading to many successful strikes and legislative wins. The publicity surrounding these successes has triggered a surge in interest in unionization. Recent polls, like this one and this one, show the majority of Canadians currently feel positively about unions. What better time for unions to focus on growing membership? The Many Reasons to Organize New Workers For some unions, organizing falls lower on the list of priorities. There is a sense of responsibility to allocate time and money to current members. However, organizing new workers and strengthening the membership base is crucial for many reasons, and unions must find a way to make it a core part of their work. Protect against privatization. Privatization of government services has long been used as a tactic to break unions and reduce worker compensation, all while raising overall service costs in the name of cutting taxes to the rich. To change this dynamic, unions need to diversify their membership to include both public and private sector workers to show that workers will be unionized with or without privatization. When the majority of workers are unionized whether their workplaces are privatized or not, the power of privatization as an anti-union tactic will be gone. Improve gig work. Changing labour demands and the emergence of new work technologies, such as digital labour platforms, have contributed to a rise in the number of Canadians involved in gig work. Gigification is coming to all sectors – we see it in delivery services, transportation, health care, construction, and more. While lauded for its flexibility, gig labour also presents many challenges for workers, including difficult working conditions and precarious employment. Unionizing gig workers can bring job security and better working conditions to this growing area of our workforce. Raise standards. It’s difficult for a union to improve compensation and working conditions within a sector when competing employers are offering the same product or service for substantially lower costs. Unionizing competing companies levels the playing field and raises the standard of working conditions across the board. Secure the union’s own future. Employers come and go depending on social and economic factors, which means the working environment is continually changing. A union’s legacy and ability to contribute to the lasting well-being of workers relies on ongoing efforts to organize new workers through these changes, continually reinforcing its membership base while building the power of its members. Work towards justice. Recruiting new members is important for these reasons and more, but the bottom line is that all workers deserve justice. An injury to one is an injury to all. Unions provide the mechanism for them to see justice in the workplace. There is a shared responsibility to fight for a more just world, and for unions, that means helping more workers build power. Read more: Sam Gindon on the generational challenge of taming Amazon and renewing labour. Having the Right Culture Successful organizing relies on a few key components within the union structure. One of the most important is a culture that supports it. Doing the work of shifting the internal culture is part of the organizing process and can’t be ignored! Tolerance for failure. One reality of organizing is that you have to run a lot of experiments to find what works. Experiments can be messy, and some will fail. There has to be tolerance for the mess, which is found within a culture of experimentation. The best results come from trying a variety of strategies and not investing too much in any particular one. They won’t all work, but some will. Avoid the common trap of thinking that if one organizing attempt doesn’t work, none will ever work. It’s false and leads to prematurely giving up. Experimenting with different types of campaigns will allow you to find the particular formula(s) that works for you. As inherently democratic organizations, unions often lean toward being risk-averse to accommodate the lowest level of fear tolerance, which sometimes works against the union’s goals. Fostering a culture that accepts the ups and downs of experimentation allows for progress and forward momentum. Fast decision-making. Another cultural requirement is the ability to make decisions quickly. Particularly when an employer responds to organizing efforts, a timely counter-response is crucial. Here again, the democratic nature of unions can work against this. The effort to ensure all voices are heard can lead to indecision. To combat this, it’s important to appoint trusted decision-makers early in the campaign. These decision-makers will plan how the union will respond to different scenarios ahead of time and then make the calls when necessary. Spending money on a long game. Organizing costs money, and recouping the cost of an organizing drive usually takes at least a few years. A multi-year commitment is key to building the necessary skills, the campaigning infrastructure, and the union’s reputation in the sectors you are targeting. A risk-averse culture will struggle to justify spending money on workers who are not current members. Getting a long-term commitment up front and being ready to campaign internally is essential. Cost is why many unions give up before achieving organizing success. Read more: Unions Need to Spend Big to Seize the Day. Picking Targets Alignment. Targets should be similar to the sectors or employers of the union’s current members. The importance of this is sometimes downplayed in a desire to grow the membership. It can be tempting to organize any disgruntled workers asking for help, but workers from sectors that differ substantially from those of current members will have unique needs a union may struggle to address. Not only that, unorganised workers are more likely to respond to a union they can see themselves in, one already working on the issues that matter to them. It’s important to consider these things before pouring resources into organizing. Similarly, the union’s current membership needs to be on board. If the members can’t see the relevance of the target, they won’t support the investment. One of the leading causes of failure for an organizing program is lack of support from existing members. Size. The size of the target must also be considered strategically. There is a certain level of expenditure required to put the basics in place for a successful organizing drive, which means a fairly standard minimum investment is required. If the target is too small, the math doesn’t work because the results won’t pay off. The threshold for “too small” will depend on the organizing context of each union, and may need to be determined through experimentation. If the target is too large, expenses increase exponentially. Very large targets may come with multiple sites, a higher level of bureaucracy, and the resources to fight unionization attempts, all of which make the campaign more vulnerable overall. Ultimately, the target must be large enough to pay off, but not so large as to make the risk untenable. Be realistic! Start small, and go after bigger units as you gain capacity. Read more: Amazon Spent $3.1 Million on Anti-Union Consultants in 2023. Identifying Leads Hot shop organizing. The majority of Canadian unions organize through leads from people who come onto their website. It’s an okay approach, but it’s not very strategic. Be prepared to turn people away unless the situation aligns with the union’s current membership and work. It’s also important to find out what you’re getting into! These leads often come from workers who have reached a breaking point after having tolerated the employer's actions for some time. Emotions are frequently high, and the workers may be very motivated to set the union up as soon as possible. The trouble is that organizing based on emotion often fails. When faced with the threat of employer retribution, anger can be quickly replaced by fear, leading to paralysis. And if organizing steps have been skipped, the resulting structure is vulnerable to falling apart before a contract is in place. Strategic organizing. In a strategic approach, unions carefully select relevant targets based on the work already being done and alignment with current members. Initial outreach must be subtle enough to capture the attention of workers without being blatant about organizing – creativity helps! You might survey existing members to identify friends or family members working at your strategic targets. You might collect leads by campaigning in the community on worker-related issues, hosting community events, or offering training workshops. You might run digital ads informing workers within your target about your work on issues they care about. You might even create a cover community organization or marketing company to facilitate data collection. Salting, where you send people to work in an unorganized workplace with the goal of initiating union organizing, is another option, but it involves a significant time commitment and personal sacrifice. Another strategy is to brand the union within the sector or geographic area as “the union for _____''. This option is great for letting unorganized workers know who to turn to. Remember to always evaluate leads for alignment with the union’s strategic goals, as this tactic also has the potential to turn into a hot shop scenario. Strategic Research Once leads have been identified, it’s time to research the target to really get to know what you’re up against. For example, who owns the employer? Who’s on the board, and who are the senior or even middle managers? Look at what connections they have. Have they donated money to a particular political party or religious organization? Who owns shares in the company? Is the industry easily moved off-shore? Is the employer posting losses, or are they boasting expansion and growth? It’s common to consider this groundwork unnecessary and skip it, especially in Canada, where the system is generally more fair in how it responds to unionization drives than in the US. But without it, you may be leaving victories on the table. Read more: The call for a crack-down on increasingly aggressive union-busting tactics in the US. The recent anti-union efforts of Alabama leadership in the UAW’s bid to unionize a Mercedes plant. Tactical planning. Researching the employer will help you identify possible challenges it may throw at the campaign, allowing you to prepare tactical responses ahead of time and stay one step ahead. Consider any factors that might be leveraged to the union’s advantage. For example, are there ways to convince the employer that responding with neutrality is in their own best interest? Maybe the employer’s own brand can be used to the workers’ advantage. Workers with a high level of public respect might lean on community influence. Perhaps there’s a way to leverage investor pressure. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the employer before launching the campaign can mean the difference between winning and losing. When people’s livelihoods are at stake, there’s a responsibility to be prepared. Don’t skip it. Read more: How an investor used their influence to force Nike to address labour concerns. How Patagonia workers were ensured a neutral response based on the company’s own values. Build the Inside Committee Next, you’ll begin to build the structure that will counter the employer’s structure, and it starts with the inside organizing committee. This committee, made up of the most passionate supporters of unionization, is crucial to organizing a workfloor because it is the power of the whole campaign. First, identify the natural leaders, or the folks that the other workers trust and go to for help. These essential leaders will be the driving force behind high participation levels, one of the key principles in helping workers win. Identifying these leaders is accomplished through one-on-one meetings with workers, asking them who they turn to when they need help. When the same name comes up repeatedly, it’s time to engage that person. Don’t be surprised if these natural leaders are skeptical at first. Often, they are leaders because they know how to navigate the power dynamics of the workplace. It’s important for organizers to get them to see how the union will help them. Once you’ve gathered the inside committee, you’ll call upon them to take charge of the campaign. It’s their union, after all! Encourage them to undertake structure tests to see how others respond to them. Structure tests involve completing specific campaign tasks, such as collecting contact information for all employees or getting a petition to management signed. If the tests are unsuccessful, there’s more work to do. If the tests are successful, you’ve got an inside committee! From here, you’ll repeat this step, addressing weaknesses each time, until you are confident you’ve built a structure that connects with the entire workfloor and can run the campaign from the inside. Read more: How a strong inside committee worked for Sodecia employees in London, Ontario. Launching the Public Campaign Clearly, organizing is not simply a marketing campaign to drive public support, as many initially believe. But it is also that! We believe an organizing drive should stay under wraps until structure testing has demonstrated that the inside committee can accomplish a lot, and the union is confident the structure it has built is strong enough to withstand the employer’s attempts to fight back. Only then should the campaign go public. Don’t force it. Here’s a pill that’s hard to swallow: that time might not come. Yes, even after all the investment of time, money, and hard work. Launching can do more harm than good if the structure tests keep failing and workers aren’t prepared to take action together. Going ahead at all costs is extremely risky – it can result in job loss for workers, public failure, and burning bridges with people who support the union. Organizers need to know when to hold and when to fold. Livelihoods and the union’s reputation depends on it. Having said that, if the structure tests have shown improvement, there’s a strong internal organizing committee, you’ve confirmed community support, and you’re prepared with a diversity of tactics to handle the employer, launch away! Read more: Jane McAlevey on learning the right lessons from the UAW’s loss in Alabama. A Final Word. Despite the best efforts of unions and the labour movement, workers continue to face workplace hardship and unfair limitations imposed by employers across the country and beyond. Whatever it takes, we have a responsibility to keep fighting for better and building the power of the working class. For union organizers, this means ensuring that as many workers as possible have union representation. Make the most of the current momentum and public support, and start organizing new workers! *** As we've said, organizing is our jam at Campaign Gears. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions, want more information, or need support getting started! We have many more thoughts, solutions, and insights to share.