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Unions 101: a crash course on worker power

Working class solidarity is still the way out of our bad politics.

Words from John

Hi friends!

I skipped an edition of The Holler last week. Researching this video and making sure my dive bartending duties were taken care of soaked up a lot of time. BTW, if you want a peek into my life as an Appalachian dive bartender, check out my TikTok feed.

I’m excited about this video though because worker-led union organizing is on the rise again and it couldn’t happen at a better time. The most exciting part about it is that anyone can organize their workplace. The union win at Amazon, by a rag-tag group of workers running on a shoestring budget from Go Fund Me, is all the proof you need.

Putting these videos together is a lot of work. The Holler has 85 sustaining members donating on a monthly basis that help make ends meet. I cannot thank them enough. We have 3,738 subscribers at the free level. If you want this content to keep making it out into the world, please become a sustaining member today for only $60 per year!

Video Transcript

Unions 101. Here we go. What are unions? How do they work? How do you start one? What do they do? Why do we need them? Myths. Facts. More. We’re talking about all that because *right now* is one of the biggest moments for worker-led organizing in the last half-century. 

This is a long video but the short story is this: we’re in a second gilded age. Billionaires and corporations are as rich and powerful as they’ve ever been, and just like then, unions and working-class power movements are still the main way out

Here are some facts

Unionized workers make about $11,000 more per year than non-union workers. 

Across the board, they have: 

  • higher wages (11.2% more than what nonunion workers make)

  • employer-provided health insurance (96% compared to 69%)

  • access to paid sick days (93% compared to 75%)

  • retirement benefits (82% to 48%)

  • guaranteed pensions (54% to 8%)

Not to mention that a union contract means that your boss can’t just fire you because they don’t like the t-shirt you’re wearing. There has to be just cause and due process. 

Any way you cut it, a union means more money, power, and a better life for its members.

What are unions?

So, what the heck are unions? They’re a group of workers who decide to organize into a non-profit. That’s it. 

They’re run democratically by their worker members. Everything is voted on and nothing happens without the consent of the members.  

Unions negotiate with companies for better wages, benefits, time off, whatever you, the members that make and run the union, decide to push for. 

They work by strength in numbers. You can ask for these things alone and be laughed at, or you can demand them with your co-workers by your side. No wealth creation happens without workers. Together we hold the power. 


Know your rights

But here’s the part that most people don’t know. It’s a snooze fest, but like most of those, this is important, and it’s like… a minute. 

The right to organize a union is protected by the Constitution of the United States and by federal law. It’s in the very first amendment:

“The right of the people peaceably to assemble.”  

Just like your right to free speech, the first amendment guarantees freedom of association and is recognized by U.S. Courts as a fundamental right.

Also, freedom of association for advancing shared values is the “liberty” written into the due process clause of the 14th amendment. 

And backing all of these constitutional rights up is the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. It lays out exactly what workers can do, and more importantly, exactly what companies can’t do when workers organize. 

Union busting and retaliation, even though common, is illegal. And it’s the job of the NLRB, created in that 1935 law, to protect and enforce your rights. You can do something about it. 

In short, any organizing you do is as central to the US Constitution as free speech. It’s an American birthright for everyone. And it’s time to use it. 

Why we need unions right now

Because… working Americans aren’t exactly enjoying the fruits of their labor. Our retirement savings are terrible. A rule of thumb is to have a million or more in the bank by the time you retire. Only 16% have $200,000 or more saved. The median savings at retirement age is 17% of what’s needed for a comfortable retirement. 

More than half the country couldn’t cover an emergency $1,000 expense. The bottom half of Americans combined literally have a negative net worth. Meaning they’re worth less than 0 dollars. And the majority of workers are working more hours for not much more pay. 

Meanwhile, billionaires and the rich are winning it all. Three men own as much as the bottom half of Americans. The richest 5% own 66% of the countries wealth. And billionaires, for the first time in history, paid a lower tax rate than the working class in 2018

How to unionize 

So, are you sitting there thinking I hate this and it sucks? Well, you can do something about it. So let’s walk through how to unionize. 

There are two ways to unionize. The first would be your company voluntarily recognizing your union. The second is to win a union election. Let’s talk about that one. 

To get a union election you need at least 30% of your co-workers to sign a card saying they want a union. That’s all the card means. 

Submitting signed cards for 30% of your workforce, to the NLRB triggers an official union election, but it’s the bare minimum. Typically organizers shoot for 70 or more percent to up their chances of winning the vote. 

Once you have the election, all you need is 50% plus 1 of your co-workers to vote yes and you win a union. 

This is where the company tries to crush you by doing things that range from shady to straight-up illegal. Because unions work so well, and they mean less money for CEOs and billionaires, those people do everything they can to convince workers to vote no. It’s common for them to pay anti-union consultants $2,000 or more dollars per day to break a union drive. Amazon spent $54 million last year alone trying to stop the Amazon Labor Union, which won (incredibly) with a budget of $100K they raised on Go Fund Me. It may not be easy, but it’s absolutely possible to win anywhere. 

Once you win, then your union negotiates a contract. This has to be done within one year, but companies break the law here all the time and delay as long as possible which is why it’s important to elect pro-union politicians. 

No contract is approved without a majority vote from the union, and union dues don’t kick in until you win a contract. 

After the contract is won, it’s all about building power to enforce the contract and win a better one next time around. That’s the quick and dirty on how the whole process works. 

8 myths about unions

It’s that simple. And because unions work so well and anyone can decide to organize, corporations and billionaires have spent decades spreading myths about unions. So now it’s time for 8 myths about unions!  

  1. Unions are a third party that gets between the company and workers. False! Unions are workers at the company who decide what they’ll negotiate for together. Nothing happens without your vote. 

  2. Union dues will take all your money. Nope! You don’t pay any dues until the union wins you a raise. Union workers are paid more across the board. If you win a 10% raise and pay 1% in dues, you’re 9% ahead. And how much of the money you make for your company is going to overpaid bosses and management who couldn’t do your job? Something to think about. 

  3. They’ll fire us or close down our shop for unionizing. This is explicitly illegal by sections 7 and 8 of the National Labor Relations Act. Your right to organize is protected by the constitution and years of federal law and precedent. You can fight back and be reinstated. As for closing plants, it’s an empty threat. One study found 51% of companies threatened to close and about 1% followed through. 

  4. Unions aren’t necessary anymore. Well, billionaires pay a lower tax rate than you and half the country would be sunk by a surprise $1000 bill despite working more hours than ever. Yeah, we need unions. 

  5. The union will force you out on strike when you want to work. You are the union. You and other members decide together what to do and how to do it. Strikes are a last resort when the company plays hardball. 

  6. You can lose what you currently have at your job by trying to unionize: You vote on whatever you get so unless you’re planning to vote for less, this is very silly. And as John Oliver put it: If companies genuinely thought unions would negotiate worse terms for their employees, they'd be welcoming them in with open arms. 

  7. Unions protect bad lazy workers and make it impossible to fire them. This is a classic bad apple argument. Of course companies can fire people. Unions just make it so there has to be a reason and a process. You can’t just be fired for looking at the boss wrong. And you can’t be disciplined willy-nilly for bogus reasons. 

  8. Unions make everything more expensive. Companies do that. Think of any company that moved overseas to use .30c per hour labor. Their products are still expensive, they just pocketed the profits and blamed workers. Gas is through the roof even though a barrel of oil dropped below $100 recently. 

Follow labor accounts

Alright. That was a lot. Lots of this stuff came from Labor Lab so credit to them and give them a follow. And follow labor accounts like PayDay Report, the Amazon Labor Union, Labor Notes and… any you can find really.  

And remember. If two people can start a union from scratch with Go Fund Me and beat Amazon, then you can do it wherever you work too which is why is time for …. [video loops]

The Holler
The Holler
John Russell