Building Union Membership In ‘Right To Work’ States

Use proven strategies for building union membership and power in ‘Right to Work’ (For Less) states.

Teamsters Local 89 Organizer David Thornsberry leading “Building Density in a Right-to-Work State”,
teaching others how to build a strong union even in challenging conditions.

The most common times that members sign up to join the union in ‘Right to Work’ states are during new hire orientations, after a probationary period, or during a signup drive or other union function.

What do these all have in common?

These are the times when workers are asked to join the union. If you don’t ask, people won’t join.

Why You Need to Sign Up New Members

High membership density gives you more leverage with management whether you’re dealing with grievances or negotiating a contract.

At contract time, a union with a low percentage of dues-paying members has less bargaining leverage, and the company knows it. You can expect lowball offers and even concessions.

With 95% of the workforce signed up as members, there is a lot more that you can win than with 60% membership.

Keeping the “density” high at your shop is also critical to avoiding efforts by the employer to weaken or bust the union altogether.

In the Johnson Controls decision, the NLRB ruled that an employer can withdraw recognition of a union within 90 days of contract expiration, if it receives objective evidence that the union has lost majority support.

Negotiating Union Orientation Language in Your Contract

The single best way to keep union density high at your shop is consistent, high-quality union orientations.

The first step is negotiating strong orientation language into your contract. Companies will try to prevent you from having access to members to do a union orientation until the end of their probationary period. That doesn’t cut it.

Push for day-one access to new hires for union orientations. Bargain contract language that guarantees that time spent giving orientations is paid.

You want to guarantee 15-30 minutes for the orientation; the time you need will depend on the size of the group.

Even if you don’t have strong orientation language, that doesn’t mean the door is completely closed until your next round of negotiations.

Try to get your foot in the door any way you can. If there’s a past practice of allowing the union to participate in orientations, rely on that. You can also persuade HR representatives to allow you in.

If you can’t get group orientation time, set up one-on-one conversations with new hires before or after work, or during breaks. Personalized mini-orientations are very effective.

Secrets of a Successful Orientation

The steward giving the orientation is the first impression of the union that the new potential member experiences. If you aren’t excited about your union, the workers won’t be either.

Be aware of how you are dressed and how you come across, since the new hire will associate joining the union with you. Wear union swag and bring pins and other gear with you for new members.

Make sure you are prepared with specifics on dues, initiation fees, and other financial info.

It’s best to have two stewards or members giving each orientation. Have a primary orientation presenter and a helper who is learning the ropes. The more members you can involve in representing the union, the better.

The International Union started an Internal Organizing program to sign up UPS members in ‘Right to Work’ States. Organizers sign up new members during shift changes and train local union stewards and officers on running effective new-hire orientations.

What If They Don’t Sign Up?

When a shop is lagging on union membership, the most common reason is that workers aren’t being consistently asked to join.

At one Teamster shop with 200 workers in Kentucky, there were more non-members than members. The company tried to stop orientations.

After a year of hearing labor charges, the union was allowed back in and returned with a revamped union orientation program. Instead of just asking “Who wants to join the union?” out of the gate, the stewards were trained to present information about the union and workplace rights, and to let members ask questions before making the pitch.

The stewards also learned how to follow up with individuals after the meeting to find out the reason the new hire was hesitant to join.

Within a few months, density went up to over 85%.

If workers don’t join at the orientation, make sure to follow up and find out more. Are they anti-union? Are they concerned about money? Do they want more information on how the union works?

Maybe they need to talk to their parents or to their spouse. By getting to the root cause, you will figure out if and how you can organize them.

After They Sign Up

Engage the new member immediately. The best way to show a new member that it’s their union is to give them a way to jump right in.

Invite them to social events and to volunteer committees in your union. Offer to get coffee or breakfast with them before the next union meeting, and invite other active members who can help mentor them.

Want tips on signing up members in your workplace? Or help with new-hire orientation topics and materials? Get in touch with a TDU organizer today by calling 313-842-2600.

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