by Jim Smith




Role and Purpose of the Organizing Committee

Structure of the Committee

Other Activities of Organizing Committee Members

Circulating Authorization Cards

The Public Committee


The Election

Qualities of an Organizing Committee Member



Howard Lawrence, organizing director of the California School Employees Association, said it best when he asked "What's the first rule of organizing? and then answered that the first rule of organizing is that there are no rules. The following document attempts to provide "approaches" for anyone entering into a fight for democratic rights on the job. In some areas, it does venture into the realm of "rules." If they don't seem right for your situation, disregard them. However, they are based on 20 years of personal experience in leading organizing campaigns that have resulted in a 95 percent win rate.


A union organizing drive can't be won without a strong internal organizing committee. All real unions are built from the inside out. They comes from the desire of workers to defend and improve their standard of living, working conditions and self respect.

The union exists as soon as two or more employees decide they want one and then do something to get it. That something may be supporting a co-worker who has been wrongly treated by management, talking to others about the need for representation or contacting an existing union for help.

It's not a good contract that makes the union strong. It's the commitment of workers to stick together and speak up for one another that determines if there will be a union. Without this solidarity, a good contract won't be achieved and if by some fluke it is, it won't last.

The development of the union goes through several stages. The first stirrings of the union have been described above. Next comes the outreach phase when everyone possible has to be signed on. Then the part that most resembles a political campaign &endash; the representation election. This phase tests the commitment and understanding of the union supporters and requires the strongest internal leadership to be successful.

Immediately following a victory in the election comes the fight for the contract (thought the employer was going to give up, didn't you). This phase tests your determination and endurance. Once the contract is won, veterans of the organizing committee and new recruits must be trained as union stewards to keep the employer from violating the contract it just signed.

Role and Purpose of the Organizing Committee

The organizing committee begins life as an informal body. Before the campaign begins heating up, it seems impossible to get everyone together at one time. Later on, the committee meeting seems more like a general staff meeting that no one wants to miss.

Unlike corporations, unions are democratic organizations. The American Heritage dictionary defines the word union as "The act of uniting or the state of being united." The people who are "uniting" are the workers on the job. The organizing committee provides the leadership needed to arrive at the state of being united.

If an organization is truly to be democratic then the decisions must be made by those most affected by those decisions. Without an active group of employees meeting together on a regular basis to discuss, debate and decide how to proceed, there will be no democracy. Without this core of decision makers who really are the leadership of the union, it will be easy for management to divide the "outsiders from the union" and the employees at the paper.

Is it really democratic for a group of employees to appoint themselves to make decisions for the whole work force? In the best possible world, they would be elected by secret ballot. In fact, this is what happens when the union is certified as the collective bargaining representative. At that time, union members at the paper become a 'local' with officers and stewards.

However, before the election for a union takes place, conditions are usually not very democratic in the work place. In fact, they're likely to be downright repressive, even to the point of individuals not wanting to be publicly identified as a union supporter, let alone a leader.

Even in this case, informal elections can take place, where employees in a small work area 'appoint' one of their number to be the union contact (organizing committee member). Committee members should make sure that those most respected by their co-workers are encouraged to be part of the organizing committee. A hard working organizing committee member is usually also a hard worker on the job &endash; someone who wants to continually improve their abilities in a rewarding work environment.

Structure of the Committee

The committee must be a representative body in as many ways as possible. This includes:

* All departments, work areas, nooks and crannies &endash; anywhere a group of workers could be considered to be in some way separated from other groups.

* Each shift of each work area should have a committee member.

* A mixture of all classifications. The committee especially should combine higher wage classes with lower wage classes.

* Most employers discriminate in various ways against women and people of color. We must go out of our way to make sure everyone is represented in all decision-making body like the organizing committee.

* Young employees have different concerns than those near retirement &endash; both should be represented.

The committee should have enough structure that time isn't wasted getting through meetings or in deciding who will do what task.

At the least it should have a chair person, a secretary to take notes, and a person responsible for getting things done in each work area.


A typical agenda should include:

1. Reports from every department. This should include progress of the union's campaign, management activity, new hires, quits, etc. It should also include check up on assignments taken at the last meeting.

2. Report from the union organizer. Anything the committee needs to know in order to make informed decisions.

3. Strategy and tactics. This is the meat of the committee meeting. Discussions will include: "How hard do we go after management," "What should be the topic of the next leaflet," "How do we get more cards in department x," "How do we respond to management's next captive audience meeting," etc.

4. Assignments for each person. Nothing gets accomplished in the meeting unless the committee follows through on their decisions.

Other Activities of Organizing Committee Members

Union organizing committee campaigns, like political elections, are won or lost by the side that is able to define the issues or 'dominate the flow of information.' Information flows in several ways.

Face-to-face conversations: If undecided employees are constantly bombarded by supervisors attacking the union and upper management holding forth in 'captive audience meetings' without dispute, they will most likely go along with management. If committee members are active everywhere, giving verbal updates on the progress of the campaign, the issues involved and the truth about unions, the undecided will go our way. House visits can be an effective way to have face-to-face conversations. However, some groups of workers react negatively to being visited at home. Be flexible.

Telephone conversations: More impersonal than face to face but necessary to reach those who are physically isolated from active committee members. Everyone who doesn't have the benefit of direct conversation should be called on a regular basis. We can be sure management won't leave anyone out.

Written communications: The most impersonal but also essential. Workers enjoy a high standard of literacy. Many of us don't believe something or don't quite understand it unless it's in writing. Since we're spoiled by TV and modern advertising, leaflets, brochures and letters have to get our message across in an attractive manner.

But, even the most eye appealing literature can't win an organizing campaign without a strong committee. Your personal appeal to your co-workers, even if you don't know all the details is much more effective than a ton of leaflets. However, a ton of leaflets may be needed to back up your verbal arguments. Every effort should be made to issue leaflets in the primary language of all workers in the workplace.

Every committee member should be thoroughly familiar with every union document that's passed out. He or she should be ready and willing to explain it to co-workers. Additionally, every committee member should participate in passing the latest leaflet on to their immediate co-workers. This gives it their stamp of approval and ensures that everyone sees it.

Unfortunately, not all employees understand the need for a union immediately. Some aren't impressed by the first or second leaflet they see, but something in the fourteenth one strikes them just right . . .

In some workplaces, email and a web site can be other effective ways of reaching workers. In any case, the union should be as creative as possible in communicating its message.

Circulating Authorization Cards

The authorization card (petition) is a form people fill out when they support the union. The union pledges that the employer (management) will never see the card. While everyone should have the right to freely sign a union card in front of their supervisor, most are afraid to do so, even though the law does give them that right. Therefore, the confidentiality of the signature must be respected.

To have a union, a majority of the work force must want to be represented by the union. One way to show this is by a 'card check' to verify that more than half have 'authorized' the union to represent them. In the unusual event that an employer would agree to the results of a card check, the checking is done by a third party - an arbitrator or a religious or political official respected by both sides - who agrees not to divulge the names of the card signers while comparing their names against an employee roster.

In reality, there are very few employers who will accept less than an election with a vote yes or no for union representation. By demanding a vote, management can engage a strong election campaign which may include lies and smears against the union.

Workers can also strike for a union or use other forms of direct action to convince the employer to recognize the union. Most workplaces are not ready to use these tactics Even though they are the quickest and most effective, workers put themselves at some risk by engaging in direct action.

Since most employers don't willingly share decision making with their employees, you should expect an election if you want to have a union. The cards are the means to getting that election. However, you should be careful about telling your co-workers to sign a card "just for an election" or that "it means no commitment on your part." It may be easier to have someone sign a card that way, but it makes it difficult to judge the actual support for the union. By signing an authorization card, an employee indicates a desire to have a union.

Authorization cards should be circulated from the beginning of the campaign through the election itself. The reasons for this are several:

1. The act of signing a card means more than just saying you're for the union.

2. The card gives us basic information about the employee including an address for mailings, a telephone number, department, classification, etc.

3. The number of cards signed is a constant reflection of our support in all areas.

There are several criteria for the number of cards we need to collect. The National Labor Relations Board requires only 30 percent to conduct an election. Yet, more than 50 percent of those voting is needed to win the election. The company's campaign usually swings some card signers back to management's side either by creating confusion, intimidation or promises of rewards after the election. Experience shows that if at least two-thirds of the eligible employees sign cards, the chances of success in the election are much better. Of course, any good thing can be carried to far. If an unrealistic goal is set (80-90%) it can only delay an election to the point that many lose interest.

The Public Committee

How many cards is enough in your work place? To determine this, other factors have to be taken into account. First and foremost is the organizing committee. Is it strong and active? Are there committee members from all departments? Do they constitute at least 10 percent of the potential bargaining unit? Do they speak up? Are they public?

While cards are and should be confidential, it will be necessary to obtain written permission from a number of supporters to use their names publicly, if the union is to win.

At some point in the campaign, a good sized and respected group of employees have to stand up and be counted. Otherwise the union is invisible and subject to management attacks as outsiders wanting to come in and wreck our happy family.

The impact of a public committee is powerful. It gives other, more intimidated employees courage to voice their support for the union. It shows that management is lying when it says that only a few unhappy employees want a union. By wearing union buttons, speaking out at captive audience meetings and listing names of union supporters on flyers (with their written permission, of course), one of management's favorite tools, fear, dissolves. The union building experience can be a liberating one for those involved and for the rest of the work place.

Management is prohibited by law from retaliating against anyone for supporting a union. We know that management doesn't always follow its own rules, let alone someone else's. But the danger of retaliation is greater before people go public, when it is only suspected that they are pro-union. At that time, management can claim that it didn't even know how the employee felt about the union &endash; and possibly get away with it. Once the committee goes public, there can be no doubt where each person stands. In addition, there is strength in numbers. Public committees usual have some numerical goal, depending on the size of the work place, before any names are made public.


Being a member of the organizing committee is not a lifetime occupation. It is, however, often remembered as one of the most exciting and rewarding times of those who are involved in it.

How long it takes to win recognition of your union depends first on the ability of the organizing committee to build majority support and win recognition by one of the options described above. The employer often seeks to delay the process by various tactics. Once the National Labor Relations Board gets involved, it, also, has a say in determining the timing of the campaign.

The NLRB, a federal agency, administers the labor law for most private-sector workers in the United States. Public workers are usually covered by a state agency modeled on the NLRB. The NLRB was created by the Wagner Act in 1936 as a strong advocate and protector of workers' rights. Conservatives in congress were able to dilute much of its strength in 1948 with the Taft-Hartley amendments and since then there have been further weakenings, especially during the 1980s. Still, it provides basic protection from employer unfair labor practices and makes the company do certain things it would not otherwise do, such as, allowing secret ballot elections to vote the union in.

When we think we have enough cards to win an election, we go to the NLRB. A petition (an NLRB form) is turned in along with the actual cards. The NLRB keeps the cards confidential from management but does notify the employer that the union has requested an election. Usually within two weeks, the parties (company and union) are brought together to stipulate (agree) on who is eligible to vote, times, date and on-site location of the balloting as well as other ground rules.

The question of who is included in the 'bargaining unit' is very important. The bargaining unit is based on classifications. Individuals in those classifications within the bargaining unit will be allowed to vote in the election and will enjoy the benefits and protections that come with a union contract.

Often there is a dispute about the eligibility of certain classifications. Supervisors and other management personnel are not allowed to vote in the election. Determining who is or is not a supervisor can be difficult. Just calling someone a supervisor does not necessarily make it so. Management will sometimes want to exclude nearly everyone from the union. At other times, the tactic will be to include supervisors who will then vote no - against the union.

If the company and union can agree on all classifications, an election date is set (usually within 45-50 days of the filing of the petition). If there is no agreement, a hearing is held at which both sides may present evidence including witnesses and documents to support their positions. Some committee members are usually asked to participate at this time, in case there is a hearing and their testimony is needed. After the hearing, it's up to the NLRB to make the decision on inclusion or exclusion from the bargaining unit. A decision should be rendered within 30 to 45 days after the hearing. In unusual cases, management can drag it out much longer with appeals and other maneuvers.

The Election

When the preelection issues are resolved, the employer is required to turn over an 'Excelsior' (named for the precedent involving an election at Excelsior Underwear) list of names and home addresses of all eligible voters. This is, of course, very helpful to the union since it may be the first time that it has been possible to reach some isolated employees.

The campaigning grows more intensive. The employer begins captive audience meetings, led by either top management officials or hired 'union busters.' Form letters go out from management officials reminding employees about the wonderful benefits enjoyed here and attacking the union by raising fear of high union dues and strikes. In general, management's campaign attempts to shift the focus from the problems at work that gave rise to the campaign in the first place to questions about the union. If they are able to dominate the discussion in this way, they'll win. The role of the committee in keeping the focus on the main issues is invaluable.

Election day dawns with high hopes on both sides. The union must get every supporter to the polls in order to win. Everyone must come to the election site at the company in order to vote. Polling places are also usually set up at outlying locations, if any. (Absentee ballots are allowed only if there is a mail ballot election instead of one on-site.) Many elections have been lost because supporters did not vote due to over-confidence, fear of walking into the polling place or being 'too busy' with other affairs.

Each side is usually allowed two observers each to sit with the NLRB agent who conducts the election. All observers, including the company's, must be bargaining unit employees. Supervisors and non-employees are banned from the election vicinity.

The observers make sure everyone who comes to vote is in fact eligible. Anyone wanting to vote can do so, but if either side thinks, for good reason, that the person is ineligible, they may challenge his or her vote. Challenged votes are put in a special sealed envelope by the agent and are not opened unless the outcome was so close that they can determine who won. If that happens there is a hearing later to determine the eligibility of each challenged voter.

The room is opened to spectators after the final vote is cast. The NLRB agent shakes the ballot box until all the ballots are mixed up. It's then opened and the votes are counted one by one. All the work of the past months hangs on each YES and each NO vote as it is announced. A hush falls over the room as the final tally is added up . . .

If everything has been done that should have been done, the next stop is the union victory party!

Qualities of an Organizing Committee Member

If you've read this far, congratulations on becoming an organizing committee member. You won't regret it. In addition to being a good reader, here are some qualities that all of us need to do this job:

1. Ability to listen.

2. Ability to encourage and develop leadership in others.

3. Ability to be flexible based on the situation.

4. Willingness to serve as a role model.

5. Impartial treatment of men and women, people of all races, nationalities, age and sexual preference.

6. Ability to generalize (develop strategy and tactics) from specific problems of workers.

7. Ability to communicate with co-workers without arrogance and in a manner that encourages them to learn more.

8. Confidence and enthusiasm.

9. Discipline and responsibility.

10. Worthy of trust and respect by co-workers.

Copyright by Jim Smith

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