How to form a Labor Union


as preached Sunday, September 3, 2023

Don’t matter if you live in the city
Or some little country town
Rich men earning north of a million
Wanna keep the working folk down
Join a union

Join a union, it is Labor Day weekend. For more than a hundred years, it has been a tradition in many religious communities to designate this Sunday as Labor Sunday. It is an opportunity to reflect upon what the labor movement has done to make the world a better place.

It’s hard to deny that unions make life better for the people who belong to them. Certainly, if you have been following the contract negotiations between UPS and the Teamsters you will know that by the end of the contract full-time drivers with the company will earn around $170,000 annually in pay and benefits. The contract will also address issues of dignity–lessening the intrusive monitoring of drivers–and safety–equipping more, and eventually almost all, trucks with air conditioning.

The contract, not incidentally, comes after years of massive profit growth. Since the pandemic started, UPS has seen an increase in profits of around 140%. Those profits have been generated by the workers who pack, track, and deliver the packages we all rely upon. In the last five years, UPS workers have seen little of these record profits go into their pockets. And now, they will and in the process, they will bring a little bit more equality and a few more middle income, and upper middle income, jobs into being.

It is like I said a few months back in our May Day sermon, who wants to be a millionaire? Union workers make, over their lifetimes, $1.3 million more than non-union workers. Who wants to be a millionaire? Join a union.

I recognize that this is a provocative statement. We live deep in the heart of the anti-union South. Total union membership in the thirteen county greater Houston area hovers around 65,000. That gives us one of the lowest unionization rates of any big city in the country. It is also probably why, in a country where health insurance is so often tied to employment, our region has the highest rate of uninsured people anywhere in the United States. One in four people around here lack health insurance. In some working-class Black and Brown neighborhoods more than 50% of people are uninsured.

Given these dynamics, I suspect that few of you have much direct experience with unions. As far as I know, we have some folks in the teachers’ union, at least one member of the Communications Workers of America, someone else who belongs to the Industrial Workers of the World, maybe a person or two who is part of the Houston Organization of Public Employees or another city or state employees union and, well, that is it.

My best guess is that no more than 2 or 3% of the congregation belongs or has belonged to a union. In truth, we have a lot of professionals amongst our membership. I anticipate that more of you have the experience of sitting on the opposite side of the table from a labor union than being a member of one.

It might seem a questionable choice then to offer a sermon and a service advocating for labor unions. There is always the belief floating around that politics should be kept out of the pulpit because they are somehow antithetical to the spiritual. There is also the possibility that some of you are going to find advocacy for the labor movement in a deeply anti-union town to be overly irritating.

But as the Unitarian Universalist minister Stephen Fritchman liked to say, our tradition “does not point to salvation beyond this earth.” We have long believed that the good life, if it is to be found anywhere, is to be found here. Since the opening decades of the nineteenth-century, some of our ministers and theologians have argued that for many of us the best way to find something of that salvation is through those associations of working people we now call labor unions.

It has long been Unitarian Universalism’s role to invoke, in the face of the politics of cruelty, what Fritchman named that “religious word,” solidarity. In the 1820s, Robert Wedderburn was convicted of blasphemy by the British Crown because his version of Unitarianism was too strident in its advocacy for working people. He was sent to jail because he encouraged sailors and tailors, shopkeepers and seamstresses, to join together in the struggle for their rights. It was what Jesus, that “radical reformer” who taught us to “acknowledge no king” because “every person is the same,” would have wanted them to do, he preached. As a result, he was convicted of trying “to excite impiety and irreligion in the minds of his majesty’s subjects.”

In the 1840s, William Ellery Channing advocated for the “elevation of the laboring portion” of society and Theodore Parker spoke out against inequality. Parked proclaimed, “all value is the result of work” and decried “that labor is often wickedly underpaid and capital … grossly overfed.”

In the early twentieth century, we find the great Universalist theologian Clarence Skinner walking picket lines with striking textile workers in Massachusetts. In the middle decades of the century, there was Fritchman, on the line in Los Angeles where he was simultaneously building one of the era’s largest congregations.

And so, it has gone, decade after decade, prophets and preachers in our tradition, embracing, in Fritchman’s words, the “struggle for justice and bread” and encouraging working people to organize to better their lives and, by extension, the lives of all of us.

But, unfortunately, few of us know much about this form of social salvation. “It is not taught in the schools, discussed in the homes, explained in the halls of Congress, or made the theme of our films,” remarked Fritchman. He made his comment in 1949. It is more true today. How many of you learned positive things about labor unions or anything about labor law in high school? How many of you have seen a movie about union organizing or one in which unions are portrayed in a positive light? John Sayles’s “Matewan,” about the struggle to build a miners’ union in West Virginia, staring James Earl Jones and Chris Cooper, is one. Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You,” which contains a story about an effort to form a union at a call center and features LaKeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, and Danny Glover, is another.

Don’t matter if you live in the city
Or some little country town
Rich men earning north of a million
Wanna keep the working folk down
Join a union

Join a union, in our remaining time I want to cover a subject that we all should have learned about in school but did not, how to form a labor union. It has long been the role of Unitarian Universalist congregations to provide a forum for ideas dangerous to the powers and principalities of the world. And in this anti-union city, I think that one of the services we offer to the wider community is providing a space to celebrate labor unions and educate each other about them.

Some of you might recall that prior to coming to Houston, I had a long relationship with the labor movement. I was the chair of the committee that restarted the Industrial Workers of the World’s Organizing Department, was involved in a successful effort to build a union for couriers in Chicago and failed attempts to start a truck drivers union in Los Angeles and a taxi workers union in Cleveland, and I was one of the founding members of the Harvard Graduate Students Union. During those times I often felt, as one of my union buddies used to say, that by helping people to form unions I was doing the “Lord’s work,” empowering folks to come together and do something about the material conditions of their lives so that they could pursue a more immediate form of salvation than the promise of pie in the sky when you die.

Join a union, so let us imagine that you want to start a union at your job. What are you going to do? We always taught people a helpful little mnemonic, AEIOU. A, agitate, E, educate, I, inoculate, O, organize, U, unionize–AEIOU. Say it with me, it can be your part throughout the rest of the sermon, AEIOU–A, agitate, E, educate, I, inoculate, O, organize, U, unionize. AEIOU.

Now, there are a lot of ways we can live out AEIOU with our fellow workers. But probably the most important tool we have is the one-on-one. It is just like it sounds, a one-on-one conversation between you and one of the people you work with.

Unions are about creating a different kind of relationship between the workers and the bosses, the employers. They are how working people come together to advocate for the good things in life. Employers mostly want to deal with workers as individuals. Unions force employers to deal with workers as a collective. “United we bargain, divided we beg,” is the saying.

So, in order to establish a labor union you have to establish relationships with the people you work with. You have to get to know them, let them know that you care about them, that they can trust you, and that you can cooperate together to make your lives better.

The best way to do this is not through text or tweet but through direct conversation. Once you have decided to organize you want to approach your co-workers to see if they are interested in organizing too. These conversations best take place away from work, away from the prying ears of management.

A, agitate

This is the easiest step. It is often provides the opening line to an invitation to a one-on-one. Almost everyone is frustrated about something at work. So often, there is some annoying aspect of the job that is either dangerous, humiliating, dissatisfying, or otherwise irksome. Maybe the pay is too low. Or, perhaps, your boss will not install an air conditioning unit in the truck you drive and it is Texas, in the middle of the summer, and the heat is dangerous. Or it might be, like the woman we heard from yesterday during the Labor Song and Story Festival, who used to work at the Houston Shutters factory, that your manager is sexually harassing you. Or…

I suspect that if you have worked for wages then, at some point in your life, there’s been at least one aspect of your job that you desperately wanted to see changed. And chances are most of your co-workers wanted to see it changed too.

When I was a graduate student at Harvard many of my fellow PhD candidates were upset about section size–the number of students we each were responsible for teaching. Harvard had been raising it for years and, in essence, asking us to work more for the same pay. Over the course of a decade or so, the cap moved from 15 to 18 and was headed towards the low 20s. Pretty much everyone was upset about this and folks were constantly trying to figure out what to do about it, how to effectively teach to more-and-more students and, at the same time, manage the heavy research loads we each carried as we pursued our own graduate educations.

This made an invitation to a one-on-one fairly easy. I could approach one of the other teaching fellows with a statement like, “Hey, I am really struggling with figuring out how to handle all these students. What about you? Could we find a few minutes to talk section size sometime? Maybe meet for coffee tomorrow after our professor is done with the lecture?”

My friend Alexis Buss, who taught me how to conduct a one-on-one, always used to say that it is important to make clear that your invitation to a one-on-one is not a date. Be specific that you are inviting someone to talk about work, that you are not asking them out. Alexis also used to say that it was key to get them to commit to a specific time and place to meet. You are not looking for some amorphous future event. But a time and place where you are going to get together and talk about work. Public places–remember, it is not a date–are best. Also, please avoid bars. Alcohol can mess everything up.

The invitation to a one-on-one is not the only way to get people agitated, of course. A good flyer is always useful. My friend Little Pete, one of the best organizers I have ever known, was fond of the old fashion tactic of soapboxing. He was a biker courier and used to go to the areas where people stood by waiting to be dispatched to collect packages. I never got to see him in action but I understood, he would do something like this: “Hey you, you there? What is going on? Are you pissed about work? Man, am I upset. They just cut the package rates again. I am so broke. What about you? Yeah, you are too. Let’s see if we can get together and do something about it!”

Such tactics are not often the best. You want to keep things under the radar for as long as possible without management knowing what is going on. Secrecy is key. The longer you can organize without your boss knowing what is going on the more time you have to build relationships, and thus power, with your fellow workers before the inevitable anti-union nonsense starts. And it will come, but I am getting ahead of myself.

E, educate

Here is where things are going to start to get tricky. Most of us do not know all that much about unions. There is a lot of misinformation floating around. In some parts of the media there can be a tendency to associate them with things like high dues rather than health care or paint them as some kind of abstract entity that interferes with the ability of management to run a successful business.

Your education task is to dispel the idea that the union is some outside entity coming in to mess up the workplace. Instead, you want to help your co-workers understand that the union is all of you when you come together to struggle for better wages and working conditions. You might point out, in your conversation, that you, the person they work with, are the one that’s talking to them–I discourage people from meeting with outside union organizers in their first one-on-one. Or you might offer a simple solution that you can accomplish together rather than referring to a union at all. I know of more than one restaurant where the waitstaff, frustrated with the managements refusal to give them time off, simply agreed to start making the schedule amongst themselves and then challenged their managers to fire them all if they did not like it.

The critical thing, however you get it across, is that you communicate that the union is you and me when we work together. This is actually how labor law is written. We hear a lot about union contracts. But the text of the National Labor Relations Act itself specifies that all “[e]mployees shall have the right to self-organization … and to engage in … concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” This means that any group of two workers organizing together are covered by labor law and afforded access to the National Labor Relations Board–the body that enforces labor law–whether or not they covered by a union contract.

We used this legal point extensively when we were organizing couriers in Chicago. The industry was fragmented into about two dozen companies that each told their employees that they were independent contractors. We begged to differ and early in our organizing, when one of the couriers got fired for stirring up too much trouble on the job, we filed an Unfair Labor Practice with the Board. We did not have official union recognition, just a worker who had been fired because he had gotten together a group of people to petition their boss over unsafe working conditions. The Board took up his case, declared that couriers were employees, not independent contractors, and got his job reinstated with backpay.

I, inculcate

What is inoculation? A vaccine is an inoculation. How does a vaccine work? It gives you a little bit of the virus, a little bit of the bad thing, so that your immune system can counter it when you encounter it elsewhere.

The same is essentially true with union campaigns. When your boss finds out that you are organizing they are typically going to hit you with everything they have got. They are going to hire expensive lawyers devoted to union busting. They are going to intimidate and terrorize. They might fire someone or make life so difficult on the job that they decide to quit.

It is best to talk about this up front and let people know what might happen so that they are not caught off guard. If you discuss what could happen in advance then you can come up with a plan to address whatever might arise. What is more, people tend to be more afraid of the unknown than the known and companies rarely that most extreme form of action right off the bat. Even viciously anti-union companies like Starbucks and Amazon–who are, incidentally celebrating Labor Day by offering us the opportunity to buy stuff from them cheaper rather than recognizing their workers right to organize–rarely start by firing people. They are more likely to begin by holding captive meetings, calling everyone together to learn about how terrible unions are, or make small concessions, see things are not so bad, you all can have free coffee, than immediately getting rid of troublemakers.

I have always found that this step is essential. It is here that you have to help people understand that the union has their back. Most of the things that they are afraid of could happen at any time without a union. In a right to work state like Texas pretty much anyone without a contract or a union job can be fired at anytime anyway. Managers are always holding captive meetings. If you are unionizing with your fellow workers you can actually do something about the things that you are afraid of. Bosses hate few things more than a captive meeting where they get the silent treatment from the entire staff. If someone gets fired during a union campaign people can demand that they get their job back. Yesterday during our song and story event, Grant Turley from the Industrial Workers of the World shared the story of a worker who got fired here in Texas for organizing. Everyone that the person worked with went on an immediate strike, shut their workplace down, and the worker soon had his job back.

O, organize

So, you have agitated someone about their problems. You have educated them about the solutions. You have inoculated them against their fears. Now it is time to organize. The purpose of your one-on-one was recruit someone to the union. And now you have done that! Congratulations! You are a superhero!

Your task now is to get them to start working to build the union too. Depending on what kind of campaign you are running and where you are at in the campaign this can take many forms. It might be asking them to sign a union authorization card because you are hoping to hold a union election. It could be asking them to collect contact information for other people at the workplace so that you know how to get ahold of everybody. It might be to attend a training so that they can learn how to do a one-on-one. Whatever it is, whatever the union needs, ask them, give them an assignment, and then ask them to check-in with you about it. You are the union. The union is you. Together you are organizing, taking up the work of creating, a union. It is essential that you invite people into that work as early as possible. That way they will get invested in the effort and make the union even stronger.

U, unionize

This last step is always ongoing. What it looks like depends on what you are trying to accomplish. Maybe it is winning a union election and negotiating a successful first contract. Perhaps, it is using a short strike to force your employer to grant you some concessions. The ultimate form it takes is going to depend on what you and your fellow workers need, where you work, and the power you have on the job.

But, ultimately, it is going to come down to this. At some point, to really be the union, you are going to have to pick a fight with your boss and you are going to have to win. My friend Alexis taught me that it was usually best to pick a small fight to begin with if you could. But whatever it is make sure that the first fight you pick is one that you know you can win. You want to have a taste of the power that you have all together. It will help you build more power along the way so bigger fights that will add up to real gains.

For eight years I edited a newspaper column that collected stories from workers organizing on the job. My favorite stories were always the ones about the small fights that people had picked with their bosses and won. There was something delightful in the creative ways that people came together to win little victories. They were always over things that seemed minor–the replacement of a ladder that was rickety, a tiny decrease in an hourly quota, the enforcement of water breaks–but they really gave people a sense of what they could accomplish by coming together.

AEIOU–A, agitate, E, educate, I, inoculate, O, organize, U, unionize. AEIOU.

There is so much more that could be said, a couple of decade’s worth of stories about waitstaff and baristas, couriers and graduate students, coming together to improve their lives. I could talk with you about the importance of gathering contacts so you know how to get ahold of everyone you work with or social mapping, figuring out who are the most essential people to bring aboard the union effort, or the fine points of union elections or the challenges of negotiations or… Well, there is a lot that goes into forming a labor union.

It has been my hope, really, that in this sermon I have just given a taste of what you should have learned in school but did not. We Unitarian Universalists believe that democracy is a religious practice. And I have always believed that democracy should extend, as much as possible, to the workplace. And so, while this has been a most unusual sermon I hope you get a sense of the religious sentiment about it.

It is like my favorite passage in the Christian New Testament. In Luke we read that Jesus was asked, “When will the kingdom of God come?” And he answered, “God’s kingdom is coming, but not in a way that you will be able to see with your eyes. People will not say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ because the kingdom of God is among you.”

Sometimes talking about the kingdom, the beloved community, the world we dream of means sharing parables, metaphors, poetry, and soaring rhetoric. Other times it is a matter of sharing something of the work that must be done and how it is to be done. If you have been inspired by this sermon, I am always happy, no delighted, to talk more about how to form a labor union. And I can connect you to a union organizer who might help you out more.

The kingdom of God is among you. The beloved community is here when we come together to make our lives, and our workplaces, better.

AEIOU–A, agitate, E, educate, I, inoculate, O, organize, U, unionize. AEIOU.

The kingdom of God is among you.

Don’t matter if you live in the city
Or some little country town
Rich men earning north of a million
Wanna keep the working folk down
Join a union

I invite the congregation to say Amen.

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