Organize with your Coworkers
Working people across our country are taking action with their co-workers to make their work places safe, raise their pay and protect their jobs. Workers are organizing delegations to their bosses, circulating petitions, and filing complaints with OSHA and other regulators. Workers who are part of our union are acting together to file grievances enforcing existing protections and collectively bargaining for new health and safety protections. Workers who aren’t part of a union yet are organizing strikes to have their voices heard. Since the start of the pandemic there have been more than 100 walkouts and strikes demanding appropriate safety protections. Your rights and the type of collective action that makes most sense can vary based on the industry in which you work, your employment classification and whether you’re covered by a no strike clause but one thing is certain – we're always stronger together.
If you're part of a union, contact your local union for ideas and support for building power at work. If you're not part of a union yet, here are some resources to help you organize with your coworkers!
THE FIRST STEP: Build Your Network
Building a network of your coworkers so you can communicate and make plans together. Building a network is more difficult than ever because a lot of the tools we’ve used in the past like meeting in break rooms and the parking lot aren’t possible while we’re practicing physical distancing. But organizing is still possible, and workers across the country are doing it! Here are some tips on building a network of your coworkers during the pandemic:
Start with the people you trust! We know that management doesn’t want workers to organize and you should expect them to try to disrupt what you’re doing, so it’s best to start the conversation among the people that you know aren’t going to tip them off too soon. Stay under the employer’s radar until you have your co-worker network in place and are ready to “go public”.
Think about your whole workplace. Making change at work often requires more than just a handful of people in one department or area. Find ways to get in touch with coworkers on different shifts and in different departments. If there’s a list of your coworkers somewhere—like a schedule or employee roster, that’s a great place to start. You may also want to reach out to a coworker who recently transferred to another department or shift. The wider you can build your worker network the stronger it will be.
Find ways to stay in touch! Regular communication is a key to organizing. Workers around the country are using tools like WhatsApp, GroupMe, and Signal to build communications networks to stay in touch. Use what works for you and your coworkers but make sure not to just rely on one platform. Exchange cell phone numbers or email addresses so you can reach out to each other directly. Do not use employer controlled communication systems in your effort.
Your Rights Under Federal Labor Law
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) gives workers in the private sector the right to act together to improve our working conditions, wages, and benefits. Actions you take collectively with your coworkers to better your job are protected, like starting a petition with your coworkers or speaking to the press about your working conditions.
You can discuss all workplace issues including working conditions, taking action together, etc. as long as you don’t keep others from doing work.
You have the right to picket, distribute flyers, chant, and demonstrate in front of your workplace as long as you are peaceful, and you do not block access into or out of the facility. Make sure to keep each other safe by staying at least six feet apart and covering your faces (even with a cloth mask).
Federal law protects your right to strike against management illegally threatening, harassing or disciplining you to stop you from standing up for COVID-19 protections or other improvements to your workplace.
You can hand out leaflets while you are off the clock and in non-work areas.
You can wear stickers or buttons that say you are organizing to improve your working conditions.
STEP TWO: Come up with your demands
Every workplace is different and different groups of workers have different priorities. What are the steps that you and your coworkers think management should take to keep workers safe and adequately compensate you for your work? Writing your demands out as a petition or a letter that your coworkers can sign onto is a great step for making sure that everybody is on the same page and finding out which of your coworkers is ready to take action.
Here are some petitions that different groups of workers have been circulating during the pandemic:
Passing around a paper petition or letter for your coworkers to sign might not be feasible during the COVID-19 pandemic, so many groups of workers are using tools like Google Forms, JottForm, or SurveyMonkey to make online petitions. Other groups of workers are making petitions through sites like coworker.org or Action Network. Asking your coworkers to provide their cell phone numbers or personal email addresses on these surveys can be a really powerful way of collecting contact information from your coworkers so if you decide to use one of these services make sure to pick one that allows you to access and use any of the data you collect.
STEP THREE: Take Action!
Once you and your coworkers have come up with your demands it’s time to take the fight to management. Come up with a plan to deliver your demands and petition signatures to management. Will a small group of you bring them to your manager? Or will you bring a large delegation with lots of workers to management? Will you send a copy of your demands to the CEO or corporate headquarters? Will you share your demands online or with the press? Have a plan in place for what happens next if management ignores or refuses your demands. What is your next step to escalate your message to the employer to make the change that you need?
Blow the Whistle—Report Unsafe Working Conditions
Under federal law, employers have a legal obligation to provide a workplace that is “free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has published a document called “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19,” which includes recommendations for employers to improve safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Federal safety laws also provide protections for workers who refuse to do unsafe work. The Occupational Safety and Health Act provides protection from discipline or retaliation for refusing to perform unsafe work if:
You have asked to eliminate the danger, and management failed to do so; and
You refused to work because you must genuinely believe that an imminent danger exists; and
A reasonable person would agree that there is a real danger of death or serious injury; and
There isn't enough time, due to the urgency of the hazard, to get it corrected through regular enforcement channels, such as requesting an OSHA inspection.
Some state laws offer even stronger protections for workers who refuse to perform unsafe work. If believe your employer is not taking adequate steps to keep you and your coworkers healthy and safe, you can file a complaint with OSHA online or over the phone.
It is illegal for an employer to retaliate against workers who report hazards in their workplace to OSHA. You can find out more about OSHA’s whistleblower from the Teamsters Whistleblower Protection Fact Sheet.
Going on strike
Withholding our labor has always been one of the most powerful tools that workers can use to win improvements at work. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers at more than 100 workplaces around the US have gone on strike or walked out of work to demand safety improvements during this pandemic and many have already won live-saving improvements.
Going on strike is no joke. It means giving up pay and benefits while you’re striking, which can be a major hardship for a lot of workers. It can also backfire if you’re not careful. If you try to organize a strike and only a small number of your coworkers join you, it can make the boss believe that most workers aren’t concerned about the hazards they’re facing (even if the real reason they’re not striking is because they’re afraid of retaliation or can’t afford to lose pay).
And even though it’s illegal for your employer to retaliate against you organizing with your coworkers, many employers are happy to break the law and fire workers. When workers at one Amazon warehouse organized a strike, senior Amazon managers met with CEO Jeff Bezos to plot a campaign to smear a strike organizer.
The risks are real and the stakes couldn’t be higher, but many workers around the country are deciding that their health and their families health is more important than a paycheck and choosing to go on strike. If you and your coworkers decide you’re ready for that, here are some things to think about.
When will you strike? Pick the best day and time to have an impact. Give yourself enough time to get the word out and make sure you’ve got enough folks committed to joining you, but also move quickly because the situation is urgent. Some strikes start in the middle of a shift so everybody can walk out together. Other strikes start at the beginning of a shift so nobody has to go into work.
What will the strike look like? A picket line outside of the facility is a great way to let other workers know that there’s a strike and encourage them not to go into work. Who will the speakers be? Will there be an mc?
How will you keep strikers and your supporters safe during a strike? Since we are in the midst of a public health crisis, keep six feet apart from each other. Have someone set up an hour before your walkout at the location you choose. If you decide it is safer to stay home, make a plan to get the word out so your managers, the media, and your coworkers, understand why you’re on strike. Be aware that supporters and members of the public may interact with strikers. Have a plan to interact with them safely and keep physical distancing in place.
How long will the strike last and have you planned for your return to work? Will the strike last one hour? One day? Will you refuse to work until the company meets your demands? Come up with a plan that makes sense for you and your coworkers. Decide whether you will tell management when you will return to work.
How will you notify management? A small group of your coworkers can deliver strike notifications and prepare offers to return to work.
What will you tell the media? Essential worker strikes are big news right now and if you and your coworkers decide to organize a strike, letting the media know can help put pressure on your employer, and give courage to other workers around the world. Which of your coworkers feels confident speaking with the media? How can reporters get in touch with you? Reach out to the media via their tips page, or message reporters on Twitter. Ask a coworker or friend to be the media contact during the strike so that the press can go to them and ask who to speak to. What is the story you want to tell? Who are you?
What’s your message? Use marker, paint, poster paper, cardboard, or fabric to tell the world why you’re striking.
And, of course, if you and your coworkers are planning a strike and you want support from North America’s strongest union, contact the Teamsters.