Traditional versus Grassroots Unions

by | Aug 25, 2022 | Bargaining/Negotiations, Labor Relations Insight, NLRB, SEIU, UFCW

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 surprisingly withdrew their petition to represent employees at a Trader Joes in Boulder, Colorado this week. The withdrawal is surprising because the first two Traders Joes locations to face elections, one in Massachusetts and another in Minnesota, both unionized in June and July.

The big labor story this year is Starbucks. One of the key questions following the Starbucks elections is whether those would spawn organizing in other sectors, and the elections at Trader Joes (and REI) might be examples of that happening. But another key theme illustrated by these campaigns is the tension between traditional unions and “grassroots” or independent unions.

The Starbucks campaigns have certainly had support from traditional unions and almost all of them have been filed by Workers United, which is an SEIU affiliate. But one of the key features of most of these elections is that they appear to be happening independent of a traditional union. The SEIU, for their part, seem to be standing aside in these elections.

The two Trader Joe’s election victories were won by these independent grassroots unions. And it looks like the workers in Boulder realized that aligning with a traditional union like the UFCW wasn’t the right move for them. It’s not clear at this point exactly what happened (this article and the twitter discussion that follows is completely confusing).

The UFCW filed Unfair Labor Practice charges against Trader Joe’s alleging a host of complaints the day before withdrawing the petition. Here’s my guess about what happened. UFCW Local 7 has been featured prominently lately in litigation over fines and discipline levied against workers who chose to continue working during a strike at King Soopers. This would certainly have come up during an organizing campaign.

My guess is that many employees at the Boulder store began to question whether they really wanted to align with UFCW 7 after seeing how they bullied the people they theoretically represent. A traditional union like UFCW 7 won’t take too kindly to tough questions about how they deal with discipline among their ranks. That often softens support. And once they see support begin to dwindle a typical move would be to file a bunch of charges and then pull the petition. This way they can save face by claiming the only reason they lost support was because of employer misdeeds.

It will be interesting to watch what happens next. Perhaps these workers have learned by looking up close that unionization isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be. Or maybe they’ll decide that they just picked the wrong horse, and instead do what their other teammates did in Massachusetts and Minnesota, and organize an independent union. They may believe that organizing an independent union avoids a lot of the problems with a traditional union. That’s not entirely wrong.

An independent union does avoid some of the problems with traditional unions. One big problem with traditional unions is they have a superstructure to support, and that demands institutional concerns and rules that don’t always align with the needs of any individual bargaining unit. As just one example, your dues money doesn’t just pay for experts to bargain your contract or representation at your shop. It pays for it at a bunch of other shops, plus organizing even more shops. An independent union avoids a lot of that expense.

A traditional union will argue that this trade-off is worth it. You get power and resources with numbers, and a bigger union is a much better match at the bargaining table against a big company. Sure, you have to put up with more bureaucracy and goals that don’t always perfectly align, but it’s how you get the real benefits of a union. Your mileage may vary, but there’s certainly some truth to that.

The other challenge with independent unions is you don’t avoid the basic problems of unions just by removing the traditional union superstructure. An independent union may not have bylaws or a constitution with a bunch of ways to control member behavior, but it still will have rules – even if they aren’t written down. And that can be even worse than having rules you don’t like.

Labor law and contract negotiations are complex. The other big disadvantage of an independent union is that you don’t have that expertise, and will be sitting across the table from people who do. A newly formed union can hire an attorney or other expert to help, or they can wing it and hope for the best. But hiring experts is expensive and still doesn’t guarantee a good result.

A lot of newly formed unions are just coming to terms with the fact that it isn’t easy and it takes a lot of time. Today’s employees don’t have a lot of patience, especially if they believed bargaining would quickly deliver all the things promised during an organizing campaign (which doesn’t happen whether there is a traditional or independent union doing the bargaining).

There are a lot of other challenges that come with organizing an independent union. I’ll be discussing this more over the next few months. Stay tuned.

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