Busting Union Myths

Forming a union is about shifting how power is distributed at a workplace. It’s not inherently confrontational, but it’s not easy either. We know that a union will make Brookings a better place to work, and we are committed to holding Brookings accountable to the values we pursue in our research.

Even at progressive workplaces, NPEU experiences serious pushback on unionization efforts because no one likes to share power. There are law firms that specialize in “union avoidance” to help employers run grueling campaigns to convince employees to abandon the union or to use legal tactics to undercut it. But as long as we stick together, we have a union.

Below are some of the main tactics and messages Brookings management may use to try (unsuccessfully!) to make our union go away:

Management might say:

Unions are good, but we don’t need one here at Brookings

Many employers respond to unionization with messages of “we don’t need a union—we’re a family.” Managers may remind staff that they have an open door policy, that they value the collaborative relationship with staff, and that lots of exciting changes are in the works. They may point to committees, taskforces, and townhalls that are meant to give staff a voice. The bottom line is this… your boss isn’t your family, they’re your boss! The only way to truly hold the organization accountable to make necessary change is to wield the legal power that comes from forming a union. Any concessions management offers to try to dissuade us from pursuing our union could be unilaterally withdrawn or could be mired in delays without any real accountability.

Management might say:

If you want a union, file for an election—it’s the democratic thing to do!

There is an easy way for an organization that respects its staff to respond to unionization: voluntary recognition. Under voluntary recognition, Brookings would agree to certify our union after a neutral third party confirms that a majority of staff signed authorization cards (we have!). With this quick certification, we would be free to move ahead to bargaining a contract.

There is, however, a major roadblock anti-union employers can use if they want to delay or defeat a unionization effort. Anti-union companies like Amazon, and even some nonprofits, can force unionized staff to file for a union election before the National Labor Relations Board. Conducting an election would simply force everyone who has already signed a union card to also submit a ballot indicating their support for the union. The reason employers pursue this is because it is a bureaucratically complicated and expensive process that will give them months to try to convince staff to vote no. The NLRB election process gives the employer time to run an anti-union campaign while they still hold all the power.

NPEU and IFPTE have guided successful unions through multiple elections—we are confident whatever tactics management tries will be ineffective. We are prepared for the long haul and ready to stick together!

Management might say:

These positions don’t belong in the union

The determination of who is eligible for the union—the bargaining unit—is something the Organizing Committee spent a lot of time on. The bargaining unit we proposed is fair and inclusive, and empowers staff across the organization. A key tactic for an employer that wants to weaken a new union is to try to undercut the size of the bargaining unit. We expect management may say that some people we know are eligible are in fact ineligible as managers, supervisors, or confidential employees. They may hire a lawyer to try to carve as many people out of the bargaining unit as they can. We stand behind our determination and will be ready to defend our bargaining unit either during the voluntary recognition process or as part of an NLRB election.

Regardless of which combination of strategies Brookings tries to use to delay the inevitable transfer of power that our union is seeking, we expect them to share their views with the staff. Below are some of the more common arguments NPEU has heard from nonprofit bosses, and what we think we might hear from Brookings:

Management might say:

Brookings is a great employer. You don’t need a union.

We agree, Brookings is a great employer! But there is always room for improvement. While Brookings is a great place to work, it does have very real inequalities: between scholars and research staff; between research and non-research business units; and even between staff in the same position across different research teams. The goal of our organizing effort is to make Brookings a more equitable place and to ensure that staff in every business unit within Brookings have a voice in the direction of the organization.

This seems like it’s just a research thing. It’s not relevant for non-research staff.

Our effort draws support from both research and non-research staff across nearly every business unit at Brookings. Many of the challenges that research staff face, whether it is about access to benefits, pay equality, or voice in their business unit, are also relevant for non-research staff. This is a Brookings-wide effort.

Unions are just for blue-collar workers or workers in dangerous workplaces.

There are a variety of unions for white-collar workers, including for professors, teachers, journalists, software engineers, and, yes, non-profit workers. Just because you work in a white-collar environment, doesn’t mean your workplace can’t be improved. Not only that, but some Brookings employees share characteristics with blue-collar workers, like not making a living wage in a high-cost metro area. 

Management might say:

You should just work within the system. Bringing in an outside group will make things unnecessarily complicated.

Brookings non-supervisory staff have been trying to work within the system for years, including by participating in efforts like organization-wide task forces. However, these efforts to work “within the system” have yielded very little progress on the issues most tangible to Brookings staff. For example, the Brookings task force on career paths, which was supposed to publish updated career frameworks in the fall of 2019, has only just begun implementation. Meanwhile, task forces on compensation and benefits have barely gotten off the ground. 

Many Brookings non-supervisory staff work here for two years or fewer. We need an institution that will remain a permanent fixture at Brookings and can’t be “outlasted” by management. A union will help fill that role.

A union will just make things less flexible, and create unrealistic standards across Brookings business units.

Some research programs and business units at Brookings are at the leading edge of the think tank industry in areas like career paths and longevity for staff. A non-supervisory staff union will not prevent innovative Brookings business units from continuing to provide these opportunities to their staff. Rather, a union would create basic thresholds for every staff member, regardless of program or business unit, and ensure that non-supervisory staff have an outlet to communicate their needs and concerns.

And even within the most innovative business units at Brookings there is still room for improvement in areas like pay transparency and diversity and inclusion. A union will help those units become even more forward-thinking.

Management might say:

A union will make things too adversarial between staff and management.

Our goal is not to be adversarial, but rather to highlight the very real needs of non-supervisory staff at Brookings. We understand that management genuinely wants to make Brookings a great place to work and so we are hopeful that we can work with them, collectively, to communicate the needs and goals of non-supervisory staff.

Management is in the process of making significant decisions around what Brookings will look like in the post-pandemic world. These decisions include which business units will remain within Brookings, how and when workers will return to campus, and what  Brookings’ level of responsibility for supporting workers will be when they’re not in the office. These questions will shape the experience of Brookings staff for years to come. It is important that non-supervisory staff have a consistent voice in that process. And it will be even more important to ensure that these policy decisions are rolled out consistently across research programs,  business units, and individual teams, with all staff being afforded the same opportunities and all managers held to the same standards.

Management might say:

The fight for the union is hurting Brookings’s image.

If Brookings management reacts negatively to unionization, it will be up to us to make it public and hold them accountable. Employers who refuse to grant voluntary recognition are often criticized in the press for working against their own staff. NPEU only works with mission-driven nonprofits and our strategy is designed to always give the employer time and space to do the right thing, and to get credit for doing so! If Brookings blames us for negative press that results from them cracking down on the union, we have to remember that the real solution is simply for them to voluntarily recognize our union.

Management might say:

Unions are good… we just don’t need one here or now

Many employers try to walk the line of supporting unions generally but finding a reason to be against this particular union at this particular workplace at this particular time. There is no wrong time for staff at Brookings to be empowered. We have spent several years building this union, we are proud of our partnership with NPEU, and we are ready to work together to improve this workplace. If Brookings really believes its own research that unions are good, they will show us by voluntary recognizing our union. Anything less is them trying to have it both ways.

Unions are too political.

Our union is us. What we say, how we say it, and what we bargain for is up to us. We will elect leaders from among our membership and we will work together to pursue our shared priorities. Our union will not be inherently political—it’s a tool for us to build power and wield it in whatever way is important to us.

Management might say:

The union will be an outside party that makes it harder for us to solve problems or raise issues with our supervisors

The union isn’t a third party—it’s us! It’s a way for staff themselves to wield power together. There is nothing about a union contract that means you can no longer work with your colleagues or your boss to solve problems or raise concerns together. The union is meant to set a floor for how all staff are treated, and it creates a way for you to hold management accountable to the policies that are in place. If you want support from the union when addressing a personnel or other issue, that is available to you. But if you have a good relationship with your boss and want to bring issues directly to them, there is nothing in a union contract that would stop you!

If you’re unhappy why don’t you just leave?

In short, because we love Brookings. We believe in its mission, genuinely enjoy our coworkers, and are grateful for the opportunities we are afforded from working here. However, Brookings, like most of the think tank industry, has very real inequalities, particularly between senior staff and non-supervisory staff. These inequalities are driven by a significant gap in bargaining power between the two sides. A union will help close that gap by allowing non-supervisory staff to bargain collectively and let Brookings live up to its full potential as a bellwether of the think tank industry.

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