For many of the problems on this sub, a simple answer is put forward – it seems like your workplace needs an union! This is often a fantastic option. Legally recognized unions are able to collectively bargain for better working conditions, which are desperately needed, and in ideal circumstances they can empower and embolden their members to do things that they never could alone.
This is all wonderful, and absolutely true – in ideal circumstances. However, now and again you'll hear the odd story or two about someone's union failing to represent them. Sometimes the leadership is in the bosses' pockets, or the steering committee is out of touch with the union body. This is far from accidental; union laws in the United States were practically designed with this end in mind, and unions that posed the idea of radical democracy, such as the IWW, were prime targets of the Palmer Raids.
The Taft-Hartley act was designed to make it difficult to have anything short of an “official” union to represent workers, and served as a way to recuperate union action into a legalistic and capitalistic framework rather than an oppositional framework of collective power and solidarity. If you're not familiar with recuperation, to summarize that last part, it means that the Taft-Hartley act was an attempt to make unions a part of the economy and the legal system, rather than a genuine means for workers to collectively liberate themselves.
Actions like political / solidarity strikes were banned outright; so were wildcat strikes, one of the main ways for workers to strike without an official union. They declawed unions' political character and made them simple economic vehicles. That plus the establishment of right to work laws mean that the US legal system is decidedly anti-union, or at least, anti-workers-using-unions-for-things. If you have a political cause that you think you could use collective action to achieve, or your official union is doing a crap job of things and you want to strike on your own terms but can't risk a wildcat strike, then the officially-recognized route probably isn't for you.
Beyond this, there are some unions that genuinely do exist to exploit their workers in concert with the bosses, or when the union has official leadership, they can be infiltrated and easily recuperated. UAW, in 2019, saw its president Gary Jones arrested for embezzling money out of worker retirement funds. In the worst of circumstances, bureaucratic unions can be akin to the democratic party act to the bosses' republican party; one of them makes things so bad that you need the other, the other robs you and doesn't give you anything they offer. But of course, these are the worst case scenarios; there are plenty of other options.
So, what *are* your options?
As far as organizing within your workplace, remember that only official unions need to hold votes and get explicit majority approval. Many workers wind up voting “no” after bosses keep yelling about dues, but an unofficial union doesn't need to collect dues at all, and if you keep it quiet among people you can trust, you can establish an union of sorts without the boss ever finding out, and there's also something to be said for the fact that people will often join in when presented with a spontaneous choice. Do you think that most of those workplaces where everyone quits at once held a vote on it beforehand to see if everyone was on board?Even without the mass-quitting that is often seen, there are plenty of tactics for quietly arm-wrestling the bosses without any need for official announcements. Sure, you can't wild-cat strike, but there are many ways to withhold labor without an official strike. To go over a few of the more common ones, in particular those that I feel will appeal to those of a rebellious spirit:
-“Work By Rules”: Malicious compliance taken to its reasonable conclusion. Are your workplace rules ridiculous, and you have to cut corners to make deadlines? Well, show the bosses what happens when their rules are followed to a T! Triple check that everything is done just right, and then check again.Example: In french railways, it was forbidden to strike. However, engineers had a strict checklist for safety when going over bridges, and the law required that they be able to consult as many others as they pleased if they had doubts. Suddenly, when the pay for railway workers was cut, engineers became much more concerned about bridge safety – and consulted everyone in earshot before deciding whether to cross. This brought the railways to a halt, and you can imagine how quickly the pay returned.
-“Work Slowdowns”: Just what the name says; if your bosses aren't giving you enough money to get you motivated, make sure they feel the lacking motivation just as much as you do. This is actually the origin of the term “sabotage” – when workers were underpaid in a factory, a number agreed to wear clunky, uncomfortable wooden clogs until pay was reinstated. Since they couldn't work quickly in the shoes, the work couldn't continue. It's true what they say, laziness is a virtue when you do it together.
-“Whistleblowing”: This one is probably the one that most here are familiar with; namely, if your job sucks, shout it to the rooftops! If you're concerned about retaliation from bosses, try using a Tails live CD to contact a journalist and show what you know anonymously. Try to gather up as much information about the place as you can, and for god's sakes when you post about shitty employers here, don't hesitate to name them! It helps everyone to know where not to work, where not to shop, and where to salt in if they're a dedicated union member.
-“Selective Strikes”: Also known as intermittent strikes, this is a great way to keep the bosses on their toes. What you do is, you pick a schedule, or random days, on which you and a bunch of others agree to refuse to come in. The boss can't replace you unless you've been gone for a while, so they'll either be horribly understaffed, or preparing to be understaffed when really they have too many people. These are far more effective than they seem at a glance, so much so that when they were first used, they were outlawed. Check whether they're legal wherever you are!
-“Sick-ins”: These are the traditional mode of collective direct action for industries like public service where strikes are prohibited by law outright. To quickly summarize, everyone calls in sick on the same day. This can even be used in a sort of “general strike” type context – in Sweden, when the government declared homosexuality an illness, thousands of gay workers and allies “called in gay” – taking sick days all at the same time. The declaration was reversed almost immediately (though, of course, not immediately enough, Sweden.)
-“Good Work”: To all those who say nobody wants to work these days, this one's for you; to summarize in a phrase: “pile up the plates, give 'em double helpings, and figure the checks on the low side.” Essentially, be very nice to customers and their pocketbooks. This is probably best when it goes along with a bit of whistleblowing, to let them know that the nice treatment they're getting is on behalf of the workers, not the bosses. Not only does it make whistleblowing more effective by getting customers on your side, especially helpful for consumer businesses, it also helps to mitigate the effects of price gouging, and let employers know that the workers are the ones who get them money.
-“Sit Down”: Something about leeks? Well, the gist is that by having a short and sweet strike, where everyone just sits in place not doing a thing or goes to the manager's office all at once, can make it clear the kind of impact workers can have if they just up and quit. If they take a big loss on the same day as everyone came to their office with a complaint about something or other, there's a good chance that something or other will get fixed. If it doesn't, do it again, maybe even intermittently – combining sit-downs with intermittent strikes show a lot of promise.
These tactics are great, but they are generally half-measures, and not as likely to effect lasting change as more permanent relations. But those relations don't necessarily have to be an “official” union. So long as you can keep the group alive and active, you can do some amazing things, even some that ordinary official unions wouldn't be capable of. If your friend gets a job elsewhere, they could come back and start making a big fuss wasting company time when you want to slow things down, or maybe you could get them to hold signs in protest while the rest of you shrug and tell those that do venture inside how very right the sign is. The opportunities vary by place, and by what your capabilities are, but it's almost always more liberating and more effective to take collective direct action than to wait for representatives to sign a deal that you hope will favor you.
Now, say your workplace is unconventional; maybe you're a freelancer and don't have coworkers, or maybe in the context of your local workplace you genuinely are easily replaced by some other so-and-so. If that's the case, you might want to try an industrial union, like the IWW.
Information from this post was sourced from (https://crimethinc.com/2022/01/10/how-we-beat-the-administration-and-the-union-bureaucracy-columbias-graduate-worker-union-struggle-2004-2022) and (https://archive.iww.org/about/solidarityunionism/directaction/)