Association for Union Democracy

How can we change unions?

A: We get asked this question a lot. People who are dissatisfied with their union, who see that their leadership is unaccountable, who only get stonewalled when they complain or make suggestions, often come to the conclusion that they need to “get a better union.” This is a rational desire — why not change unions until you find one that works for you? — but it is usually not a practical solution. In fact, trying to get out of your union and into a new one may make it harder to end up with a good union. It would be great if workers could change unions easily with little risk, but that is not the way it works.

What is so hard about changing unions?

First, if you are in an AFL-CIO affiliated union, then you run into the AFL-CIO’s “no raiding” rule: no AFL-CIO union can take on the members of another AFL-CIO union for at least a year after the workers leave their old union. This means you can not just switch from CWA, for example, to the Machinists. Instead, you would have to join an existing independent union or form a new union and wait a year before affiliating with the Machinists or some other AFL-CIO union.

Second, there are only a few legitimate independent (non-AFL-CIO/CtW) unions out there. There is the United Electrical Workers union (UE) for example, and some local or regional independents. You can, like the workers who formed the Coalition of University Employees, start a new independent union. It’s a lot of work, but may give you the best chance to control your own affairs. Watch out, there are also a host of phony, company-dominated “independent unions” that will do their best to take advantage of you and run off with your dues.

Third, when you try to change from one union to another, you give the employer an opportunity to try to prevent you from having any union at all. According to the procedures for changing unions, workers will have three choices: the old union, the new union, and no union at all. The employer will almost always campaign hard for “no union.”

Fourth, getting a new union is only half the battle. You will still have to negotiate a new contract, from scratch. Often it is easier to build on previous contract provisions than to build from the ground up. The previous contract is no longer in force because one of the parties — the old union — is no longer around. This means that the benefits afforded by the previous contract are no longer in effect. For example, if you are not vested in the old union’s pension plan, you could lose the value of the employer’s contributions into that plan on your behalf. You may have to start all over accruing benefits in the new union’s pension plan. Of course, if you are covered instead by the employer’s pension plan, the new union could negotiate to perpetuate that coverage.

Finally, there is no guarantee that the problems you faced in the old union — lack of representation, lack of accountability, lack of information — will not reappear in the new union. Simply switching unions like you switch phone companies is not a recipe for a stronger, more democratic union. That requires members to take control of the union.

Therefore, the best option is usually to work to reform the union you are in by organizing the members into a caucus or committee, by running for union office, or taking other actions to put pressure on the union leadership. That is what AUD is here for, to help union members learn how to fight that fight and offer support along the way.

In some cases, the obstacles are so immense — if the union is dominated by organized crime, if dissidents face beatings or worse — that the only way to deal with it is to get out. If that is your situation, call AUD.

Some of the procedural information:

In the private sector, the National Labor Relations Act gives workers the right — only at certain times and under certain conditions — to petition for an election to “decertify” the union that represents them. The process can be initiated by workers in a union workplace during two window periods:

1) 60-90 days (60-120 days in the health care industry) prior to the expiration of the current contract, and
2) after the contract has expired and a new one has yet to be concluded and ratified.

Note that although some unions now bargain five or even ten year contracts, a decertification process can be initiated at the end of three years, even if the contract has not expired.

To change unions, you have to submit a petition to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) signed by at least 30% of the members of your bargaining unit which may include workers in other plants. The NLRB will then hold an election. You have to get workers to sign a petition seeking to be represented by the new union; otherwise the only choice members will be given on the NLRB ballot will be between the old union or no union at all. To be successful, the new union will have to win the majority of the votes cast. The election results can then be challenged. The whole process can take months or even years.

For public sector workers, the rules and procedures differ state by state, but tend to follow the NLRB model. Contact your local public employment relations board for more information. For federal government workers, the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) also follows the NLRB format.

The employer cannot legally retaliate against you for organizing to change unions — this is protected concerted activity, just like organizing to bring a union in in the first place — but your old union may very likely file internal charges against, and try to permanently expel, members advocating decertification. Those members could then lose their right to run for office and to reform their union from within.

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