How the Ohio Environmental Council Formed a Union
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018 nonunion workers had median weekly earnings that were 82% of earnings compared to workers who were union members. However, the percentage of U.S. workers belonging to unions in 2018 was only 10.5%, and the percentage has seen a steady decrease year after year.
Forming a labor union is one of the best-known and highly-effective ways to achieve better wages, benefits and working conditions for workers of all industries. But the idea of forming one, and the various questions — where to start, who can help, how to get co-workers on board, how will employers react — can be intimidating and abstract for those unfamiliar with the process.
But the answers to these questions are relatively simple.
When staff at the Ohio Environmental Council decided to start a union, it was after months-long conversations within the organization.
Employees at the statewide environmental advocacy organization had been discussing ideas and solutions for smaller issues within the workplace. The current political climate, in addition to the urgent realities facing our planet, has made environmental advocacy work a relatively difficult job. Ensuring staff members could continue doing the work for the long haul, in a space where they were free to exchange and share ideas, was pertinent.
“It’s just been a particularly difficult time. And so we were really looking for [an answer to] how we deal with that,” says Katalyn Kuivila, a development assistant at OEC and one of the employees that helped facilitate the creation of OEC Workers United. “As an organization, what can we do to just best prepare…for that and to make sure that we can keep doing the work for as long as we need to?”
Employees have the legal right to discuss unionizing during non-work hours — such as after work or during breaks — in non-work areas, such as parking lots or break rooms. Employers also cannot prohibit employees from talking about unionizing during work time if it permits discussion of other non-work-related things during work time.
When the opportunity and need came for OEC to start looking more heavily at its movement and mission, unions were the “obvious and clear choice” for the organization, says Carol Davey-Sayre, an Appalachian regional director for OEC and another union activist. The culture at OEC is collaborative, and the staff spends a lot of time working together to secure healthy air, land and water for Ohioans. In addition to protecting the planet, the organization is also committed to democracy, equity, transparency and accountability — making unionization a sort of extension of that work.
Davey-Sayre grew up in a “union-supportive” household, so she was familiar with the need and benefits of unionizing beforehand.
“I’ve always grown up with the understanding that collective bargaining and employees banding together to have a voice in their workplace is the best possible way to ensure fairness and equity,” she says, “to ensure that movements and organizations are rooted in justice and equitable access.”
“We realized that what needed to happen was a systematic shift in how we view ourselves and the power dynamics of our organization,” she says.
These conversations came to a head in July, when the OEC’s national affiliate — the League of Conservation Voters — announced it had formed a union itself. Staff at OEC saw this as a catalyst that could serve as an example.
Once a majority of staff at OEC came together in support, they signed their union cards, or authorization forms, agreeing to be represented by the union as a bargaining unit. It was then that they enlisted the help of union organizers to facilitate further conversations.
Workers can select a union in one of two ways: employers can voluntarily recognize a union based on evidence — such as signed union cards — that a majority of employees want to be represented by them. Otherwise, If at least 30% of workers sign union cards or a petition stating they want a union, the National Labor Relations Board can hold an election. After taking a vote, if a majority choose the union, the NLRB will certify the union as a representative for collective bargaining.
Once a union has been recognized or certified by the NLRB, employers are required to bargain over terms and conditions of employment with union representatives.
Kuivila was put into contact with Boyd McCamish, organizing director for the Chicago and Midwest Regional Joint Board of Workers United, a regional union organization representing multi-industry workers across North America. Along with Puja Datta, an organizer for the union, the two were OEC’s main points of contact and a wealth of knowledge in the unionization process, which was helpful for Kuivila.
Unlike Davey-Sayre, Kuivila was virtually unfamiliar with unions and how they worked. She had no idea what it meant to form a union, but McCamish and Datta were accessible. After speaking to them, the process and benefits were a lot more clear.
“I came into this with a lot of questions about what it would mean for us to form a union,” says Kuivila, “just in terms of both how the process would work and also in terms of whether or not it made sense for us.”
“Having somebody who could explain [to] staff what the process would look like,” says Kuivila. “That was super helpful.”
Worker’s United was able to provide a wealth of information and resources on the best paths forward, including details on the election process, examples of contracts from similar organizations and nonprofits, how to handle a press rollout for the union and what tone to have in their voluntary recognition.
OEC Workers United will hold a democratic election in which members will run for an office of their choosing. Members will then vote to determine officers who will represent them and make decisions on their behalf. After they have been selected, representatives will head to the bargaining table with their employer to negotiate worker contracts.
Workers United has worked with for-profit companies and non-profit organizations like OEC alike. Union organizers say the issues and challenges that people face in the nonprofit world are fundamentally the same as anybody who works for a living, and forming a union under one company should not be any more difficult than another.
In fact, nonprofit workers sometimes receive pushback from employers in a way that for-profit workers may never experience.
“Often nonprofit workers are told that they’re working for the movement,” says Datta, “their work is really valuable for the world, and that they shouldn’t be asking for more. They should be happy with the circumstances that they have. But we disagree with that.”
“People want to have a living wage, they want to have good benefits, they [want to] have a real voice in their work,” says McCamish. “And that’s true whether you work at McDonald’s or whether you work at any of the biggest nonprofits in the world.”
However, when OEC Workers United was announced to its leadership team and board in August, it took less than a week for leadership to voluntarily recognize the union. That’s a pretty quick response as far as unionizing in the workplace is concerned.
Staff could have formed a union with or without being recognized by OEC leadership, as is the case for any staff seeking unionization. (Exceptions include employees in the local, state and federal government industry, as well as air and rail carriers, independent contractors and agricultural and domestic workers.) And though workers do not need approval, that is not to say there will be none of the aforementioned backlash. That backlash, however, is illegal, and if experienced can be responded to in court.
“Every person in the United States who desires to form a union has the absolute legal right to do that,” says McCamish. “And they have the legal right to do that free of intimidation, coercion, and harassment by the employer.”
“Any time you’re confronting an established power structure it can feel really intimidating and scary. But the power of joining with your colleagues will outweigh that fear,” says Datta.
We are currently in a time in which a small group of people controls large portions of the world we live in. There is a huge imbalance in power, says McCamish. And the only way that can be changed is through solidarity.
“The only way that that can be changed is that people come together,” he says. “For the vast majority of the problems that people face at work and in society, I think the answer is very clear that forming your own organization, forming a union, is probably the single most powerful way to address those challenges.”
As far as actually taking the necessary steps, someone unfamiliar with the process shouldn’t be worried, says Kuivila. “I think it’s something that…was not necessarily as difficult and scary as people think that it would be,” she says.
And as someone who was already accustomed, Davey-Sayre expresses a deep commitment to the unionizing process on behalf of her region. She says she wanted to raise her son as a “union-proud Appalachian,” and thinks the story of a small group of nonprofit employees convincing their large-scale statewide organization to take a leap can serve as an example not only for him, but for other nonprofits in the state and other environmental nonprofits around the nation.
“I think that really is a positive step forward for our region in terms of economic development and having access to your own power as an individual and as an employee,” she says. “I’m really excited to see this as a catalyst for other groups to follow suit.”
For 2018 U.S. labor union statistics, visit www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm.