How to Orient New Members to the Union

An early orientation for new hires helps makes sure everyone hears about the union right away. Photo: Michigan Nurses Association

Labor history, it’s vital to remember, is still being made. The people hired today will shape our movement’s future. That’s one reason why it’s so important for unions to connect with new hires as soon as possible.


At the hospital where I work as a nurse, union orientations for new hires are done on-site, something we have negotiated in our contract. I have found it works best in two simple steps: a group orientation, followed by a personal, one-on-one conversation.

An early orientation helps in a few ways:

  • It makes sure everyone hears about the union right away.
  • It gives us the chance to frame our own message to nurses, rather than letting the employer describe the union.
  • It helps us keep track of who has signed up to become a member.

At our local, we are typically seeing these potential members within the first two weeks of their employment. In right-to-work setting, which we’ll face after our contract expires in 2018, these orientations are vital to our future.

I find that the single most important task is to meet people where they are. Everyone comes to the table with a different idea of what a union is and isn’t. Don’t just throw a member application at them. Take some time to listen to them and then build their understanding from a positive place.

WHAT IS A UNION?

Reach New Hires on Day One

When we get new members in any of our units, we always make a concerted effort to get them signed up as members at orientation on their first day of hire. We’re about 99 percent successful at doing so. Before they hear anything different about the union, before they hear anything that might be detrimental, before they can form an opinion that may be biased.

Our success rate in signing up members in those orientations is extraordinary. I think in my nine years as president, we’ve had fewer than 10 people out of 1,500 decline to sign at that first orientation. And we’re a statewide local in right-to-work Indiana.

In both the AT&T Mobility and wireline contracts, these union orientations are mandated—but it doesn’t say management has to allow it on Day One. In my experience, when we catch somebody who’s been here for a week or a month, it’s much more difficult to convince them to become a union member. They’ve gotten used to those dues not coming out of their check, or heard something from a co-worker they didn’t like.

My vice presidents all have the responsibility to stay in communication with the hiring department to make sure we know when new hires are coming. It's required a struggle, but for the most part, managers are pretty effective in communicating with us. We usually spend about an hour talking about unions and what unions have accomplished, but managers like that in the middle we also talk about how to have a long career here. We call it CYA (“Cover Your Ass”)—don’t steal, be here on time, don’t use company devices to surf Internet sites you shouldn’t be on.

—Tim Strong

Tim Strong is the president of Communications Workers Local 4900 in Indiana.

At the beginning of the session, nurses get a folder that includes a list of our current union representatives for each area in the hospital, a handout about our history, a “union Q&A,” and a membership form.

One of the first questions I ask is, “What is a union?”

I present a scenario: Imagine you’re sitting on a plane, and the person sitting next to you has never heard the word “union” before. How would you explain what a union is?

This isn’t always an easy question. Sometimes I have to poke a little bit, or tell them “I’ll wait…” That always gets a laugh, and then someone crawls out of his or her shell to help us answer the question.

It’s quite interesting to watch this happen. The group always comes up with a good answer. They always say that it's a group of people working together to make change. If they leave a part out, the group collaborates to add to the definition.

FIELD QUESTIONS

After new hires identify what a union is, I ask them about their expectations.

I say, “Everyone here comes with different skills, ideas, and backgrounds. We all also come with ideas about what unions are or are not. I want to hear about all of those.

“What do you think it will be like to be in a union? Good, bad, or indifferent?”

Whatever questions come up, we take some time to talk about them. Often someone will say that a union protects lazy workers. In response, I ask for a show of hands: “Who here has worked with a lazy co-worker at a non-union facility?” Everyone raises their hands, and I say, “Oh good, I’m glad we cleared that up.”

After we all laugh, I explain that, while this is a common misconception, a union has a process to follow on employee performance. Without getting into the weeds too much, I explain the basic principles of our dispute/discipline process. If the group wants to talk in further detail about this, I don’t avoid it—but I also don’t want it to be the centerpiece of our talk.

New Book

Secrets of a successful organizer

A step-by-step guide to building power on the job. Buy Now. »

Another common question is, “What do my dues pay for?” Dues are a way for workers to pool our resources to help each other. Because of dues we can afford labor attorneys, organizers, communications specialists, and legislative aides to help us reach our collective goals.

ACKNOWLEDGE THE PAST

I typically ask, “Raise your hand if you have been in a union before.”

If someone’s hand goes up, we talk about their experience. This can be a home-run moment if someone has had a great union experience.

On the other hand, if someone has had a bad experience, this part can be tricky to navigate. It’s important to keep it real. We aren’t here to lie about anything, but rather to educate and demystify.

Every union is different—and some have real problems. Occasionally I’ll even hear, “My steward didn’t even understand my work,” or “I felt like my steward was annoyed with me for advocating for patient safety.”

I emphasize the values and practices of our union, so they know they can expect a better experience with us. At the same time, I also point out that a union is what its members make of it. To keep our union strong and nurse-led into the future, and to maintain its focus on patient safety, a crucial ingredient is your participation.

EXPLAIN KEY RIGHTS

At some point in each orientation, I hold up our contract. I explain that it is also a history book, because it took many years to gain the legally binding agreement that our local has today.

We cover some brief points of contract language, along with our union’s outstanding history and our current practices. We typically talk at length about pay and benefits, answering any immediate questions people have. These are common things that anyone starting a new job is interested to learn about. We want all nurses to understand that our union fought for these benefits and compensation rates—they were not gifted to us from the goodness of our employer’s heart.

We also make sure to cover Weingarten rights, which is every member’s right to have a union representative present during any conversation that could lead to discipline. If new hires leave orientation without understanding this right, I haven’t done my job.

ASK NEW HIRES TO JOIN

It can be difficult to ask new hires to sign up, but this is what I have found works for me:

First, I say that I have high expectations for everyone in the room. I expect that they will be my colleagues for years to come and that they will join me in our collective voice, the union.

Then, as a registered nurse, I ask, “By a show of hands, who can run a code by themselves?” A code is when someone in cardiac arrest needs high-quality resuscitation and intervention. No hands go up, because we all understand that it takes a team to run a code and save someone’s life.

I draw a parallel to maintaining our rights in the workplace: “The same way I am counting on you to help me run a code, I am also counting on you to continue our union contract and strong future.”

I always close with “What makes a union strong?” and “What kind of union do you want to be a part of?” and I ask if there are any other questions. Then I say that I will be collecting the membership forms today. They typically all sign up on the spot.

Very rarely I will get someone who wants to pay the agency fee instead. In that case, I draw them outside of the room to talk about it.

KEEP MEMBERS INVOLVED

Membership is just the first step towards a strong union. We also encourage folks to get involved after their orientation period is over.

In our work setting as nurses, orientation can be very long and extensive, sometimes lasting up to six months. We want our new members to be fully grounded in their work before taking on too much union responsibility.

After mentioning any upcoming events, I invite everyone to schedule a one-on-one meeting with me. Some people take me up on it. After all, new hires often want to feel like they belong in their new workplace. Union involvement gives them a way to find that welcome feeling, and allows them to tap into a support system of more experienced nurses.

In those one-on-ones we focus on getting to know each other. Coffee helps! It’s important to build actual relationships with members. If you’re always just talking about what the union needs without asking members how things are going, it becomes a “take only” relationship—and those never work out. If you don’t trust me, you can ask old boyfriends!

The union representatives in each area are also notified of new hires and are asked to get to know them and introduce themselves as a resource. Our goal is to have several positive contacts with each new hire within his or her first few months of employment.

Heather Roe is a registered nurse who practices in the operating room. She is vice chair of the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council, an affiliate of the Michigan Nurses Association.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #459, June 2017. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.