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OPEIU Organizers Reflect on ‘Banner Year’ and Worker Strength

New York, NY – Professional organizations and guilds affiliated with the Office and Professional Employees International Union OPEIU OPEIU are a diverse group that includes podiatrists, registered nurses, clinical social workers, hypnotists, teachers, Minor League Baseball umpires and helicopter pilots.

Chartered in 1945, OPEIU is one of the larger unions of the AFL-CIO with locals in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and Canada. It has more than 104,000 members [representing 110,000 employees] in nonprofit organizations, technology, credit unions, hospitals, insurance agencies, colleges and universities, hotels, administrative offices and more.

LaborPress sat down with OPEIU Director of Organizing Brandon Nesson and Lead Organizer Grace Reckers to learn more about their approach to growing the union.

LP: What is the union’s strategy for organizing?

BN: OPEIU’s approach to organizing is focused on building worker-led campaigns that put power in the hands of unorganized workers to win their own union with the guidance and support of our trained organizers. The center of this approach is building robust organizing committees that are representative of the workplaces being organized and composed of organic natural leaders that have the trust and respect of their co-workers. Once the committee is fully formed and they have created an accurate list of their colleagues, the leaders build a supermajority of support among their full group of co-workers. The majority of co-workers in favor of forming a union then come forward as a group in the workplace to request voluntary recognition from their employer or go to a NLRB election to win recognition. OPEIU’s focus on democratic, bottom-up organizing is reflected in how we are building our organizing capacity in our locals through our Apprentice Organizer Program, which is growing a new generation of skilled and experienced union organizers and leaders.

GR: Focusing on key sectors to strengthen our collective bargaining power within and across industries. Bringing in rank-and-file members to connect us with new organizing leads, talk with prospective members, train new leaders and take part in the direction of each local union. Build up our network of organizing staff to take on new organizing leads and continue growing our OPEIU membership.

LP: What is its focus for organizing – i.e. particular groups of workers, companies?

Brandon Nessen, director of organizing, OPEIU.

BN: OPEIU is focused on four core growth sectors: Tech, Nonprofits, Health Care, and Higher Education. What each of these sectors has in common is they employ mission-driven workers who care deeply about the work they do and the impact it has on our society and world. While many of our members do work out of the passion they have for making change and caring for others, their goodwill is sometimes used to exploit them resulting in substandard wages, benefits and working conditions. Racial and gender pay gaps are a common issue addressed in organizing campaigns and fighting for greater diversity, equity and inclusion is a growing focus.

LP: How do immigrants and undocumented workers figure into your organizing strategy?

BN: Immigrants have long been the backbone of union organizing and our economy. Immigrants are frequently some of the strongest leaders on organizing committees leading campaigns. In November 2021, staff at the Florence Project, a large nonprofit in Arizona providing legal support to migrants at the US-Mexico border, won their union with OPEIU. Whether documented or not, immigrant or native born, OPEIU members want many of the same things: fair pay, affordable healthcare, a secure retirement, safe working conditions and reasonable workload.

GR: Citizenship status should never determine one’s rights as a worker. We organize those who are willing to fight for a union at their workplaces, including those who are denied citizenship rights under the law. The NLRA does not exclude undocumented workers from Section 7 rights. Additionally, we are keenly aware of the additional risks undocumented workers take on when participating in union campaigns. We make room to take part in campaigns in ways that better protect their ability to remain in the country.

LP: What is the thinking behind the organizing?

BN: After decades of growing inequality, a national reckoning over racial justice, and a global pandemic over the past few years that brought these inequities into even clearer view, workers all over the country are joining together in record numbers to gain a voice in their workplaces. OPEIU stands with these workers and is positioned to support them through the organizing process and to welcome them into our progressive, innovative and growing union as members.

LP: What are some challenges in organizing?

BN: OPEIU’s organizer network has adapted to challenges posed by the pandemic such as having to move organizing committee meetings, and in some workplaces the conversations between co-workers, to a remote setting using digital tools together with tried-and-true union organizing principles. Employers continue to use all the typical tools for union-busting and U.S. labor law continues to be weak and inadequate, but our organizers and the amazing worker leaders leading our campaigns have time after time found ways to overcome these hurdles and win their unions in spite of them.

LP: What are some victories?

BM: OPEIU had a banner year in new organizing in 2021, winning more than 30 organizing campaigns across our core growth sectors. Some highlights were historic wins in the tech industry at Code for America and Big Cartel where OPEIU’s first-of-its-kind Tech Workers Local 1010 expanded from its first ever union election win in the industry at Kickstarter. Professional staff at Augsburg University became the first ever to unionize at a private university in the state of Minnesota by joining OPEIU Local 12. National environmental conservation nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife won their NLRB election in a landslide. Staff at Secretly Group became one of the first record labels to organize a union in the indie music industry.

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