Union 101: An FAQ on Unionizing

On Friday, April 8, we petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a union election. This is an exciting step forward in our campaign for a union, and comes after many organizing conversations and meetings with BAM staff about how to make BAM a better workplace for all. An overwhelming majority of us signed union support cards that were delivered to the NLRB to accompany our petition.

Q. Who is the union?

A. We are. We are BAM and the BAMunion is us. We have broad support from across the institution—workers in GM, Marketing, Finance, Telefund, Ticket Services, Facilities, and more. We are interns, full-time, and part-time staff. We are those who have been here for ten years, and those who have been here for ten days. The union was started by a small group of dedicated staff and now makes up a solid majority of the BAM workforce, and this majority grows every day.

Q. What is the benefit of collective bargaining?

Currently, BAM management decides unilaterally on all of our terms of employment:  what we are paid, what our health benefits will be, whether we are eligible for promotion, when we get time off, etc.  With a union, BAM must bargain in good faith with us over all of these (and more) conditions of our employment, and cannot reduce our benefits without our agreement.  Unsurprisingly, when employees unionize, their jobs generally pay more than non-union jobs and they get better health care and benefits. Unionized staff at MoMA, Columbia and at other cultural and educational institutions have been able to address their wages, benefits and rights at the workplace effectively through collective bargaining. Management cannot reduce benefits to retaliate against us for organizing a union.    

Q. Will we still be able to “negotiate” for ourselves?

Unionization never prevents employees from asking for more, nor does it stop job applicants from trying to get the highest starting salary possible.  Nor does a union stop BAM from voluntarily paying more. Many 2110 workplaces, e.g., MoMA and the New-York Historical Society, spell out management’s ability to grant merit increases in the union contract itself, and management is always free to hire people in above the union.  However, by definition, such increases are always discretionary, and only with a union will BAM be legally obligated to negotiate.

Q. Will we lose our flexible arrangements at work?

BAM cannot take away existing flexible conditions to retaliate against us or punish us for unionizing. Furthermore, we can secure such flexible conditions in our contract so they cannot be changed unilaterally in the future by BAM.  Many 2110 contracts include provisions for flexible hours, leaves of absence, etc., that address employees’ needs for flexible conditions.

Q. What about union “work rules?”

If neither BAM nor the union membership want rigid work rules in the contract, there is no reason to negotiate them into our contract.  In most 2110 contracts, the only “rules” our members have sought are ones that specifically protect our health and safety.

Q. Can BAM “afford” a contract?

Even very small nonprofits (the Bronx Museum of the Arts, the New Press, the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility) have unionized staff. Currently, BAM decides unilaterally on how to allocate its resources. With a union, we will have the right to ask for validated information about BAM’s assets and will have the ability, through our collective bargaining rights, to help make BAM a more democratic, transparent workplace.

Q. What are union dues?

There are no dues until after a first contract is negotiated and voted into effect by the majority of BAM union members. After that, union dues are 2% of our regular wages. Union dues pay for the cost of maintaining and supporting a strong union, e.g., legal costs, staffing, equipment, supplies, rent, etc. Union dues can be deducted from New York State taxes if you itemize your deductions.  Union dues can only increased by membership vote.

Q. What about initiation fees?

There are no initiation fees for anyone employed at the time that the first contract is approved.  After that, new employees pay a one-time only sliding scale initiation fee of $10—50.

Q. What about strikes?

Strikes are a pressure tactic of last resort, and most contracts are settled without strikes. Many Local 2110 members have negotiated successful contracts without having to strike, by effectively using rallies, leaflet campaigns, social media, reachout to elected officials and other community allies, and other tactics to win a fair contract. Strikes can only be implemented if we, as members, collectively make the decision to strike, and any strike would require a two thirds majority authorization vote by our BAM union membership itself.  Strikes, when planned carefully, can also result in tremendous victories. Recently, Columbia University graduate workers won recognition of their union after holding a one week strike that effectively embarrassed the university over their anti-union stance.

Q. What about keeping our pension?

Unionizing gives us the best chance of securing and improving our pension and other benefits, because once we establish a union, BAM cannot reduce our benefits without bargaining with us.  Without a union, BAM can reduce benefits at any time and in fact, has done this. For example, in 2016, BAM reduced pension benefits for new hires. In addition, BAM has created many low-wage, hourly positions with no benefits at all.  

Q. Will everyone have to join the union?

After our union is formed, we, the BAM union membership, will decide what we want to propose in our contract regarding individual employees’ obligation to pay dues or agency fees.  Generally, unions where everyone contributes are stronger because we all share an equal stake in our union, and the contract we negotiate will cover us all. However, we, the BAM union membership, will decide on this once our union is established.  

Q. What about the other unions at BAM?

Workplaces with multiple unions are extremely common in New York and our union, Local 2110 UAW, has worked in solidarity for years with the other unions at Columbia University, MoMA, Barnard and more.  Once our union is formed, we will all be stronger as unionized workers if we stand together.

Currently, both IATSE and DC37 have claimed that some positions we hope to unionize should be in their respective bargaining units.  Disputes about jurisdiction between unions are not uncommon and we hope to work out an amicable resolution with both unions quickly.

Q. Who is eligible for the union?

Anyone that is already covered by another union contract will not be eligible to join our union. Additionally, labor law prohibits those who are truly managers, supervisors, and confidential employees from joining our union. Under labor law, such categories are narrowly defined and are not determined by your title.

  • Managers are generally top-level decision or policy-makers for the organization and have substantial independent budgetary authority.  

  • Supervisors have independent authority to hire, fire, discipline, grant time off, promote and determine job descriptions for other employees.  Supervision of outside vendors, independent contractors or student interns generally does not count as supervisory authority, and departments/offices where BAM claims multiple levels of employees are “supervisory” will be looked at closely by the Labor Board.

  • Confidential employees are those that have access to management’s confidential position in labor relations matters, such as negotiations.  It does not refer to access to other types of confidential information, e.g., about BAM members or donors.

At this point, BAM is only contesting the eligibility of a small handful of employees who they claim fall into these categories.  These employees will be allowed to vote “under challenge” and the Labor Board will determine whether they are eligible after the vote.  In addition, BAM is claiming that a small number of employees in Facilities should be part of DC37, instead of our union.

Q. Will management be able to hold meetings with us without a union representative present?

Generally, a union representative only attends a meeting with an employee at the employee’s request when a person believe they may be disciplined unfairly.  Employees are never required to have union representation if they don’t want it, nor do union representatives attend regular staff meetings.

Q. Don’t unions protect bad employees?

Union contracts ensure due process but cannot protect employees who do not perform their jobs.  

Q. What is a grievance procedure in a union contract?

Union contracts typically include a grievance procedure, which provides due process to a member (or the union as an organization) if a problem arises during the contract or management is not fairly adhering to the contract.  Though many grievances are resolved quickly and informally, most contracts allow for unresolved grievances to be taken to an outside neutral arbitrator whose decision is legally binding.

Q. What are the post-election next steps?

After a successful election, we will do the following to prepare for and engage in the process of negotiating a contract with BAM:

  • We will elect a bargaining committee from among our fellow BAMunion members.

  • The bargaining committee will survey our membership to determine what our priorities are. This will be used to draft contract proposals, which we will approve before the negotiations begin.

  • The bargaining committee will be aided throughout the entire process by Local 2110 staff who have experience negotiating similar contracts.

  • The final contract will be voted on by BAMunion membership.  

  • After the contract is ratified, we will then elect a chairperson and stewards from among ourselves to make sure BAM lives up to the contract and support our membership with any problems they have in the workplace. We will also have a vote in the Local 2110 Joint Council, composed of elected representatives from all the 2110 workplaces.