As a CWA member-organizer, I know how hard it is to organize a workplace. This year workers in companies across the country — from small newspapers and colleges to giant corporations like Amazon and Starbucks — have been joining together to fight for their rights on the job. But it’s a long, uphill battle. A 2019 Economic Policy Institute (EPI) study found that in more than 40 percent of union organizing drives, bosses broke the law to stop workers organizing, using “a wide range of legal and illegal tactics to frustrate the right of workers to form unions and collectively bargain.”
Hayley Banyai-Becker of New Era Colorado Union
Behind every small union victory you see in the news are lots of workers pouring countless unpaid hours into the effort. And this is just as true at nonprofit organizations as it is at the mega-corporations. That’s one of the things that surprised me when I had a chance to sit down with Hayley Banyai-Becker, a young leader on the organizing and bargaining committee at New Era Colorado Union.
Hayley first explained what the nonprofit New Era Colorado does. “We work to promote and advance social justice and equity,” she said, “by empowering young people to take the lead on the issues affecting our community.”
“We work directly with young people on college campuses and in high schools,” Hayley told me. “We do voter registration, advocacy work and much more. We’ve passed a lot of amazing bills through our Colorado state legislature, including a bill that has held private student loan companies accountable for harming students.”
Hayley says she assumed that working for a forward-thinking and progressive organization meant their staff union would be recognized by management immediately.
My union, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) has been organizing in the nonprofit space for decades, and we’ve witnessed the struggles that workers across the United States endure to make their voices heard. We know that just because an organization says it prioritizes ethical treatment of employees doesn’t mean a successful organizing drive is a foregone conclusion.
With confidence in their new Executive Director and a big organizing push in the Denver-area, Hayley and her colleagues at New Era decided that 2020–2021 was the right time. They were all tired of long-term “temporary” contracts that never seemed to become permanent jobs, entry-level staff making less than a living wage, and other working conditions that didn’t align with their values so they decided to make change happen.
“We’re changing everything,” said Hayley. “And we need a union to do that.” She didn’t want to be on the sidelines, so she jumped in to become an organizer. “I felt like it wasn’t going to happen if I didn’t join my coworker Max Mapes in starting the process.”
Workers at New Era Colorado had to negotiate a series of obstacles — including their union being split into temporary and permanent workers, thus removing some of their collective power — before being recognized by management as New Era Colorado’s staff union two and a half months later.
Hayley and her coworkers know that dividing workers can limit their power. That’s why the workers at New Era fought so hard for the right to stick together and control the process of forming their union.
Hayley acknowledges there were some difficult moments along the way, but she says that for the most part organizing was enjoyable and brought her and her co-workers closer together.
“It brought us to a whole new level. . . . All learning exactly how we’re disenfranchised and that we had the opportunity to change these things.”
Hayley said she also saw her peers realize their collective strength and feel the joy that comes with positive change.
At a recent staff planning meeting, a manager asked everyone to reflect and answer the question, “Five years from now, what do you think the New Era staff will be proud of the current staff for?”
Everyone in the unit answered, “The union!”
The experiences of New Era organizers are not unique. Hayley’s journey reminds me of why our country needs an overhaul of workers’ rights as soon as possible to make it easier for all workers to join a union. This is why my union is working so hard to pass the PRO Act, legislation that would remove barriers to organizing and hold companies accountable for illegal union-busting tactics.
There’s a lot of activism around the PRO Act now, and that’s going to grow in 2022. If you’d like to learn more, you can take a look at an explanation of the key provisions here and contact your senators to encourage them to support it.
About the Author: Carissa Hahn is an Executive Vice-President for CWA Local 37083 in Greater-Seattle, WA. She also coordinates the Legislative and Political program in Washington State and is the District 7 Lead Activist for CWA NextGeneration.