Photo courtesy of Fuerza Del Valley Workers Center

No Scabs Allowed: Union Basics

Words by Bianca Castro
Edited by Freddy Jimenez and Abigail Vela

Welcome to No Scabs Allowed! My name is Bianca, and I’m a local union organizer, mother, and a proud VP of the Texas Staff Union, a unit of the Washington Baltimore News Guild, a local of the Communication Workers of America- 32035.


Beyond union affiliation, however, I am an angry worker at my core- upset that I must have my labor extracted to survive this capitalist hellscape to supply survival for myself and my child – and I know I am not alone. My hope is that these little corners of knowledge, firsthand experiences, frequently asked questions, and stories of collective action not only serve as inspiration to you, a fellow worker in our community, but can also be used as a reference, guide,  or provide an accessible foundation for organizing and improving your conditions at work.  


These past few years have shown us clear examples that the ruling class of this country, the bosses, and the working class of this country, the workers – have nothing in common. As corporations have made record profits during the pandemic, workers across industries are left to die. As for-profit hospital systems, such as Kaiser and HCA, made record high profits, their “frontline heroes,” nurses, custodians, and support staff had to fight to be seen at the bargaining table and threaten a strike to improve conditions at work. They did this all while watching those around them lose their lives and stay underpaid and overworked. Unfortunately, the same bosses that praise us in one breath will be the first ones to advocate for our further exploitation in the next. This is important to recognize going forward: your boss is not your friend. 


Locally, one of the hardest hit industries was public education. Beyond dealing with continued attacks at the state level in an attempt to privatize education – a fundamental human right – teachers across the RGV have been fighting to be treated with the respect they deserve while caring for our future generations through a pandemic, and all while watching those around them lose their lives, remain underpaid, and overworked.  

Photo courtesy of Fuerza Del Valley Workers Center

See, exploitation under capitalism has a clever way of never ending; it continues until you die – or you are no longer able to produce labor to be exploited – and suffer whatever consequences come alongside that. Social ostracization, insecurity with food or shelter, and incarceration are just a few examples. If I were to list examples of all exploited industries and workers, my list would be endless – it’s as if we’re working under a system designed to exploit us at any cost necessary. Luckily, there is a long history of resistance against this exploitation, and this history has left us with knowledge on how to yield our power, resist our bosses, and aid in the liberation of our communities.

One of our most powerful tools to fight against exploitation is collective action. Collective action is simply you and your friends, neighbors, co-workers, or whoever, coming together for action around an issue. Whether speaking at a city council meeting to remove a racist monument from your town or fix the potholes down your street to asking your boss to treat you like a human being – Your power as a person will always be stronger as a collective force. Likewise, your power as a worker will always be stronger with a union.  


For this first column, I will start by stating what may seem like the obvious and answering frequent questions:

What is a union? What is my industry as a worker? Why does knowing my industry matter? What are the public and private sectors, and why do they matter? Am I really exploited enough for a union? How does the way I look at work impact me and my ability to organize?

Each industry, union, or union organizer may have their definition, but for the sake of our conversations, I’ll define a union as you and your co-workers from the same industry or workplace gathering for collective action. That’s it. There is a common misconception that a union is a third party for workplace representation or labor disputes, or rather, if you want better conditions, just join “a union.” Still, it doesn’t exactly work like that. While being a member of an already set up unit of a union may come with added power and protection in numbers, a union is what you make it. Being an active union member is the best way to create change in your workplace.  


A big boss lie is that a union is a third party of union staffers such as myself just trying to meddle in the business of working people, but I’m here to tell you, friend, a union is a group of organized workers. Period. A union also does not guarantee anything, not protection, benefits, nothing, because a union is organized workers. Any benefits, conditions, and standards created come directly from the work workers put in to create those standards, conditions, and benefits that they see fit for themselves and their coworkers. It isn’t magic; it’s organized labor.  


There are many nuances to the way a union is formed that we will break down together soon, but for now, as most recently modeled by the workers of independent union ALU, or Amazon Labor Union, a union can very well just be you and your coworkers coming together and demanding more outside of affiliation with any larger entity or large structured/more established labor union.  

Photo courtesy of Fuerza Del Valley Workers Center.

Your industry can simply be defined as the type of work you do. Retail, education, and construction are all examples of different industries.  


Most work can be broken up into two sectors: the private and the public. The private sector includes privately owned companies – Target, Starbucks, Amazon, Walmart, etc. The public sector comprises most city employees, public school teachers, government agency workers, etc.  


Knowing what your industry is and whether you are a public or private sector employee helps define what laws you can use to your advantage as a worker. A good rule of thumb is that as a worker, you use these laws to your advantage; you don’t let the laws use you. 


This means that regardless of legality, there is always a way to organize, collectivize, educate, yield your power as a worker, and encourage those around you to do the same. Use these laws as a foundation to build upon instead of seeing them as limitations for action or as a way to legitimize exploitation. In other words, don’t let these laws fool you into believing that things at work should not or cannot be improved simply because your employer is doing a good job of “following the law” (although most rarely do). There are many ways outside of laws that people are overlooked and exploited, and many workers are not formally protected by federal or state labor law. Collective action does not always have to look like taking legal action against an employer under the precedent of these laws.  


Let’s be real; as long as your labor is being extracted for profit, you’re being exploited. This may be a hard pill to swallow, but it’s okay, especially if you enjoy your work. But redefining our relationship to our work helps us create healthy boundaries to live by and helps combat common tactics our bosses may use to get us to overwork or intimidate us into accepting treatment that we know is wrong. 


Work is work and should never interfere with your ability to live life outside of it. Of course, this is easier said than done but can look a lot like: refusing to answer texts or emails outside of your defined workday, intentionally not overworking when asked, grifting, or making sure to hold your boss to the same standards they hold you, and once again, using labor law to your advantage in your workplace. 


Identifying your role, your relation to the work you do, what laws you may use to your benefit, your relationship with your boss, and the dynamics of your workplace/industry are good first

steps at breaking down what issues may be happening at work or what standards may exist in your industry already, and even better: how you can change it.  


If you take anything away from this, let it be that regardless of the industry you’re in, whatever kind of work you do, collective action is one of the most effective tools you have as a worker against the exploitation that’s inherent, if not imperative, to the function of capitalism. 

Photo courtesy of Fuerza Del Valley Workers Center.

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