Steward's Corner: What Your Boss Doesn't Want You to Know, and Where to Find It
Given the wealth of information available online, conducting research on your employer is more possible than ever—and more important than ever, as firms become more complex and globalized.
There’s no reason we should ever begin bargaining or start an organizing campaign without a strong sense of who the employer is, how it generates its profit, where it is growing, who its decision-makers are, and where it is most vulnerable. This information is much easier to find than most people think.
More information is available on companies that trade on one of the stock exchanges, but there is still plenty of information on privately held firms and nonprofits. And this approach is relevant for firms both large and small, across a wide variety of sectors.
General Internet searching is not enough.
The mistake that many first-time researchers make is to jump onto Google and start looking for information about the company.
While general Internet searching can be helpful, it’s not a very efficient way to do corporate research. It’s easy to drown in all the information that’s out there, and what you’re finding is what the search engine has indexed for you. Plus, companies manipulate what shows up first on a general Internet search. Often you have to weed through hundreds of pages of marginal information before you get to real substantive information on your company.
You need a framework to direct your research.
To avoid getting overwhelmed and quitting, you need to know what questions you are trying to answer. And rather than hunting around, you also need to know the best places to find those answers.
That’s why we built the Strategic Corporate Research website (strategiccorporateresearch.org), a free resource to help labor, community, and environmental activists take a look inside the corporate world. It starts by providing a framework to direct your research.
The site lays out 24 questions to guide your investigation into the command and control of a firm, its operations, and its outside stakeholders. These include: Who are the stockholders? Who is on the board of directors? Who are their major suppliers and customers? What is their health and safety and environmental record?
Focus on primary documents.
For each of these questions we provide the key websites where you can find answers. Whenever possible, we focus on primary documents.
It might be tempting to rely on a website that gathers the information for you, for instance on CEO salary, but you are going to find the most accurate and up-to-date information in the primary documents that the company files with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). We provide a number of videos with screenshots that help first-timers navigate through websites including the SEC, OSHA, OpenSecrets (which provides information on the political donations of your employer), and many more.
Build a diverse research team.
Build a diverse team in your local or your workplace to conduct research on your employer. Include people from different shifts and different jobs; make sure women and people of color are represented. You want to demonstrate that the research team represents the whole union, not just a select few. This is critical for other members to see the information you gather as credible and actionable.
If one or more individuals have some prior research training, it’s great for them to step up—but they should take a mentoring approach so that everyone on the team is learning new skills. The more people we can bring along with us, the more capacity we have. This is a great way for rank-and-file members to become more involved in the union.
Adopt a brainstorming attitude.
It is critical to adopt an inclusive brainstorming attitude when conducting your research. We provide a Google document on the website (bit.ly/SCR24questions) which allows you to create your own copy of the 24 questions to guide your research. Break up the questions, work in small teams, and put all the information up there.
You never know how what you find out might connect with other pieces of information or how it can be used in the future. There will be time later to sort out contradictory information.
This process encourages everyone on the committee to participate and is critical in building your capacity as a team.
Analyze as you go along.
Don’t just gather information, but analyze it as you go along. Look for connections and for information that confirms what you’ve found.
For example, you may have found that two new board members come from a sector which you have already identified as a growth area for the company. This confirms that your research is correct and that the company is moving in this direction.
Work through what might be inconsistent or contradictory. This often comes up when looking at financials that get reported over several years. Make sure you are using the most up-to-date numbers.
Keep your campaign in mind.
It is easy to get excited about all the information you are gathering. You may have discovered that the company was fined by the Environmental Protection Agency or a key board member has been named in a number of lawsuits and judgments.
But the goal of strategic corporate research is not just to gather information, but to use this information to build a strong campaign and win. Be careful not to get sidetracked. You may have found some juicy information on the CEO, for example, but remember campaigns are rarely won by focusing on one issue. Keep researching and develop multiple points of leverage.
For example, you may have discovered that one division of your employer is the most profitable, so you shift the focus of your campaign to that part of the firm. Or you may have identified a highly vulnerable board member, so you design tactics to escalate against him. Take the time and work collaboratively to shape a multifaceted campaign building on all that you have learned.
Build new muscles.
If this kind of research is new to your local, it will take some time to build the skills and integrate them into the life of your union. But with some careful attention and teamwork you will be surprised how fast rank-and-file members and leadership can gather and use basic corporate information in both bargaining and organizing.
It’s not enough just to put this research team together as you prepare for contract expiration. Once it’s operating, the team should continue to grow and build its capacity between contracts to put the local in an even stronger position for the next round of bargaining or your next organizing campaign.
Tom Juravich is a professor of labor studies and sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.