Ten things every organizer should know about the employer they are organizing and where to find that information

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Tom Juravich


In some campaigns, organizers have the benefit of being briefed with extensive research on a target employer. In other cases, however, organizers are given very little information about the firms they are going up against. How can you, as an organizer, make sure you get adequate information?

Sometimes following up with research staff will provide you with what you need. But given the availability of information about employers online, there is no reason for not having a solid understanding of the employer you are organizing. The last thing an organizer wants in the middle of a campaign is a surprise revelation such as that a global giant owns the company, or that the firm is about to go belly-up. Basic corporate research may also reveal company wrong-doing, or identify a key supplier, board member, or other secondary target you could use to strengthen your campaign. (For more on secondary targets see “Beating Global Capital.”)

We are not suggesting that you, as an organizer, should spend a huge amount of time conducting comprehensive strategic research when you could be out working with your committee and making house calls. But it does make sense to invest a few hours of your time to access some of the tools corporate researchers use, and to make sure that you have solid understanding of the company you are up against. While some information can be gleaned from general Internet searching, it is not the most efficient strategy. General Internet searches rarely lead you to the key primary documents or the specialized databases that corporate researchers regularly seek out. We provide you with hypertext links to those sites in the text below.

Before you go online, however, don’t forget what you know as an organizer. The first and most important thing to do is to set up a process for the committee and veteran workers to compile all they know about the employer. We need to honor this knowledge. Use the ten questions we list below as a way to organize that discussion. You may have already gathered some of this information as part of your house calling and mapping of the workplace. Sometimes this information is unsystematically and contradictory, but it is a great starting point for your investigation. And instead of doing the online work alone, why not work collaboratively with your committee and activists on the research? You will not only benefit from spreading the work around, but also build important new skills and capacity in the committee and among activists to access information about their employer. Doing this work also provides you with a new skill set that has wide applications—one that will allow you to better communicate with researchers and other organizers in the future.

Below are ten questions every organizer should know the answers to and some very quick and easy ways to find that information online. We don’t intend to be comprehensive here; we just include a few sites to get you going and not overwhelm you or your committee.

  1. What type of employer are you organizing? Before you can begin conducting research on a specific firm, you will first need to identify what kind of employer your organizing targets: a publicly traded firm (trades stock on one of the exchanges); a privately held firm; or a registered nonprofit. To check if your target firm is publicly traded in the United States, go to Yahoo Finance and enter your firm’s name. The site will tell you if the firm is listed on one of the exchanges and provide its ticker symbol. If it does not show up, then it is either privately held or a nonprofit. To determine if your organization is a registered nonprofit in the United States, go to the Candid or the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS). It will identify if your firm is a registered 501(C). If your firm is not publicly traded or a nonprofit then it is most likely privately held. The kinds of information and where you can find it varies by employer type. Firms that trade on one of the U.S. stock exchanges are required to disclose information on a regular basis to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).  The most commonly used are Form 10-K (Annual Report) and Form DEF14A (Proxy Statement). The SEC provides a complete list of information it collects, as well as Researching Public Companies through EDGAR. If there is a primary document for privately held firms, it is the Dun & Bradstreet (D&B) report. The world of business is based on credit; some firms order supplies, and other firms send them, and the basis of this exchange is credit. This is where the D&B credit reports come in. Dun & Bradstreet is the major firm providing these reports to businesses; they have over 195 million records worldwide. For a large firm there may be a D&B report for its parent company as well as a number of divisions or locations. D&B charges between $150 and $200 for each report, but the information on small privately held firms can be especially helpful when little other information is available elsewhere. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) defines nonprofits as organizations that hold 501(c) status. This status exempts firms from paying certain federal income taxes. Official nonprofit organizations are required to disclose information on an annual basis to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) on Form 990. Form 990, like the Form 10-K that private sector publicly traded firms file, is the key primary document for not-for-profit researchers. The IRS provides an overview of the contents of Form 990, including its 12 parts and 18 schedules. Candid and the National Center for Charitable Statics (NCCS), provide access to Form 990. Regardless of the employer firm’s type, it is important to familiarize yourself with the firm’s webpage. For publicly held companies go to the ‘investor relations’ section. Look for a recent presentations to investors and quarterly conference calls.
  1. What is the firm’s history and corporate strategy? Employers are not static, and it is imperative to understand where they have come from and where they are going. The company website is an excellent place to start investigating its history. A general news search may be helpful for more recent history. For older materials use Google News Archive or the Wayback machine, which allows you to look at historical websites back to 1996. Sometimes a firm is very explicit about its corporate strategy on its website or in its annual report. Other times you may have to ferret it out or piece it together from other sources. A general news search may yield recent press releases or interviews with the CEO that would allow you to determine a firm’s corporate strategy.
  1. Who manages the firm and serves on its board? For publicly traded firms Form DEF 14A (the Proxy Statement) from the SEC is the best place to get information on management and board biographies and compensation. It is available from the SEC’s Edgar web site. The company annual report and company website typically also include biographical information of management. For privately held firms, management and board information is available on the company website and in the D&B report. The organization’s website is the best way to find out information about nonprofit managers and board members. While Form 990 does not provide general information on managers, both Part VII and Schedule O report the compensation of officers, directors, trustees, key employees, and the most highly compensated employees. Section A of Part VI of Form 990 provides detailed information on the Governing Body and Management. This includes information on the number of voting members, whether there are business or family relationships between the board and management, and provides answers to a variety of questions about how decisions are made, all of which may tell you a great deal about how the nonprofit is managed. Candid and the National Center for Charitable Statics (NCCS), all provide access to Form 990. Little Sis and Rank and Filed allow you to search by individual, and shows how they connect to others in industry and government.
  1. Who are the stockholders? Yahoo Finance provides basic information on major stockholders and holdings of management and board members, as well as recent insider trades. MSN Money provides similar information. Form DEF 14A (the Proxy Statement), available from the SEC’s EDGAR database, provides information on 5% stockholder and ownership by management and the board. Little Sis and Rank and Filed can help you here, too.
  1. How can you assess the firm’s finances? There is no way to make yourself a financial analyst overnight, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dip your toe into the water. Do try to avoid the classic pitfall of first-time financial analysts by mistaking revenue or the stock price as an indicator of the company’s financial success. (Net income, the bottom line of the income statement, is what matters, not revenue; stocks go up and down for many reasons sometime disconnected from the company’s financial health.) First-timers looking at publicly traded firms should start by reviewing the financial news available from Yahoo Finance. This will give you access to both what the company is releasing and what analysts are saying about it. For the more adventuresome, go to the “Key Statistics” tab and review some of the key financial ratios, which will allow you to look at your target firm over time and compare it with other companies. Start with “Return on Equity,” “Debt to Equity,” and “Current Ratio.” For more information go to our Financial Analysis for Union Researchers or one of the many guides to corporate finance online, such as Merrill Lynch Guide to Understanding Financial Analysis. For privately held firms, the D&B report provides extensive information about how your target firm pays it bills. This information allows you to identify its areas of activity and its record of on-time payments. Many, but not all, D&B reports include some limited income statements and balance sheet information. Form 990 contains basic financial information in Part VII, the Statement of Revenue; Part IX, Statement of Functional Expenses; Part X, Balance Sheet; Part XI Reconciliation of Net Assets; and Part XII, Financial Statements and Reporting. Candid and the National Center for Charitable Statics (NCCS) provide access to Form 990.
  1. Where can you find information on the firm’s industry? It is fundamentally important to understand your firm in the context of the larger industry in which operates. The best way to learn about an industry is to consult industry publications. You can find these using a general news search or by consulting Web Wire. Industry publications often provide a great deal of information about current trends in the industry as well as comparative data on the industry’s top players.
  1. What can you learn about a firm’s suppliers, transportation methods, and customers? No need to waste your time with mostly inferior online sites, when you have the best resource at your fingertips—the workers.
  1. How does your target firm rate on safety and health issues? Begin at the OSHA web site. Go to “Data and Statistics” and select “Establishment Search” to search for your target firm. If your company has made recent acquisitions, you will need to search under those names as well. The most detailed information is available on the OHSA 300 Logs (log of work-related injuries and illnesses) that employers must keep onsite; they are not available online. Current employees, former employees, and union representatives have Access to the OSHA 300 log.
  1. Does your target firm comply with environmental regulations? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides information on environmental regulation and compliance. You can search their Enforcement & Compliance History Online (ECHO) by both employer and location. The Right to Know Network is a clearinghouse for a number of databases from the EPA.
  1. Does your target firm have a political agenda or affiliation? The Center for Responsive Politics provides comprehensive information on political contributions at all levels of the federal government. You can search by both employers and individuals. Follow the Money, the National Institute on Money in State Politics website, provides comprehensive information on state politics.

Summarize and Analyze What You have Learned

Once you have completed gathering information in these ten areas, it is important to step back to summarize and analyze what you have found. This is always best done as a collaborate endeavor. Again, involve the committee and consider this a good time to connect with researchers or other organizers in your union. Items you may want to consider include:

  • In what areas has your research confirmed what you and the workers believe to be true about the employer?
  • In what areas does your research contradict or complicate what you and the workers know about the employer?
    • Has your research provided definitive information?
    • Does additional research need to be conducted?
      • Can that be done internally, or do you need to reach out to others?
  • How can what you have confirmed about the company be used in your campaign?
    • How does it expand your critique of the firm?
      • What is your strategy for using this information?
    • Have you identified secondary targets that might be leveraged?
      • What is your strategy and timing for using this information?