Very glad to hear you and your co-workers are interested in protecting your rights and improving working conditions!
Assuring employees have the right to organize (right to collective bargaining) is the fundamental purpose of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in the private sector. The labor relations laws in the public sector are the same or similar. The NLRA states in its preamble:
"It is declared to be the policy of the United States to eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to the free flow of commerce and to mitigate and eliminate these obstructions when they have occurred by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self- organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection."
The full preamble to the NLRA is a strong statement of why unions are important. You can read the entire statute here: http://www.nlrb.gov/national-labor-relations-act.
The NLRA makes it an unfair labor practice to restrict the rights of employees to form unions:
Sec. 7: "Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection, and shall also have the right to refrain from any or all of such activities except to the extent that such right may be affected by an agreement requiring membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment as authorized in section 8(a)(3) [section 158(a)(3) of this title]." (NLRA, 29 U.S.C. § 157)
Sec. 8. [Unfair labor practices by employer] "It shall be an unfair labor practice for an employer--
(1) to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in section 7 [section 157 of this title]" (NLRA, 29 U.S.C. § 158(a))
Only employees of the employer can organize into unions. Whether contract workers meet the definition of "employee" depends on many factors which are too detailed to go into here on Avvo.
About the e-mail sent to the CEO: Employers can reasonably restrict the use of their property and workplace. It may be reasonable to prohibit employees from using the employer's computers, e-mail system, server, etc. during work hours for non-work purpose, and it may be legal to prohibit employees from engaging in non-work activities while on the clock. However, if the employer allows employees to use its property or employee work time for other non-work reasons, such as exchanging recipes or jokes, selling Girl Scout cookies, social interactions and more, then the employer must allow employees the same use for organizing. Otherwise, the employer is discriminating against employees trying to organize, which is exactly what the NLRA prohibits.
During rest and meal breaks, employees are permitted to communicate about anything they want. If the employer ignores break time communication except about organizing, it is violating the NLRA. And it would be a violation of California's wage and hour laws to prohibit employees from using their break time however they want, with very few exceptions.
I suggest you look at the web page of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB enforces the NLRA. There is a lot of very helpful information on the site: www.nlrb.gov. Also, contact the closest Labor Council office which can connect you to a union in your industry with which you can go over details. The LA County Federation of Labor is closest to you: http://launionaflcio.org/.
You can also meet with one or more union attorneys to learn and discuss your rights, and strategy for organizing.
Marilynn Mika Spencer
twitter.com/MikaSpencer *** All legal actions have time limits, called statutes of limitation. If you miss the deadline for filing your claim, you will lose the opportunity to pursue your case. Please consult with an experienced employment attorney as soon as possible to better preserve your rights. *** Marilynn Mika Spencer provides information on Avvo as a service to the public, primarily when general information may be of assistance. Avvo is not an appropriate forum for an in-depth response or a detailed analysis. These comments are for information only and should not be considered legal advice. Legal advice must pertain to specific, detailed facts. No attorney-client relationship is created based on this information exchange. *** Marilynn Mika Spencer is licensed to practice law before all state and federal courts in California, and can appear before administrative agencies throughout the country. She is eligible to represent clients in other states on a pro hac vice basis. ***
There are generally strict rules that govern attempts by employees to organize. However, the rules change if you are a member of an existing union with bargaining rights. I am going to suggest you take your questions to a local labor law attorney who will be able to sort the issue better than this board can in the space allowed.
I am licensed in New Mexico and Pennsylvania, and therefore any discussion of issues related to other states must considered within that context. In addition, my comments are not intended to create a legal representation but merely to respond to the limited facts presented by the question. Any opinion herein is not meant as a precise statement of legal rights or as a recommendation of any particular course of action. A more complete legal review can be obtained through local counsel.