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How To Form A Union: Two Chefs Explain

Workers across very different industries are organizing unions to advocate for their rights. But how do you actually form a union?

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Produced and edited by Sam Sanders, Brooke Shuman, and Anthony Mascorro

More workplaces have filed to form a union this year than in all of 2021. If you or your friends want to organize your workplace but aren’t sure where to start, this is for you. We worked with two chefs and spoke with workers who are unionizing their workplaces. Below is a full transcript of the video.

Sohla El-Waylly: [Dramatically takes the cap off of a pen]

Ham El-Waylly: [Energetically] You should map out your workplace! 

Sohla: [Laughing] That was aggressive.

Ham: I was trying to match the energy.

Sohla: I’ll do a less dramatic open…

Sohla: Hi! I’m Sohla. 

Ham: And I’m Ham. 

Sohla: And today we’re going to give you a recipe for how to form a union at your workplace. 

Ham: We’re also going to make a cake. 

Sohla: Don’t worry, it’ll make sense. 

Ham: You might have heard about some of the high profile union drives taking place across the country right now. 

Sohla: Over the last couple of years, a record number of American workers have walked off the job. 

Ham: A recent survey found that 63% of workers who quit their jobs in 2021 did so because their pay was simply too low, and 57% said it was because they “felt disrespected at work.” I feel like I should’ve said that in a Sarah McLachlan voice. 

Sohla: Does this sound familiar? Is there something happening in your workplace that you want to change? We talked to some workers that felt the same way.

Mary Jorgensen: I have been a nurse at the University of Wisconsin Health System for 17 years. I work in the inpatient operating room. 

Sherry Signer: I was a general care float nurse for the last 9 years.

Michelle Hejduk: I’m Michell Hejduk, I am a shift supervisor at Starbucks in Mesa, Arizona. I’ve worked for the company for 5 years.

Austin Hitch: My name is Austin Hitch. I’m a specialist at Verizon Wireless. I’ve been working there going on 9 years.

Jesse Mason: My name is Jesse Mason. I worked as a specialist at a Verizon store from August 2021 until just in April when I was fired for organizing a union.

Ximena Anleu Gil: My name is Ximena Anleu Gil. I am a grad student researcher and teaching assistant at the University of California Davis in the Department of Plant Biology.

Ham: They live all over the country, and have very different types of jobs. But they all have one thing in common: they were fed up at work, and they decided to do something to improve their workplace.

Austin: There needs to be a balance of power shifted back to the workers. And it’s starting, it’s starting right now.

Sherry: When the hospital pushed things too far, I said enough is enough.

Mary: It was just time. It was enough.

Sohla: More Perfect Union has covered a lot of union drives. And we know that the process can be both rewarding and extremely difficult. So where do you even start? We’re going to break it down for you step by step. 

Ham: Welcome to the Class Room, from More Perfect Union.

Sherry: I think the nurses just hit their breaking point. I know I did personally. When I’m on the floor taking care of my patients, I used to do whatever I could to not let them know how stressed I was. It had been 12 hours and I hadn’t eaten, gone to the bathroom once. We’re all just tired of defending that hospital. We’re tired of covering for them.

Mary: When I first started at UW in 2005, we did have a union. I took it for granted because it was such a great place to work. After Scott Walker passed Act 10 in 2011, they stripped bargaining rights for workers in unions. And now, it’s not such a great place to work. 

Mary: The pandemic obviously was incredibly stressful for everyone there. So many nurses left. They have PTSD. 

Michelle: We were watching the Starbucks workers in Buffalo and we were seeing what their complaints were. Short staff, not getting the tenured pay. Things like that that we were also experiencing.

Austin: I mean everybody complains about their work. It’s more than that. We were essentially told, “If you’re not happy working here, quit.” You can’t quit your way to workers rights, you can’t quit your way to what you deserve. I called the CWA, left a voicemail, and said, you know, my coworkers and I have been talking about unionizing. And they called me back the next day and told me about Jesse’s store also starting to unionize.

Sohla: The important thing to remember about a union is that it is not an institution that you form and then never think about again. It’s right there in the name – to form a union, you need to bring people together! It’s about joining with your fellow coworkers to solve problems democratically, because you are stronger together in your workplace than you are on your own. 

Ham: Think about it this way. When the CEO of a big corporation got hired, he or she sat down with the Board of the company to negotiate the terms of compensation and benefits. They reached an agreement that they felt was beneficial to both sides.

Sohla: But probably, when you joined the company, you were told to take it or leave it, no discussion, no negotiation. Unions help give workers a say, so that management isn’t dictating all the terms.

Jesse: What a union is, is just a structure of workers. It’s really important to have a union, but a union doesn’t do anything by itself any more than an empty school educates people by itself.

Austin: We all come together around one decision and we go to the bargaining table and we get to make our demands known.

Michelle: It’s such an amazing feeling, knowing that they have to actually take the time and listen to us. It’s not some  quiz that you fill out every once in a while at work. Like they actually have to hear this feedback

Ham: There’s no one-size-fits-all way to start this process. Forming a union is a little bit like baking. You have to know your oven, you have to know your tools. But you have to be ready to improvise! No one is going to know your workplace better than you! But there are some key steps that most successful union organizers would recommend that you take: 

Step 1: Talk to your coworkers.

Sohla: You need to have 1-on-1 conversations. Sometimes you might be the best messenger to talk to a co-worker. Sometimes you might need to identify someone who might be more effective. It’s useful to think of an issue or two that people care about, like that crazy increase in health care premiums we have to pay or the loss of paid time off.

Austin: When I first started talking with my coworkers, we weren’t talking about unionizing. We were talking about the problems that we all had to deal with at work every day.

Jesse: It’s a little bit of talking and a whole lot of listening. “Hey, what are your complaints about the workplace?” “What would you do if you could change Verizon for the better, what would you change about this workplace?”

Ham: You need to talk to your coworkers about the real issues that are driving you to organize and what you want the union to help you win. Winning PPE, getting assurance about raises, etc.

Ximena: We distributed surveys to get an idea of what the working climate was in our different campuses. More than 90% of UC workers are rent burdened. More than half of us have experienced or seen discrimination or harassment on the job. 

Ham: You should “map out” your workplace. Who works at the company? What are the different types of jobs they do? How much are they paid? As you have those conversations, you’ll need to keep track of who definitely wants to organize a union, who might need some more convincing, or who has concerns. 

Jesse: Once you develop this relationship with people, you can kind of drop in there, like, “Hey, what do you think of the Starbucks workers unionizing?”  “Hey, what do you think of this similar job to ours that is union? Do you know other people that are in unions?” And then you can kind of feel out from there, who’s going to be on your side, who’s passionate and fighting for you,  Who’s going to probably vote for you, but isn’t going to work with you the whole way to make it happen, and unfortunately you will find  a few people who are anti-union..

Ximena: I did hear people telling me things that this is not something that science or science students do. Because there’s this idea that in science, if you were a science grad student, you’re somehow paid more, or you have guaranteed funding. There was kind of like this idea of us versus them, but we have the same goals, we’re trying to improve people’s lives. 

Sohla: Knowing where you stand with your coworkers is key to a successful organizing campaign. 

Step 2: Connect with a union organizer

Sohla: When enough of your coworkers are on the same page, you can reach out to a union and decide how you want to organize. 

Ham: If you work for a big employer, there might be other workers already organizing in your workplace or in your industry at large. Like: most autoworkers already organize with the UAW, or many hospitality workers organize with UNITE HERE. Try reaching out to the relevant union and see if you can get plugged in.

Michelle: I previously, like in October had reached out to Starbucks Workers United from a fake email account that I made up. I didn’t want my name involved because I was like, I don’t know what I’m doing, who I’m talking to or anything. I think I signed, you know, from a west coast Starbucks. And I was just like, “Hey, like we’re watching you and we want to support you. How do we do this?” And they actually responded back and they were like, the best way to support is let’s talk about unionizing. And I was so nervous. I never responded. And I just kept that email there. And I had it available to me.

Mary: I started going to meetings at the SEIU office.  They were holding those four times a day once a week just to get some action plans going. We have an organizer that’s just amazing.And she’s super motivating and she has become one of my really good friends.

Ximena: The UAW, the United Auto Workers, historically has represented auto workers. However, it also represents many other industries, including aerospace, agricultural implements, and now more than 100,000 academic workers across the nation. I think it’s great to be part of so many people and coming from so many different industries, because academia is not alone in the world.

Michelle: So when it came time to the point of, you know, oh, let’s talk to Michelle, she’s the one that knows about the unions. I pulled that email back up, “I’m from the store in Mesa. Can we talk?” And that’s how it started. And two days later we filed.

Sohla: However you choose to affiliate, with a big union or independently, you will work to develop an organizing plan for your workplace.

Step 3: Collect cards from your coworkers and get ready to file for an election.     

Ham: To demonstrate to your employer that you want a union, you’ll have other workers sign union cards to show support and present those to management and ask them to recognize the union.

Jesse: What that card says is that you want to bargain collectively with the company through the union.

Mary: It’s not something that you can do if you’re impatient. It’s a lot of just walking up to people I don’t know, on my break of course, and ask them if they’ve signed a card, and if not why.

Sherry: It’s been a lot of work but very exciting. I’m asking them to put their faith and their trust into an organization that they may not know anything about. I’m asking them to agree to stand next to me as an ally.

Mary: We are at 98.9% of cards signed. 

Jesse: Remember that every single member of the union makes the union stronger. That you don’t just need a slim majority. You need as close to everyone as you can. 

Sohla: Not every employer will resist you forming a union. Your boss can voluntarily recognize your union. 

Ham: And some employers do! 

Sohla: Voluntary recognition just means that the employers sees that there is enough interest in forming a union, and they say: “Great!” 

Ham: But what happens when they don’t voluntarily recognize the union? 

Sohla: One option is to keep pushing. It is, after all, your choice, and if there’s clear evidence you and a majority of your co-workers support unionizing, your employer should respect this choice.    

Ham: Otherwise, you’ll need to file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board. I know this is getting technical but stay with us! Once you know that a majority of your coworkers are ready to vote yes for a union, you’ll file for what’s called a Representation Petition, or “RC.”

Sohla: This process will also involve determining who will be part of your bargaining unit. A “bargaining unit” just means the group of employees who will be represented by the union and by the contract with the employer. Then the NLRB will set a date for the election. Up until the election, you will keep campaigning. 

Ham: And your employer will probably keep pushing back!

Sohla: Workers will submit their ballots, and then it’s time to actually count the votes. Traditionally, this election would happen in-person at the workplace, with in-person observers sent by the NLRB to make sure that the rules are followed and everything is fair. The NLRB board agent counts them and reports out the results.

Step 4: Preparing for union-busting

Ham: Throughout this process, it’s important to know your rights and know what you might be up against. When your employer hears that you or coworkers are talking about organizing and forming a union, they’re probably going to fight back. 

Austin: One of the important things that you have to do early in an organizing campaign is, um, is to know what the company is going to say. So you can talk to your coworkers and tell them, Hey, the, the union busters they’re going to come in and they’re going to say, “Oh, we’re so sorry you’re so unhappy. We didn’t know. If you only would have told us, we could have fixed this. You don’t need a third party to come in and help you.” Those are direct quotes from the union-busters, essentially.

Sohla: One 2020 study noted that employers spent $340 million per year on “union avoidance” consultants. That means they might make you attend anti-union meetings so you can “learn all the facts” or they might have supervisors try to convince you that the union will be bad for you and your coworkers. Some of these tactics might be perfectly legal, even if they seem icky. Others are against the law but they’re counting on the fact that you don’t know your rights. 

Austin: When you’re in an organizing drive, the company has home court advantage. They can do all the union-busting they want on the clock. They can put you in what’s called captive audience meetings, or like they did for us in our store, they can pull you one on one or even two on one. We had two union busters in a room, one rep. And they’re just there to manipulate your emotions, to tell you that they’re going to fix everything, to tell you that, you know, you don’t need this union. 

Jesse: I wish I could sit here and tell you that it never happens because it’s illegal. But, I got fired from Verizon for unionizing, so it does happen. But the upside is that because it’s illegal, there are consequences to the company doing that.  The NLRB has a process to get people like me reinstated, who are illegally fired for unionizing. If you’re scared, that just means that there is someone who is making you scared. And the reason that the company is making you scared of unionizing is really that they’re scared of unionizing 

Step 5: You won! Now what?

Sohla: Once you win recognition or win your election, you and your coworkers will engage in collective bargaining with management. 

Ham: Collective bargaining is the term for the process of workers, as a group, negotiating with their bosses — things like pay, benefits, hours, and other working conditions. 

Michelle: Right now, we currently are in the collective bargaining process. And I would say that this is probably my favorite part. We’re sitting across from the company and we’re actually getting to say, “Hey, this is, this is what we want.” 

Ham: Then you come to an agreement – or contract– which is the legal and binding result of that negotiation.

Ximena: What we’re fighting for is a strong contract, a contract that guarantees that SRs are protected at the workplace that no SR faces housing insecurity or food insecurity.

Jesse: Once you have a contract, you’re going to pay a very small amount of your paycheck in dues. 

Sohla: Don’t get us wrong – because of the way our labor laws are set up, and because workers have to be ready and willing to take a stand to form a union, it can be very difficult to win. This process is fundamentally tilted in favor of employers. But that’s not a reason to give up – that’s even more of a reason to unionize! 

Ham: The facts are clear: workers represented by unions have higher wages than non-unionized workers, more access to on-the-job benefits, better job security, better training and professional development opportunities, and more.

Mary: The future is going to look great.  I mean, it won’t be immediate, but it’s, it’s gonna be fantastic.  People are going to be happy.  We’re going to feel safe.  We don’t feel safe now there, 

Ximena: I am optimistic that big changes will happen and they will happen because of our solidarity

Sohla: But other than the specific financial gains that unionizing can have for individual groups of workers, they can also provide an important voice to make our society more democratic and more fair. 

Sherry: Oh, if there were more unions in general, life would be better, 100% overall. We wouldn’t have all the money going into administrator’s pockets or CEO’s pockets. People could actually have happier work life balances. They could make livable wages, they’d have safe working environments. 

Ham: Forming a union can also be an empowering and even fun experience for you, connecting you more with your fellow workers. 

Mary: All this is fun. I like speaking, talking to people at work. I like getting people excited. I never thought that I’d like talking to people so much, but I do.

Sherry: This unionization effort has brought more meaning to my life, to make a difference and to make true change for my patients. Because I went into nursing to make a change and to help people.

Mary: Organizing this union, it’s meant the world to me. I think I found my new calling in life. 

Sohla: It’s hard to work together to make change. Unions provide an opportunity to put that into action on the scale of your workplace. 

Jesse: I think that pretty much everyone in America, no matter where in politics you’re on, you have this kind of big sense that there is some force that’s holding you down. If you watch Fox News they’ll tell you that it’s immigrants or they’ll tell you that it’s trans people. But it’s pretty obvious to me that the force in American life that is truly controlling us are these big corporations that have swollen in size, swollen in profits, while we get less and less benefit. And what I’ve learned is that I can channel this urge to do something, this urge to fight back in a productive direction by not doing it alone. I can form alliances with everyone at work, with people who are workers all across the country, and together we can fight back.

Austin: I mean, I guess what I wish I could have told my past self before we started this whole thing is just get it done sooner. I mean, especially right now it’s in the zeitgeist. Unions have a 70% positivity rate with the country right now. If there was ever a time to stand up and join a union, it’s right now. 

Ham: So if you’re ready – think about what you want at work. Think about which of your coworkers you’re ready to talk to. And if you think you’d like to take another step, contact a union organizer to find out more. 

Sohla: You’re not alone. There is power in a union. 

Mary: There is power in a union.

Michelle: There is power in a union. 

Sherry: There is power in a union.

Austin: There’s power in a union.

Jesse: There is power in a union.

Ximena: There is power in a union. 

Videography by Shirley Chan and Mark Caravella

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