How to Form a Union
A step-by-step guide
Over the last couple of years, record numbers of American workers have walked off the job. That makes it sound easy, but as anyone who has done it knows, that’s a big decision. A recent survey found that 63 percent of workers who quit their jobs or left for a new job in 2021 did so because their pay was simply too low, and 57 percent said it was because they “felt disrespected at work.”
Does this sound familiar? Is there something happening in your workplace now, or in your workplace in the future, that you want to change?
Maybe you feel like you’re ready to take action to solve some of these problems in your workplace. More Perfect Union has covered many union drives and labor actions. But the statistical odds are, if you’re watching this from the United States, you probably aren’t in a union, or haven’t had the opportunity to join one. So where do you even start? How do you actually form a union?
We created this video to help provide a simplified guide to the basics of the process. While no short video or guide could give you all the organizing or legal advice you might need throughout the process, we hope this can be a good jumping-off point for you to learn the basics!
What’s a union, exactly?
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 on your own.
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.
Alternatively, 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.
Step 1: Talk to your coworkers.
The first thing you need to do is talk to your coworkers about forming a union. What are some problems that many of you are having in common? What are some improvements you want to make in your workplace?
There’s no one-size-fits-all way to start this process. 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:
- You need to have 1-on-1 conversations. It’s useful to think of an issue or two that matter to your coworkers, like that crazy increase in health care premiums we have to pay or the loss of paid time off.
- You should “map out” your workplace. 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. Knowing where you stand with your coworkers is key to a successful organizing campaign.
- 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.
Step 2: Connect with a union organizer and decide how you want to organize.
When enough of your coworkers are on the same page, you can reach out to a union and decide how you want to organize.
If you work for a big employer, there might be other workers already organizing in your workplace or in your industry at large. For example: most auto workers 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. Whether you decide to affiliate with a larger union, or to organize independently, you’ll work to develop an organizing plan for your workplace.
Step 3: Collect cards from your coworkers and get ready to file for an election.
To demonstrate to your employer that you want a union, you’ll ask other workers to sign union cards to show their support for representation,and present those to management and ask them to recognize the union.
Not every employer will resist you forming a union. And your boss can voluntarily recognize your union. And many employers do! Voluntary recognition just means that they see that there is enough interest in forming a union, and they say: “Great!” That means they choose, based on evidence that there’s majority support, to recognize the union as representative of the workers’ interests.
But what happens when they don’t voluntarily recognize the union?
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.
Otherwise, you’ll need to file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board.
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.” You technically only need 30% of your coworkers to show interest to file for an election, but in most typical workplace circumstances, you should feel confident that a majority of colleagues are already interested before filing. You’ll need at least a majority – more than 50% – of your coworkers to vote “yes” in the election to win your union.
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. Your union representative will be able to work with you to figure out who will qualify to be part of the unit.
Then, the NLRB will set a date for the election. Up until the election, you will keep campaigning. (And your employer will probably keep pushing back!) 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 that everything is fair. However, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s becoming more common to conduct union elections by mail, where workers mail their ballots into the NLRB, and the NLRB board agent counts them there and reports out the results.
Step 4: Know your rights, and be prepared for union-busting.
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.
One 2020 study noted that employers spent $340 million per year on “union avoidance” consultants. 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 unfair. Others may actually be against the law, but your employer is counting on the fact that you don’t know your rights.
There can be penalties for employers who violate your rights to organize and who try to fire you, take away shifts, or otherwise punish you for exercising your rights under the National Labor Relations Act (or NLRA). You can file an unfair labor practice charge, or ULP, with the NLRB, which will investigate and determine whether your employer violated your rights. If they are found to have done so, they may have to rehire you for the job, pay you back for wages lost while you were fired, or face other consequences.
It’s also important to anticipate the type of legal pushback that your employer may try against you and your colleagues. This could include closed-door meetings with supervisors where they will try to dissuade you from joining the union or mandatory anti-union “trainings.” The more you are prepared for anti-union smears or employer pressure, the better prepared you’ll be to help counteract disinformation and to talk to reluctant coworkers who may be nervous about joining the union.
What happens when you win?
So what are you trying to win? Once you win recognition or win your election, you and your coworkers will engage in collective bargaining with management. 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. Then you come to a collective bargaining agreement – or contract– which is the legal and binding result of that negotiation.
Don’t get us wrong – because of the way our labor laws are set up, and because workers always 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!
There are many clear benefits to forming a union. Some of those are material or legal gains in terms of wages, benefits, and job security:
- Workers in union contracts enjoy a 10.2% more in hourly wages than nonunion workers with similar education and experience in similar jobs.
- Union workers have more access to on-the-job benefits: 93% of union workers have paid sick days, compared to just 75% of nonunion workers; 94% of union workers have employer-provided retirement plans, compared to just 67% of nonunion workers; and union workplaces pay more than 77% more toward employee health plans than nonunion bosses.
- Union workers have better job security and legal protections: Union contracts usually have “just cause” requirements for firing an employee. For nonunion workers, every state in the U.S. except Montana operates under “at-will” employment laws, meaning you can legally be fired for basically any reason that isn’t discriminatory.
The process of forming a union can also be an empowering experience for you and your coworkers. It’s a process that can take advantage of lots of different skills – communication, empathy, organization and administrative skills, leadership and collaboration, and more – and your union will be stronger for including all of the diverse perspectives and experiences you’ll find in any workplace.
But in addition to the benefits that union contracts can provide to individual groups of workers, unions can also provide an important structure to make our society more democratic and more fair.
Around the world, countries like Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Sweden, and even some provinces in Canada have labor laws that make it much easier for workers to form unions than in the U.S. This didn’t happen by chance – it happened because workers and unions in those countries insisted on it. By forming a union, you and your co-workers can not only improve your own workplace – you can also help generate momentum for changing the rules so that everyone can have a union if they want one. And the more of us are in unions, the more power all of us have to make positive change.
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 or visit some of the online resources below to find out more. And remember: you are not alone. There is power in a union!
- Visit unionsforall.org
- Get in touch with the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee
- Research examples of unions at jobs similar to yours or explore Cornell’s list of labor unions in the U.S.
- Visit AFLCIO.org to search directories of local labor councils and AFL-CIO-affiliated unions
- Visit unitworkers.com