Unionize Your Workplace

So, you're tired of being undervalued and underpaid? Do you want a voice at work? Unions exist to do just this. Typically, unions win increased wages and benefits, better job security, and more favorable work arrangements for their members through collective bargaining with an employer or business owner. However, because these things usually mean increased expenses for your employer, management is likely to push back against a unionization attempt. See Step 1 below to start fighting for your rights as a worker.


Making an Informed Choice

  1. Understand how unions work. In the United States, unions are a divisive topic. Some laud them as some of the few organizations fighting for the rights of common people, while others decry them as bastions of corruption and laziness. Before trying to unionize, it's important to understand how unions function in an objective way - free of bias either in favor of or against unions.
    • In a union, the employees at a workplace agree to band together (either on their own or with employees from other workplaces) to collectively negotiate for any number of things - higher wages and better working conditions, for instance. If enough people in the workplace agree to join in a union and the union is made official, the employer is required by law to negotiate a contract with the union, which represents all the workers, rather than with each worker individually, as the employer normally would.
    • Collectively, workers in a union have greater negotiating power than they do individually. If, for instance, a worker who isn't in a union demands higher wages or better treatment, she or he can often be ignored - the worst-case scenario for the employer is the employee will quit and someone else will have to be hired. If, however, the workers band together in a union and demand better treatment, the employer has to take notice - if all the workers agree to stop working (in an action called a "strike"), the employer has no way to run the business and is out of luck.
    • Finally, members of a union have to pay "dues" - fees that are used to run the union itself, pay pensions, pay union organizers and lawyers, lobby the government for favorable policy-making, and some use a portion of dues to a "strike fund" - money used to pay union members so they'll be able to support themselves during a strike. The amount of money paid as dues varies based on the decision of union members or leadership, depending on how democratically-run your union is. The goal of a union is for increased pay and better working conditions to more than outweigh the cost of membership.
  2. Know your rights. Often, the management at a business will try to discourage employees from forming a union, as union workers usually get higher pay and better working conditions than non-union workers. It's important to know your legal rights when it comes to forming a union so you can protect yourself and, if necessary, fight back against any illegal action by your employer.
    • In the US, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) details the rights of union members as well as would-be union members. Most courts have decided the Section 7 of the NLRA dictates the following legal mandates:[1]
      • Employees may discuss the idea of forming a union and distribute union literature during non-work time and in non-work places - like, for instance, a break room. They may also display their union support through clothing, pins, jewelry, etc.
      • Employees can ask other employees to sign petitions regarding the formation of a union, specific employment grievances, etc. Employees can also ask employers to recognize these petitions.
    • Additionally, most courts agree that Section 8 of the NLRA provides the following protections:[1]
      • Employers cannot offer raises, promotions, or other incentives to employees if they agree not to unionize.
      • Employers cannot close down a work site or otherwise transfer work away from certain employees because of union affiliation.
      • Employers cannot fire, demote, harass, dock pay from, or otherwise punish employees because of union affiliation.
      • Finally, employers also cannot threaten to do any of the above acts.
  3. Don't believe common myths. Because it's difficult for employers to legally discourage unions through direct intervention, many will resort to myths, distortions, and outright lies to dissuade employees from forming or joining a union. If your employer spreads any of the following rumors, recognize that they are inaccurate and inform your fellow workers of this fact:[2]
    • Union dues aren't worth it. In fact, the goal of union dues is to allow negotiation that is more effective so your increased wages and improved work conditions more than counteract the cost of membership. Additionally, its members determine a union’s dues structure, and the members must vote on any changes to it. Dues aren't paid until the union negotiates a contract that's approved by the members.
    • Union supporters will lose their jobs before they can form a union. It's illegal to fire or punish someone because of his or her union sympathies.
    • By joining a union, you'll lose the benefits you have now. It's illegal for employers to withdraw benefits because of employees' union sympathies. Besides this, your current wages and benefits stay in effect until the members of the union (that includes you) decide on a different contract.
    • You'll lose everything when you're forced to go on strike. Despite the popular misconception, strikes are exceedingly rare. The OPEIU (Office & Professional Employees International Union) reports that only about 1% of contract negotiations result in a strike. Additionally, if you join a larger union, rather than organizing your own, you'll likely have access to a strike fund, from which you'll be paid during the strike.
    • Unions are unfair to employers or take advantage of employers' kindness. The goal of a union is to negotiate an agreement between the employer and the employees - not to rob the employer or drive him or her out of business. No employment contract comes into effect until both parties agree to it. Finally, if an employer doesn't pay a reasonable wage for an employee's work and see to it that working conditions are safe and reasonable, the employer is actively doing the employee a disservice by robbing him or her of the opportunity cost of his or her time, to say nothing of his or her wellbeing.

Getting in Touch with a Union

  1. Find a local union, if so desired. When it comes time to unionize, you can legally form your own independent union with members only from your workplace. This is a valid, reasonable option. However, employees at many workplaces prefer instead to join a larger union, which, owing to the fact that it has more members, will have greater resources at its disposal when it comes to representation and negotiation. You can search a complete list of unions in the U.S. at http://www.unions.org/. Additionally, local unions are usually listed in the yellow pages or other business directories under "labor organizations."[3]
    • Don't be intimidated by unions' names - unions that originally represented employees of one profession now represent many different types of professions. It's not unusual, for instance, for office workers to be a members of the United Auto Workers. Below are just a few examples of active unions in the US:
      • Driving and delivery (Teamsters - IBT)
      • Structural steel erection (Iron Workers - IABSORIW)
      • Electrical / Communications (Electrical Workers - IBEW / Communications Workers - CWA).
      • The Steelworkers Union (USW) is a good example of a multi-trade union. It counts members in the fields of nursing, police, fire, general factory, and more, but, to be clear, not all the workers in these jobs that join unions have chosen the Steelworkers.[4]
  2. Contact the union of choice. If you can, call the local union office directly - if you can't, contact the national or international office to be put in contact with the local office. Even if the union isn't interested in representing you, they may be able to recommend you to another union that is or may provide free resources to you.
    • Reasons why a union may not want to represent you may include the fact that your workforce is too small or that you're involved with an industry the union isn't comfortable with or isn't qualified to represent.
  3. Communicate what you’d like to do. If the union is interested in representing you, it is likely that you'll be put in contact with a member of the local union’s organizing committee. Different unions may employ different methods of organizing based on type of work and employer. Working with the local organizers allows you to access seasoned union personnel who have experience organizing unions and negotiating fair contracts. Many, but not all aspiring union members find this to be the best way to organize their workplace.
    • Provide as much information as possible. Most unions will be interested in knowing how many people work at your workplace, where they work, types of work performed and the current wage and benefit levels. Unions will also want to know specific grievances you have with your employer - for instance, pay inequality, unsafe conditions, or discrimination, so have these complaints ready.

Forming a Union in Your Workplace

  1. Be ready for plenty of opposition. To put it bluntly, most employers welcome a union like the plague. This is because it will likely cost the employer more to have a unionized work force due to the increased costs of labor and benefits associated with it. These additional costs can reduce the amount of profit the employer enjoys, meaning there may be less for them to keep. Some employers will stop at nothing to prevent this from happening; some will even resort to illegal tactics. Be prepared for animosity both from your employer and from their close confidants. Experienced union organizers can tell you exactly what to expect.[5]
    • One good rule is to be especially careful not to "mess up" on the job in any way. In other words, your employer can't legally fire or punish you for trying to form a union, but if you give them any other reason to, they may jump at the opportunity.
    • Remember that, if the organizing drive is successful, the employer will no longer be able to dictate the terms of employment, but will be obligated by law to negotiate in good faith with your union representatives. Also remember that, while the employer may try to fight unionization efforts, s/he cannot legally penalize you for trying to start a union, even if you're unsuccessful, provided you follow the law as outlined in the NLRA (see section 1).
  2. "Feel out" your workplace. For a union to have a chance of forming, the majority of workers in your workplace will need to support it. Talk to your fellow workers - are many of them unhappy with their treatment or pay? Do any of them have reason to suspect unfairness, favoritism, or discrimination? Have many been left in dire financial straits due to cancelled benefits, etc? If most of your fellow workers seem discontented, you may have a good chance of forming a union.
    • However, be careful where and to whom you raise the prospect of unionizing. Members of your company's management naturally have a stake in the status quo - they stand to make less money if their employees unionize. Also beware of any "favorite" employees or people who have close relationships to the management, as these people may not keep your secret. At first, try to involve only people who you know and trust.
  3. Gather information and support. Research your industry - are there other workers in your industry (or employed by your competitors) who are unionized? Who are your strongest allies in the workplace? Who is willing to help you in your efforts to organize? Are there any local politicians or community figures who are sympathetic to your cause? Organizing a union is hard work - not only will you have to organize the union itself, but you may also need to take part in rallies and community outreach efforts. The more friends and resources you can secure early on, the greater chance you have of succeeding.
    • As you gather allies and ammunition for your unionization effort, try to remain discrete. The farther you can get without your management learning about your plans to unionize, the better.
  4. Create an organizing committee. If your union is to succeed, it needs not just the broad support of the workers in your workplace, but also a strong sense of direction provided by determined leaders. Meet with the people who have pledged their support, and, if you've appealed to a larger union, their representatives (again, you may want to do this discretely so as not to notify the management at your workplace). Decide upon a coalition of the most dedicated union supporters - in the early stages of union formation, these people will act as the leaders of the organization movement, motivating employees to take action and spearheading efforts to gain support.
  5. Demonstrate support for your union to the NLRB. Next, you'll want to be able to show strong, broad support for you union to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a neutral governmental agency. This usually means getting as many workers in your workplace as possible to sign special forms called "authorization cards" declaring their desire to be represented by a union. To get the NLRB to hold an anonymous election to determine whether your workplace will unionize, you'll need 30% of the workers to sign such cards.
    • Note - these authorization cards must specify that, by signing, a worker is declaring his or her intention to be represented by a union. If the card says only that, by signing, the worker is declaring his or her support for a vote on the matter of unionization, they're not valid.
    • Often, to garner support, organizing committees will throw rallies, host speakers, and distribute literature to educate workers about their rights and encourage union membership. Consider these tactics to increase support for your union.
  6. Have an NLRB-sponsored election. When you get at least 30% of the workers to pledge their unionization support, you can file a petition with the NLRB to hold an official election in your workplace. When it receives the petition, the NLRB will investigate to ensure the union support is genuine and wasn't coerced. If it finds that it is, the NLRB will negotiate with your employer and with your fledgling union to schedule an election. This election usually takes place at your workplace, and can take place at multiple times to ensure workers from all shifts get a chance to vote.
    • Note that your employer can, and often will, challenge the legitimacy of your petition and/or worker support as demonstrated by authorization cards.
    • Note also that this process is very complicated and the procedure in these steps are simplified. Contact the NLRB for exact, specific rules, which may vary based on your employer and state.
  7. Negotiate a contract. If your union wins the election, it becomes officially recognized by the NLRB. At this point, your employer must negotiate a collective contract with your union by law. During your negotiations, you'll be able to address specific workplace grievances, try to introduce new working arrangements, fight for greater pay, and more. The specifics of your contract are up to your union leadership, your employer, and, of course, you, as contracts have to approved by a union vote before they go into effect.
    • Note that, while unions allow you to negotiate collectively, they don't guarantee your offer will be accepted by your employer. Remember that negotiation is a back-and-forth process - you may not get exactly what you want. However, rest assured that, on average, union workers make about 30% more than their non-union counterparts.[6]


  • Choose how to start organizing your union by limiting discussions about organizing to trusted coworkers initially. Talking about it with the owner's son or daughter is probably going to be a bad idea. As soon as management learns about union organization attempts, the sooner they can begin a campaign to oppose the effort by taking action against individuals (aggressive work rule enforcement) or as a whole (meetings). Eventually, all affected employees will have the opportunity to vote for or against union representation.
  • Employers have also been known to provide raises to employees "out of the blue" in an attempt to show that a union isn't needed to get a raise. Organizing drives often see this as one of the first steps that they are being successful.
  • Employers will often use tactics to dissuade employees from joining a union. Many times, they are delivered to employees in a "captive audience meeting". This is a "mandatory attendance" meeting the employer uses to explain all the terrible things that "will" result if the company unionizes. Threats of shop closure, job loss, wage and benefit reductions, corruption of union officials, etc. are all common stories.


  • It is possible that an employer will attempt to terminate an employee that is helping to organize the workplace. While illegal for the employer to do this, it does not prevent them from terminating someone that has been late or missed a day of work. Be careful and adhere to the work rules during this time. Do not give an employer cause for termination. The stronger you are in union with your co-workers, the more power you have to dissuade this or fight it if it happens.
  • The choice is yours. In a right-to-work state, you do not have to join the union and you do not have to pay them any money. In a non right-to-work state, such as Ohio and others, you still do not have to join any union and can resign your union membership at anytime. You may be required to pay dues and can apply for a refund for what the union cannot prove is related to collective bargaining, grievance adjustments and allowable expenses. The Right to Work Foundation provides free legal assistance if you need their services. You should know, however, the "Right to Work Foundation" is anti-Union and is overwhelmingly funded by businesses who openly advocate against labor unions and in favor of union-busting legislation.
  • If a union comes into your workplace, make sure they tell you that you have the right to join the union or not join the union. You may also resign your union membership at anytime. Make sure they tell you about your "Beck Rights".

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