So you want to form a union. We love that about you.
Let’s talk about how to make it happen.
The process of unionizing looks pretty simple on paper — it’s only a few steps, after all. But the success of each one of those steps requires teamwork, careful strategy and determination. Nobody said it would be a walk in the park, but when it comes time to reap the rewards of higher pay and greater equity, we think it’s worth it.
Below, we’ve outlined the core stages every unit needs to go through to become certified and receive those much-coveted legal protections.
Step 1: Research
Any workforce can decide to band together to implement change. But to see additional legal protections and maximum impact, gaining official recognition as a union is key.
Most workers who want to unionize can do so through the National Labor Relations Board, a Federal agency that has been overseeing fair labor practices since the 1930s. If you’re a full-time, private-sector worker, you can likely seek union recognition through the NLRB.
If you don’t fall under this umbrella, you can find recognition through a regional union that covers your industry. For reference, some of the strongest unions represent public-sector workers, like teachers and the police.
Regional and industry-specific unions have slightly different guidelines than the NLRB, so make sure you understand your eligibility to unionize and the specific processes you’ll need to follow.
Step 2: Building a united front
You, being hip to the benefits of collective bargaining, are already sold on the idea of unionizing. Now you need backup. This means talking to your coworkers and getting them on board, too.
Unionizing is a numbers game. Without a substantial amount of workers willing to organize, any dreams of collective bargaining can quickly go up in smoke. Having a unified workforce passionate about change is exactly what makes unions work so well.
Through careful conversations on breaks and after hours, your mission is to start raising support. (We have suggestions on how to do that.) As a reminder, you do not want to tip off management that you’re thinking of forming a union. Keep all communications off company-provided email addresses and messaging services.
Once you have a pro-union base of coworkers, your group should form a committee that organizes meetings, increases outreach and keeps tabs on the issues you all feel passionate about. Those issues will take center stage when your union eventually negotiates a new contract with management.
The important thing at this step is to keep talking to your peers and garnering as much support as possible — you need the majority of workers to commit to unionizing.
If your employer finds out what you’re up to:
For obvious reasons, management won’t love this development.
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for company leadership to step in and attempt to discourage workers from unionizing. They might use intimidation tactics (even though that’s illegal) or propaganda materials in an attempt to convince workers that unionizing is unnecessary.
Tune them out. They can be very persuasive, so it’s vital that your union continues educating workers and securing support. We’ve debunked some popular anti-union arguments employers love to lean on — make sure to discuss these tired talking points with your coworkers early on. By the time they hear them from your employer, workers won’t be as easily swayed.
Step 3: Collecting authorization signatures
Your unit has finally gathered a significant number of workers who want to unionize. But to score those coveted union protections, you’ll need to show the NLRB (or other governing entity) receipts that prove the majority of workers are in.
That’s where authorization signatures or “cards,” come into play. Basically, these signatures are a hardcopy or digital form to show they’re keen on unionizing.
It’s worth noting that your employer will never gain access to the names of workers who signed, unless your unit decides to make it public in an effort to garner more support.
If you’re unionizing through a local or industry-specific union, the authorization signature process may look different. You’ll need to follow their specific guidelines.
If you’re unionizing through the NLRB, they’ll do some investigating to make sure everyone who signed is eligible for union membership and that your workplace is qualified to unionize. If everything is in order, they’ll have your employer post announcements about the workers’ intent to unionize and schedule an election.
By the time your unit is talking about collecting signatures, it’s likely no longer a secret that change is afoot. At the latest, your employer will find out workers are moving to unionize when signatures are filed. The pro- and anti-union campaigns may intensify at this stage.
Keep on your coworkers to continue fighting for their voices to be heard through unionizing.
Step 4: Win recognition
You’ve got the will of the people behind you and your unit’s signatures have been filed and investigated. If you haven't gone the route of voluntary recognition, a process through which you call on management to recognize your union and negotiate an agreement, then it’s time for an election where workers will vote on if they want to unionize.
Workers will cast confidential ballots either in person or via mail. These elections are conducted by a NLRB or the organization you’re seeking representation through — not your employer. Like the election petition, your vote is completely confidential and your employer will not know which way you voted.
Rest easy knowing there’s no electoral college in a workplace election. It’s a pretty standard up-and-down vote. If a simple majority votes “yes,” then your union will be certified. Once that happens, your employer legally must recognize the union as a collective bargaining agent and meet to discuss a new contract.
Sometimes, elections aren’t even necessary. If an employer is cool about the whole unionizing thing — or understands that a majority of workers have signed a petition, they may choose to voluntarily recognize the union. This means that the union can be certified without the need for an election.
Step 5: Contract negotiation
Now for the fun stuff: Finally enacting change in your workplace.
Remember those issues you refined with your team while you were organizing? Now’s the time to make them a reality by negotiating a contract with your employer. Your unit still needs to be motivated and vocal about the proposed policies, because your employer will be on their A game at the negotiation table.
Your union representative will meet with your employer to discuss the changes you all want to see. Because unions are democratic, that representative won’t sign off on anything until your unit as a whole votes on it. Know that there may be some back and forth until the new contract is agreeable to all.
It’s important to note that once finalized, that contract isn’t set in stone forever. In the future, if your coworkers have other issues they want to advocate for, your union can renegotiate the contract to reflect more current concerns.
One last step…
And our favorite one: Enjoy your union status! By keeping your group motivated and engaged, you can continue to enjoy increased benefits and ownership over your workplace. And let’s face it: You’ve earned them.