The phrase “collective bargaining” is said to have been coined by the socialist economist and labor historian Beatrice Webb back in the late 1800s. While new forms of labor and technologies have drastically changed our relationship to work since those days, what remains the same is anyone’s ability to organize their colleagues to negotiate for fair wages, benefits, or other protections on the job.

Beatrice Webb pictured above. Care of: WikiCommons

Sometimes the word union and phrase bargaining unit are used interchangeably, but knowing how one functions in relation to the other under U.S. law is key in the early stages of organizing your workplace. A bargaining unit is a group of workers with similar interests that are represented by a single labor union. A labor union or company may have multiple bargaining units. For example, at a restaurant, cooks may be in one bargaining unit while waiters are in another.

Bargaining unit structure

When you and your coworkers first sit down to form a union, it’s important to establish a mutual understanding of which jobs will be negotiating together. There is no “one size fits all” solution, but generally the larger the bargaining unit the better, as long as it excludes staff in management roles and doesn’t break NLRB rules (more on this later). Remember: more workers means more power to negotiate.

Each set up presents its own advantages and disadvantages. A big bargaining unit can increase the potential for conflicts of interest among members, but also provide more leverage when threatening to strike in a fight against cuts in benefits, whereas a small bargaining unit may lack such influence, but will have a more united front during negotiations. In smaller workplaces with less than 100 people, all eligible workers are often structured into one bargaining unit.  

The takeaway here: making sense of the hierarchical and geographic layout of your organization is crucial from the get-go from both a practical and legal standpoint.

Creating a community of interest

When deciding which job titles to include or exclude from your bargaining unit, consider if all the titles belong to a community of interest.  In the case of private-sector unions, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will ask some of the following questions when determining if your bargaining unit members share enough interests to be recognized under federal law:

  • What is the group’s relationship to the employer?
  • Do the employees perform similar kinds of work?
  • Do the employees have contracts?
  • Do members work in similar environments, i.e. geographic locations, positions?
  • Do members currently have similar salaries and benefits?
  • Do members share supervisors?
  • Have members bargained in the past?
  • What is the size and structure of the unit?

Typically, only after a union election will the NLRB recognize a bargaining unit. Then its structure will be finalized. So, while you and your colleagues may have the dynamics, size, and structure of your unit strategically mapped out, to receive legal safeguards, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has the final say over who is covered by a unit and how it will look in the end.

For the public sector, bargaining unit freedoms and limitations are dictated by the various laws that govern the municipal, state or federal workers who are organizing. The New Jersey School Boards Association has an article called “Bargaining Units: Consolidations, Severance and Additions” and Andra S. Kapp writes in great detail about considerations of bargaining structure in “Anatomy of a Public Sector Bargaining Unit,” which you can read here and here, respectively.

Other considerations

Under Section 90(b)(c) of the National Labor Relations Act, security guards and non-security staff on the same payroll are barred from sharing a bargaining unit, but employers hold the right to recognize such a unit even if it was denied NLRB certification. Also, bargaining units cannot contain employees ineligible from unionizing under U.S. law. Be sure to check out our articles “What is a labor union?” and “Public vs. Private Unions” for additional info on legal protections.

Why should I care if my bargaining unit is well-designed?

There really is strength in numbers. Well-designed bargaining units are more likely to be cohesive, since the members they represent would have similar interests, be less likely to be changed by the NLRB, and sometimes more likely to win an election. Think about the Retail Wholesale Department Store Union organizing workers at an individual Amazon warehouse in Alabama versus trying to organize hundreds of thousands of employees nationwide.

Well-organized bargaining units have the power to make workplaces safer through negotiations or bring offices to a halt if needs aren’t met. Many studies show that when workers unionize, wages, benefits, and even public health outcomes can increase over time.