If you plan it right, you do.

Sales development representatives. Custodians. Editors. Hostesses. Warehouse team members.

There are countless job titles out there, making the process of determining who exactly is eligible to be a member of any given union seemingly impossible at first.

Email marketing managers. Associate directors. Deputy chiefs of staff.

Particularly in the non-profit and larger corporate worlds, some of the titles like those listed above may appear more senior than they actually are.

You might assume at first that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the governmental body in charge of overseeing private sector unions in the U.S., sets the goalposts for a bargaining unit and its membership, but this is not always a given. Think of the NLRB as a referee, often intervening only when there’s disagreement over things like a card signature, ballot in a union vote, or, in this instance, a membership consideration dispute between workers and management.

So, who counts?

It’s helpful to literally map things out in the early stages of the process, both from a physical perspective (see the image above) and from an organizational one, asking and spreadsheeting out the following: who reports to who; who’s in charge of what; who’s pissed at management; and what’s everyone’s personal contact information, among other things? Read more on this aspect of organizing here.

What’s a ‘Community of Interest’?

Weigh the similarities that bind potential members of your union from the start and create the strongest case for what’s called a “Community of interest.” When a union wins an election and enters the final steps of certification, the NLRB will consider the members as a whole, verifying that there is a “Community of Interest”, or sufficient commonality (similar job description, the same supervisor, similar pay, and benefits, etc.), before ultimately signing off on the group of staff that your bargaining unit will advocate on behalf of.    

For guiding questions to think about for your “Community of Interest” and strategies to consider when structuring your bargaining unit, read this piece.

Who’s considered a supervisor?

In short: supervisors, managers, bosses, team leads, or whatever your company decides to call them are those who can hire, fire, and discipline you and your coworkers. They can’t legally be members of your union. Note that sympathetic supervisors are less common to come by, but are always appreciated.

Here’s the longer definition: the term “supervisor” means any individual having authority, in the interest of the employer, to hire, transfer, suspend, lay off, recall, promote, discharge, assign, reward, or discipline other employees, or to responsibly direct them, or to adjust their grievances, or to effectively recommend such action, if in connection with foregoing the exercise of such authority is not of a merely routine or clerical nature, but requires the use of independent judgment.

Understanding a ‘Community of Interest’ in practice

When cards are first submitted to the NLRB, management has the ability, whether in good faith or not, to challenge their legitimacy by contacting the Board. While it handles these disputes in myriad ways, the NLRB can ask management for a list of the full staff, which the Board will then use to cross-reference with the names on the submitted cards. Please note that at no point in the process will they share the names of card signers with your boss.

When it comes time to schedule an election, management will submit a list of contact information of who they deem to be eligible voters. In the ensuing campaign, including the ballot-counting process, both sides are allowed the opportunity to challenge the validity of a voter and their eventual vote.

After an election, unions propose the bargaining unit definition, a list of eligible member job titles, and a “Community of Interest”  through what’s called an RC form. Management has an opportunity to respond with a list of people that they view should be included in that bargaining unit. Either side has the opportunity to dispute each step of the way.

Especially if you’re just getting started, this may seem like a lot to take in, but it’s important to know that you need to be strategic about who your union represents from the outset and be able to see through the sometimes murky lines that divide you and your coworkers from management.