Five Basic Steps to Organizing a Union
Every workplace is different, and the needs of workers vary, below are some basic steps involved in winning collective bargaining rights and a union voice on the job.
To begin organizing a union at your workplace, start by quietly talking to a few of your co-workers (not supervisors!!) who you think may be interested in organizing and whom you also trust to be discrete. Some good arguments for forming a union are in this short article: “Six reasons to unite with your coworkers in a union.”
If there is sufficient interest, then start to very privately discuss workplace issues, what is involved in organizing a union, and making plans to contact a union. When you’re ready, contact a union representative to meet with your group to answer questions and help you develop a comprehensive organizing plan. That plan should include the following steps:
Step 1: Build an Organizing Committee
Crucial to the success of any union drive is recruiting genuine workplace leaders to join an organizing committee. That committee must be representative of all major departments and all shifts and reflect the racial, ethnic and gender diversity of the workforce. Organizing committee members must be prepared to work hard to educate themselves and their co-workers about the benefits of collective bargaining and workers’ right to organize. The committee must also educate co-workers about the impending management anti-union campaign.
Also at this step basic information about the workplace must be gathered including:
- workplace structure: departments, work areas, jobs, shifts
- employee information: name, address, phone, shift, job title, and department for each worker
- employer information: other locations, parent company, product(s), customers, union history
Step 2: Adopt An Issues Program
The committee should develops a program of union demands (the improvements you are organizing to achieve) and a strategy for the union election campaign. A plan for highlighting the issues program in the workplace is carried out through various organizing campaign activities. These activities (known as “concerted activity”) are protected by federal labor law under the National Labor Relations Act.
Stay focused on the main issues that unite the bargaining unit members. Failure to stay focused on the issues will allow the employer to distract everyone with talk of dues, strikes, fines, or how the union is a “third party” out to destroy workplace harmony, etc.
Step 3: Sign-Up Majority on Union Cards or a Petition
With support from your union advisors, the organizing committee must decide what is the best route to winning recognition from your employer.¹ The committee members ask their co-workers to join the union and support the union program by signing union authorization cards requesting an election or a petition demanding recognition. The goal is to sign-up a sizable majority. Once begun, the “card campaign” should proceed as quickly as possible.
Step 4: Win Union Recognition
Before turning to the labor board, it’s very common for workers to demand recognition directly from the employer. It’s a good idea to ask local elected officials, a member of the clergy, or other well-respected community leaders to accompany the committee for the initial meeting with the boss. The more the better! If the employer refuses, the community leaders should discuss reaching an agreement that would stop the employer from engaging in aggressive interference to intimate you and your co-workers’ from choosing a union.
The signed cards or group petition is used (and required) to request the state or federal labor board to hold an election. It will take the labor board a few weeks to determine who is eligible to vote and schedule the election. The union campaign must continue and intensify during the wait. If the union wins, the employer must recognize and bargain with your union. Winning a union election not only requires a strong, diverse organizing committee and a solid issues program, but there must also be a plan to fight the employer’s anti-union campaign.
Step 5: Negotiate a Contract
The organizing campaign does not let up after an election victory. The real goal of the campaign, a union contract (the document your union committee and the employer negotiate and sign, covering everything from wages to how disputes will be handled), is still to be achieved. Workers must be mobilized to support the union’s contract demands (decided by you and your co-workers) and pressure the employer to meet them.
Now That You’re Organized! Make It Your Union!
For a strong union, make your union democratic! But you don’t “go it alone,” either. Your union’s leaders and staff will be with you every step of the way — helping with everything from organizing to negotiating your first contract … and helping you learn how to build and run your own union.
I authored a more comprehensive outline for the organizing process in “Union Organizing Fundamentals.” Credit to the United Electrical workers union from which I borrowed the basic outline for this article.
¹ There are several major routes to union recognition for private sector workers: The first is by pressuring the employer to voluntarily recognize your union by providing reliable evidence of majority support. That could be either through a strike or walkout with majority participation or by mutually agreeing on a respected community leader do a card check. The second is through a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) supervised election. Public employees are governed by state laws, with a state agency overseeing the recognition process.