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How to Organize a Union and Other FAQs You Always Had

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Published: Nov 11, 2021

Distressed workers or groups with a vested interest in their welfare might often look for a comprehensive guide on how to organize a union. However, unionizing can prove to be a tricky business considering the outlooks and attitudes of employers towards them. 

But, according to US law, you have the right to unionize for worker welfare. If you are looking for directions to do so, here is the A-Z guide you were looking for.

In this blog post, we cover:

  • The five primary steps in the unionization process.
  • Legal rights of employees with regards to forming a union at work.
  • FAQs that come with the primary question of how to organize a union.

Let’s begin.

The 5 steps in the unionization process

The answer to your question of how to organize a union comes in five steps. It starts with discreet outreach inside the workplace and ends with the employer signing a contract that both parties are happy about. Here, we detail each step.

1. Spread information inside the workplace

Be discreet but develop a reach inside your target workplace. The first step of forming a union is establishing your presence (or raising awareness) within the workforce.

However, before you do this, you must also do some homework about the workplace and its employees. Start your research with the basics of:

  • Workplace structure: Understanding their departments, shifts, jobs, work areas, fieldwork areas, hierarchical structure. 
  • Employer information: Parent company, partner companies, products and services, history with unions, customers, pay structure, number of employees in different units.
  • Employee information: Name, contact information, addresses, job titles, departments, shift.

Once you have these data sets in hand, you know the units of workers that are your target audience. You also know which issues will move them and the way to convey that message. Appoint a Volunteer Organizing Committee (VOC) to relay your information, proposals, and issues inside the workplace.

(Step 1.5: The last phase of this step is to inform the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) of your interest in forming a union.)

2. Start gathering support and adopt an issues program

An issues program is a guide or documentation that lists all the workers’ issues that your union will adopt as part of their agenda or contracts that you will negotiate on behalf of the employees. 

Employers are liable to provide you with the full list of employees, complete with their contact information. Employees cannot opt-out of this list (at this point). That gives you a fantastic opportunity to put forth your case to the entire workforce (unless you want to keep certain employee units out of this).

Use the information at hand to start gathering support inside the workplace. Some ways to do so are:

  • Distribute pamphlets to workers before or after their shifts (if the non-target units aren’t present then).
  • Send SMS broadcasts and ask workers to reply with a keyword to confirm support.
  • Send cold emails to workers outlining your purpose, aims, and target issues.
  • Get your VOC to discreetly discuss your pointers and encourage them to unionize with you.

Once your communication with employees starts, you can conduct surveys and polls to determine how they feel about your proposals. 

An effective and efficient method to conduct surveys is via text messages

  1. Text messages have a 98% open rate and 45% response rate– giving a fair assumption that workers will respond to your surveys whether they have established support or not yet.
  2. With a peer-to-peer texting tool, you can conduct surveys solely over text. Your first text can begin the survey with a hook question and provide 1-5 options to select from. Depending on the answer, agents can then drive the conversation to go deeper into their perspective and nurture them.

Alternatively, you can send a broadcast message with a short, branded link to a survey in it. CallHub allows you to track links shortened in-house, thus giving you insight on click-through rates, people you clicked the link, and more. You can know more about this feature here: Measure engagement on text messages.

Your initial issues program is the information you spread in the workplace in Step 1. At this point, you are building on top of it and getting into the intricate details of the issues, picking up moods and opinions on their nuances, and forming what will be your final demands to the employer.

3. Run an organization drive in the workplace

There are two ways to get recognized by the NLRB as a union, but both require you to establish strong support in the workplace. You must run an organization-wide drive in the workplace to collect signatures that prove the support. Here are the two scenarios:

  • Signatures from 30-50% of employees: Start collecting signatures from workers as written proof of their support therein. The NLRB will require this to acknowledge you as a valid case to organize a union. If you secure between 30-50% signatures on union authorization cards, it shows a strong interest in unionization, and you can rightfully petition for an election. The NLRB holds a hearing and sets an election date.
  • Signatures from a majority of employees: Some petitioners wait until they get support from a majority of the employees. At this stage, speed is of the essence. If you secure signatures from 50%+1 employees before petitioning for elections, the NLRB can validate your request to organize a union without holding elections. This method is called the card check and is popular since it takes less effort and costs less than an election.

4. Win the election and get a recognition certificate from NLRB

Even with 30-50% signatures on your union authorization card, there is no guarantee of an election. The NLRB then needs to check who among the signees is eligible to vote (e.g., their employment status, relationship with unions, etc.). It may take up to weeks for this verification.

Meanwhile, you must continue collecting signatures to replace the invalid ones and still prove adequate support. 

Once the labor board schedules the election, you start preparing for more aggressive and open outreach. The employer will be campaigning for the downside of unionizing. You must counter and campaign actively (not just reactively).

Three crucial elements for your union campaign are:

A diverse and active organizing committeeTo establish relativity and contacts among the diverse workforce.
A strong issues and redressal programThe program must include the pain points and demands or hopes of the workforce. This program acts as your literature and campaign message while forming a union.
A plan to counter anti-union drivesWhile the issues program is an active campaigning tool, these counters can fight messaging and propaganda against you.

When you emerge victorious in the elections, the NLRB certifies you as a union, and the employer must recognize you as such. Now, you have completed all steps in organizing your union. But your work has only just begun.

5. Negotiate a contract with the employer

The battle for recognition until this point was to prepare for the war next. Please excuse the aggressive language; union negotiations are far less intense. But, the analogy stands. Once the employer has acknowledged your status as a union with majority support from their workforce, you follow these steps:

  • Draft a union contract. This document contains everything from wages and pay to the work environment, safety measures, benefits, and an understanding of how future disputes will be handled.
  • Get support from the workers (this part should be easy considering their established support for you). It is necessary to affirm their support once again because this union contract is your final document and will be shared with the employer. The earlier issues program was for the NLRB.
  • Get the employer to meet with your union and present the document.
  • Negotiate the terms until both parties are satisfied with them.
  • Get the contract signed by the employer.

These are the five stages of union organizing. Now, let’s move on to your legal rights and obligations concerning the process.

Unions, workers, and groups learning how to organize a union must know the basic rights and obligations before beginning the process. Here are some that will help you through the process while fighting misinformation.

  1. You hold the right to join, assist or form a union.
  2. When asked, employers must provide the full list of employees. This must include their name, contact details, work position, and other relevant details.
  3. Union members and organizers have the right to 
    • Distribute union literature
    • Wear union insignia (except in special circumstances)
    • Discuss the union with co-workers
    • Solicit union authorization signatures from employees
  4. Managers, supervisors, or senior workers are forbidden from spying, eavesdropping, pretending to do so, questioning, threatening, or bribing to get information about the unionization.
  5. They cannot punish, reprimand, discipline, demote, fire, or penalize workers for forming or trying to form a union. 
  6. If the employer restricts other non-work communications during work hours, they are within their limits to restrict union-related communications. They may take usual (but non-discriminatory) actions if workers are found to do so. However, employers cannot stop or limit workers from having such communications during non-work hours. 
  7. Unions and employers must both negotiate contracts in good faith. Unless the employer breaches this condition, they are under no obligation to accept a contract.

Source: NLRB.

FAQs surrounding how to organize a union

The question of how to organize a union comes with a few commonly asked follow-up questions. Here we answer five of them.

1. Is it illegal to organize a union? 

In simple terms, no. Organizing, forming, assisting, or joining a union is legal in the USA.

Source: NLRB

2. Can you be fired for organizing a union? 

Employers cannot fire you simply for organizing or joining a union. They are liable to a legal case if they discriminate against an employee or wage worker for unionizing. Employers cannot even threaten you explicitly or suggestively about firing you for joining or organizing a union.

Source: Donati Law.

3. Can my employer punish me for joining a union?

Any disciplinary action against an employee for joining or organizing a union, including demotions, penalty, or contract termination, is illegal. Employers cannot even threaten you with such action.

Source: NLRB

4. How many workers do you need to form a union? 

You need support from at least 30% of employees to rightfully ask the NLRB to conduct elections. If you collect signatures from more than 50% of the working capacity, the labor board can recognize you as a union without holding elections.

Source: NLRB.

5. How to contact a union organizer 

Here are some popular union organizers with their contact details. Check out their website and get in touch with them to organize a union at your workplace.

NameHow to ContactWebsite
The International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW)Website form or 1-800 2GET-UAW (1-800-243-8829).https://uaw.org/ 
The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial OrganizationsWebsite formhttps://aflcio.org/ 
Labor LabWebsite formhttps://www.laborlab.us/ 
International Brotherhood of TeamstersWebsite formhttps://www.teamstersjc42.com/ 
United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE)Website formhttps://www.ueunion.org/ 
UFCWWebsite form or (218) 728-5174- Office or (800) 942-3546- Toll-free https://ufcw1189.org/ 
Communications Workers of AmericaWebsite form or 202-434-1100https://cwa-union.org/ 

The way forward

Learning how to organize a union can feel daunting– with the multiple steps that need you to establish support from workers. But if your organization is working towards a good cause, collecting signatures and continual support shouldn’t be difficult.

The next step after forming a union is to collate files and data efficiently. These files will help you keep track of all members, streamline communications and nurture them to take action offline. For that, you need good software. Check out a list of our top picks here: Top 11 Union Membership Software to Attract, Engage and Nurture Members.

Feature image source: Aarón Blanco Tejedor/Unsplash.

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