Unionize Your Workplace.

Throughout 2023, U.S. labor unions achieved gains and made headlines. This past summer, members of the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA, the Hollywood writers’ and actors’ unions, went on strike for over four months, leading to new agreements for both unions with studios and producers for increased residuals, increased compensation, and protections against exploitive use of their creative output in artificial intelligence. In August, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters negotiated a pay increase for UPS workers, and, in October, after a six-week strike, the United Auto Workers secured an increase in workers’ wages and reinstated cost-of-living adjustments at automobile manufacturers General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Stellantis.

These successful outcomes should not be surprising. Empirical research, including an August 2023 U.S. Treasury Department report called “Labor Unions and the Middle Class,” shows that unions “make a real difference to middle-class households by raising their incomes, improving their work environments, and boosting their job satisfaction,” according to an explainer that accompanied the report.

For employees who are inspired by these recent successes, but who are not yet part of a labor union, this post offers a foundation for understanding unions, and some practical guidance on how to unionize your workplace.

Labor Unions 101: Understanding the Basics

Workers interested in becoming organized, i.e., being represented by a union, should have a basic understanding of what unions are and how they work. To begin with, a “labor union” is a democratic organization that represents a collective of employees. The primary function of a labor union is to engage in “collective bargaining,” i.e., the negotiation process between an employer and a union to establish the terms of compensation, benefits, and working conditions for an entire group of workers, known as a “bargaining unit.” Organized workers can choose to form an “independent” union, which means that the union is not affiliated with a national, typically larger organization. One example of an independent union is the Amazon Labor Union. Alternatively, a local group of workers can affiliate with a state or national union, which issues a “local charter” governing the relationship between the local group and the national organization. Examples of national unions are the National Education Association and UNITE HERE. About 60 major unions belong to the giant U.S. labor consortium known as the AFL-CIO, created in 1955 in a merger between two smaller associations with long histories in the labor movement, the American Federation of Labor (“AFL”) and its cousin, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (“CIO”).

Legal Protections for Unionizing

Federal and state statutes determine who can be represented by a union. The National Labor Relations Act, for example, guarantees the right of private-sector employees nationwide (with some exceptions) to be represented by a labor union to negotiate on their behalf for an employment contract that covers them all. The National Labor Relations Act also protects the right of private-sector workers (even those who are not represented by a union) to act together—the legal term is “concerted activity”—to improve their working conditions. Additionally, the law prohibits employers from interfering with, discriminating against, and/or taking adverse employment actions against employees in retaliation for exercising their labor rights.

Practical Steps to Unionize Your Workplace

  1. Communicate with Your Coworkers. This is a crucial first step. Communicate with your coworkers to determine what type of improvements all of you desire and reach a consensus regarding what you hope to obtain through collective bargaining, g., higher compensation, more paid leave, better job security, company contributions to a retirement plan, etc. You should also decide how you want to be organized, i.e., be an independent union or seek to join a national labor organization.
  2. Consult with a Union Organizer and/or an Attorney. After you have reached a consensus with your colleagues, consult with a union organizer or an attorney who has experience with labor and employment law to assess more fully how unionizing may impact your work environment. You should also discuss any potential legal issues, such as whether you are in an “appropriate bargaining unit,” e., whether you and your co-coworkers are sufficiently similar with respect to your interests, job duties, and terms of employment.
  3. Seek Formal Recognition of Your Union. Your union must be formally recognized in order to obligate your employer to negotiate with it. (Keep in mind that when you agree to be represented by a union, the union becomes the exclusive bargaining agent on behalf of all workers in the bargaining unit.) There are two ways to seek formal recognition: 1) ask your employer to voluntarily recognize your union, which will require you to show proof that the majority of employees agree to be represented by the union; OR 2) petition the National Labor Relations Board to conduct a secret-ballot election.
  4. Petition the National Labor Relations Board. If your employer does not voluntarily recognize your union, then you must petition the National Labor Relations Board to conduct an election. Before the Board will conduct the election, however, a minimum of 30% of workers must sign a “union authorization card,” an individual agreement to be represented by the union. The Board will then review the petition and the cards to determine whether an election would be proper. Often employers will resist the workers’ petition, for instance by finding fault with the organizers’ card-signing efforts. Employer resistance to union organizing may also include mandatory staff meetings where the employer tries to discourage union formation—a practice the current NLRB says may violate workers’ right to organize—as well as other forms of coercion that may be unfair labor practices. You can file a charge with the NLRB if such things happen.
  5. Hold Elections. Upon showing that at least 30% of workers want to be represented by the union and that all other legal requirements are met, the National Labor Relations Board will conduct an official union election. Your employer does not administer the election—your NLRB regional office does that. It receives and counts the ballots and certifies the result, with a worker option to challenge that result. If a majority of the workers vote in favor of union representation, then the Board will certify the union as your representative for collective bargaining.
  6. Negotiate. When you are represented by a union, your employer must negotiate with that union in good faith. This does not mean that the employer must agree to all your demands. Yet, the employer must negotiate honestly, and the employer cannot use coercive tactics. Whether negotiations are conducted in good faith is a fact-specific question that will depend on the totality of circumstances and the overall conduct of the parties.
  7. Seek Legal Redress When Necessary. If your employer is interfering with your right to unionize, it is important to seek legal recourse, so that you can effectuate the rights and protections to which you are entitled.

Ultimately, collective bargaining helps reduce the power inequality between an employer and its employees. Unions also help create a more equitable society and allow employees to work under conditions that respect their humanity. Although union representation in the United States has declined over the past few decades, millions of people belong to unions today. Recent high-profile union victories may create a ripple effect and inspire workers across all fields to do the imperative: unionize your workplace.

If you are wondering whether a union would improve your workplace, or whether your employer’s anti-union arguments are to be believed—or if you have specific questions about how to go about unionizing—the lawyers of Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch, P.C. can help. Contact us for a free initial consultation.

This article also appeared in HR Daily Advisor on April 24, 2024.