So, you’re tired of low wages, abusive bosses, getting too few hours to make ends meet, or forced to work so many hours that you can’t live your life the way you’d like. You’ve realized that it’s not enough to just quit your job and get a slightly less crappy one like millions of workers are doing each month, instead you need to get together with your co-workers to fight for the wages and working conditions that we actually deserve.
You want to unionize your workplace.
Luckily, you’re not alone: Americans approve of unions in record numbers, and a 2017 poll showed that a majority would join one tomorrow if asked, well before the wave of unionization at Amazon and Starbucks catapulted the labor movement into the national spotlight. It’s likely you’re reading this precisely because you were inspired by those struggles, or one of the many other ones happening in workplaces of all types – in fact, there have been 57% more union election petitions filed in 2022 vs 2021.
This is all incredibly exciting, but the labor movement in the U.S. is just starting to emerge from its slumber after several decades of defeat and decline. It’s still a far cry from where it was during the last major upsurges in the 1930s and 70s which saw dozens of times more strikes and unionizing workers than we see today. Forming a union today is a difficult task, and as an organizer you’re stepping out onto hostile terrain where the deck is stacked against working people in favor of your employer – the boss, who will do everything in his power to stop you.
That’s always been the case, however. For as long as capitalism has existed, the bosses have cared about little else other than profit and making sure that they have dictatorial control in the workplace. In response, workers have always formed unions and waged determined and heroic battles to win major gains in the workplace and well beyond using all tools at their disposal: protests, direct action, and strikes. At their best, these struggles had as their goal the transformation of society as a whole. The long and valiant history of labor struggles in the U.S. and around the world is one that anyone organizing should look to, study, and draw inspiration from.
Unions are the strongest tool that working people have to protect ourselves and win what we deserve at work. No one else will do it for us. Forming one is a challenge, but nothing has ever been won without a fight and there’s few more important things that you could be doing right now.
Where do I start?
How do you actually get started though? There’s no shame in not knowing. The vast majority of workers have no experience being in one, and the entire legal process for forming one through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB, the government agency which oversees this process) is purposefully set up in such a way so as to be as intimidating and inaccessible to working people as possible. This guide assumes workers will want to take the most common route to forming a union through the NLRB, although a union at the end of the day is the workers themselves organizing and taking collective action. That’s where our real power lies as workers, it’s not because a government agency “certifies” our union.
If you google “How to Form a Union”, a lot of what you find might just make it more confusing or intimidating: “mapping”, “authorization cards”, “union petition”. It’s a lot to get a handle on, and forming a union is a real challenge, but not only is it possible it’s also the best way for workers to fight for and secure more than what we’re currently handed by the bosses.
Let’s break down the basic steps:
- Talk to co-workers
- Build a team: the Organizing Committee
- Choose a union, collect union cards and file them with the NLRB
- Election time: stand up to union busting, respond to retaliation
- Fight for a strong contract: bargaining and escalation action
1) Talk to co-workers
It all starts with talking to people! In order to make the most of these conversations you should be a dependable worker, someone trustworthy and knowledgeable about the workplace, and personable with your co-workers.
Ask about what they think could be better at work. Asking about specific issues will often lead to better conversations than keeping things general. Things like wages or break time will of course be the big issues for many workers, but there will often be others, including ones unique to a certain industry. Be sure to ask lots of questions and give them plenty of room to talk, and then agitate around the issues they bring up. For instance, if they say that the latest attendance policy isn’t fair, tell them you agree and talk about what you think it should be instead, and offer concrete examples of how it’s affected workers, maybe a mother who’s struggling to balance picking up children from daycare with her work schedule. No issue is too small to talk about!
It’s not often that a first conversation like this then goes straight to talking about a union, but eventually what you have to do in a second or third one is to get your co-worker to identify that the way to change things would be to organize collectively and take action. Once they get there you should make that more explicit: what we need is a union. These kinds of conversations are always easier to have when not at work, so it can be good to ask someone you’ve been talking to about workplace issues if they’d like to meet up someday soon to talk more.
Finally, be prudent. In most workplaces it will be important to start slow and take care to avoid detection. However, taking it slow is not a hard rule, and in times of a high level of struggle, an organizing wave in a certain industry, or a major attack on workers it may be necessary to move quickly and openly. Regardless, the boss will start union-busting as soon as they catch any whiff of organizing talk, so it’s important to balance being bold and confident in approaching co-workers with being skillful and cautious.
2) Build a team: the Organizing Committee
Once you’ve talked to a few people now who are supportive of unionizing you should start meeting together regularly as a team, which in the labor movement is called an Organizing Committee (OC).
The importance of demands
One of the first things the OC needs to do is to work out a plan to talk to more people and learn what issues are most important in the workplace and for the greatest number of people, being sure to talk to workers of all different genders, ethnic or racial backgrounds, and job categories. Based on this the OC should then democratically discuss and decide on a set of clear demands that speak to immediate workplace issues like wages, benefits, and safety (a $30 an hour minimum wage, two weeks time off, the ability to refuse to serve abusive customers, etc). It’s rarely enough to talk abstractly about the benefits of a union like “respect and dignity” or “a seat at the table”. There are many workers who have little experience with or understanding of what a union is, or who have fallen prey to the steady stream of anti-union propaganda on the job and in U.S. politics, and winning their support requires a strong motivation about how it will concretely change their lives for the better.
Mapping your workplace and assessing support
Mapping is a fancy word for developing an overview of who all the workers at your job are, their names, what hours or shifts they work, and where. At a smaller job like a Starbucks store this is pretty straightforward, whereas at a giant urban hospital with multiple floors, units, and thousands of employees it can be a very tall order which might also involve a literal map of the building and where people are stationed. Regardless, spreadsheets will be one of your best friends, use one like this to keep track of all this information. If you have Gmail you can go to File -> Make a Copy and start making your own spreadsheet for your job, adding any columns or information you think is relevant for your organizing! Part of being a good organizer is taking this kind of consistent and systematic approach to every stage of the work.
It’s common for an Organizing Committee to assess co-workers according to their support for the union on a scale of 1 to 5. This is important for helping get hard numbers on what the support at your job actually looks like, which becomes especially crucial at later stages like collecting cards and holding an election.
1 – A worker who is an OC member: a pro-union activist who can be counted on to attend meetings, talk to other workers, and take action.
2 – Solidly supportive of the union, but passively – not really attending meetings or talking to other workers.
3- Undecided. This can be someone who’s on the fence, has real concerns and questions, or simply someone who doesn’t know much about what a union is.
4 – Opposes unionization, but is not hostile. With effective organizing methods and through the course of struggle, it’s totally possible to change a 4 to a 2 and has happened many times before.
5 – Strongly opposes unionization, is aggressive or hostile about it, or actively organizes workers against the union.
Organizing Committee meetings
At all points the strength and cohesion of the OC is key for building a strong campaign. A big part of building that strength and cohesion is through having well-organized meetings that happen regularly. In these the OC should discuss what demands to use, how conversations with workers are going, how to refine conversations and make them stronger, and all other aspects of the union drive. Democracy is the lifeblood of a strong union drive, and you should begin to develop practices for that early on including debating and voting on all important questions. Debate doesn’t have to be a contentious thing to be avoided, it’s part of how organizers work out the best tactics and strategy!
At the end of each meeting everyone there should have a clear understanding of what their tasks are and the next steps, especially a broader fighting strategy to win Earlier on, it can be good for everyone to have a goal of talking to a certain number of additional workers which can then be reported on at the next meeting, assigning out who talks to who. If there’s someone else who it seems would be good to bring onto the Organizing committee, discuss that!
3) Choose a union, collect authorization cards, file them with the NLRB
Throughout the history of capitalism, and around most of the world today, de facto union recognition elections happened when workers vote to go on strike. If the strike involved an overwhelming majority of workers and was strong enough to stop production – the source of the profits – the boss would be pressured to negotiate with the union. To prevent strikes, the US government set up a department called the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to create a more formal and legally protected process to recognize new unions, which are typically “sponsored” by existing unions.
There are pluses and minuses to organizing through the NLRB. If you have the cohesion and strength to do so without the NLRB, forcing the boss to recognize your union and negotiate a contract, then it will probably be faster and more successful. This will mean organizing directly to get the company to accept your demands though escalating actions, including an effective strike.
Choosing a union: an existing one or a new independent one?
Many other guides on how to unionize a workplace will list choosing a union as one of the earliest steps to take. Socialist Alternative disagrees, and we’ve found through our experience in the labor movement and the many organizing efforts we’ve been a part of that this unnecessarily locks workers into a specific union, one which might not have a strong approach to organizing or be best suited for the job. The most important things are building a worker-led union with a strong Organizing Committee, developing clear demands, and taking a class struggle approach to organizing that recognizes that workers and bosses have irreconcilable differences and that we can’t just appeal to their morality or good sense to win what we want – we have to fight.
The first major thing to decide at this stage is whether to work with an existing union (and if so, which one) or form a new independent one, like the Amazon Labor Union in New York City did.. One route is not necessarily better than the other, and which to choose will depend on the exact situation at the job or the wider industry and should be the product of real discussion and consideration by the workers involved.
Most leaders of today’s unions unfortunately take a timid approach to organizing that flows from their “business unionism” politics, and it’s important for organizing workers to be aware of these problems and actively push back against this when necessary. At the end of the day, the union is the workers, and if you’ve built a strong one that’s well-organized and ready to fight you can overcome all sorts of obstacles, including the weak leaderships of many existing unions. If you do decide to affiliate with an existing union, take your time and be sure to meet and discuss with different ones, research their record in the labor movement, and discuss all of this on your Organizing Committee.
Collecting union authorization cards
Once you’ve chosen a union, you start collecting authorization cards. If you’re forming a new independent union you can actually make these yourself! They should be the size of an index card (3×5 inches) and include language along the lines of “I hereby authorize [NAME OF UNION] to represent me for purposes of collective bargaining with my employer.” Beyond that it only needs to include the following fields:
- E-mail address
- Telephone number
- Employer’s name
- Date of signing
- (Other fields that could be good to include but aren’t required: address, shift, job title, full or part-time)
The OC will need to go back around to supportive workers with these cards, re-motivate the demands that the union is fighting for and the importance of having one, and how this is the first legally required and protected step to us forming a union. Signed cards are precious objects that need to be guarded and safely stored because it’s not guaranteed you’ll ever have another conversation with or run into that worker again! Managers that can hire or fire people cannot be part of a union, although lower-level supervisors like the “shift supervisors” in many retail stores typically can be and you should collect cards from them. Ultimately the NLRB will determine who is in the bargaining unit or not once you file for an election with them.
Inoculation: anticipating and responding to union-busting
Companies spend enormous amounts on union-busting consultants each year, and even ones which aren’t currently fighting off union drives will subject their employees to anti-union propaganda during the hiring process and long after. As an organizer, part of what you will need to do is respond to these anti-union talking points before the boss starts making them in earnest. In the labor movement this is called inoculation, where your conversation acts as a vaccine against the union-busting lies. This should start from very early on, but especially once you start collecting cards because it won’t be long before the boss catches a whiff of what’s going on and rolls out their union-busting campaign.
Filing the union cards and an official petition with the NLRB
In most situations, it’s important to collect as many cards as possible before submitting them to the regional office of the NLRB that is responsible for your area. Although the legal minimum is only 30% of eligible workers, 70% or higher is ideal because it shows strength and that the campaign has the kind of momentum needed to power through the most heated stages.
4) Election time: stand up to union busting, respond to retaliation
The NLRB will typically schedule a union election anywhere from a few weeks to a few months out from when the cards are filed. In the context of an active struggle this is a huge amount of time, a delay which heavily favors the bosses who have the resources and the time to carry out their union-busting campaign. It’s not uncommon for union drives that file cards from 60% or more workers to end up in defeat during the final vote itself.
When heading into the election, everything talked about above like having a strong organizing committee with democratic structures, inoculation, and responding to retaliation are more important than ever. Escalating actions should happen too: this can be as simple as organizing as many workers as possible to all wear a union t-shirt or button together. This may seem like a simple thing, but it can go a long way towards building cohesion and solidarity among workers and develop a sense of what it looks and feels like to take collective action together. Far from a trivial thing, this kind of action might be the first time for many workers that they’ve ever stuck their neck out before after a lifetime of being trained to keep your head down so you can get your next paycheck. This helps build the kind of confidence which could lead to a successful walkout or strike.
Strikes and walkouts
The bosses only care about one thing: profit. If we stop working, then they stop making it, and if a strike is well-organized enough they will eventually be forced to give in to some or all of its demands.
These are the most powerful tools of workers and can and should happen at any stage of a union struggle if a solid majority of workers are on board with it and properly prepared. Many of the major strikes of the 1930s (like the Minneapolis Teamsters strike) that built the major unions today were battles over simple union recognition, which prompted the establishment of the NLRB election process in 1935 precisely to channel this ferment back into the “safer” avenue of the state and the courts. Ultimately, there will be no serious revival of the labor movement or increase in union membership without the strike once again becoming commonplace.
Standing up to retaliation
While organizing is technically a legally-protected right, retaliation against organizing workers is incredibly common and needs to be responded to immediately. There’s the law, and then there’s reality: employers can simply fabricate a reason for disciplining or firing a workplace activist. The workplace is a dictatorship under capitalism which allows the bosses and a handful of billionaires to get rich off of our work. That same wealth is what allows them to control the supposedly “neutral” state and its government institutions like the courts and the NLRB.
When confronting retaliation, workers have to do much more than file a complaint with the NLRB and wait for the agency to sort it out – that process can take months or even years, and will often side with the bosses. To build the confidence and fighting capacity of workers it’s necessary to escalate the fight right then and there through walkouts, protests, and other actions. When Starbucks fired the ‘Memphis 7’ in February 2022, workers around the country held walkouts and protests in solidarity with them, which ultimately won their reinstatement three months later. In Columbia, South Carolina, Starbucks workers went on strike after a pro-union manager was fired just two weeks before their election – they ended up winning their vote unanimously, in a state which has fewer unionized workers than any other.
5) Fight for a strong contract
Struggle rarely proceeds in a straight line, and a union campaign is no exception. There will be twists and turns, major obstacles, setbacks, and defeats. However, with a class struggle approach to organizing you have a damn good shot at winning your union. You only need a simple majority of workers to vote yes to win, but like with authorization cards it’s important that number is as high as possible.
An election victory is a huge achievement, especially in the U.S. where every step of the process is designed to be an obstacle to working people. However, winning an election is in many ways the easy part, after that comes the fight for a strong contract which puts into writing all of what the workers are demanding. In recent decades, around 30% of new unions never even get to a first contract, and for those that do it takes an average of 409 days, and several years is not uncommon.
This is because the bosses are going to fight you tooth and nail every step of the way to try and stop you from winning better wages, benefits, and working conditions – the things that eat into their profits. The election and bargaining stages shouldn’t be thought of as separate things, and all workers should understand that just because you win an election it doesn’t mean the bosses are going to cooperate – far from it. Winning a strong contract means preparing for bargaining from the very beginning of organizing, emphasizing that what we are fighting for is a contract and it’s going to take a real fight and sustained action to get there.
Organizing in the workplace and beyond
As workers we can win serious gains in the workplace when we use organizing methods that are rooted in class struggle. Ultimately though, capitalism is an economic system that was designed by people like Jeff Bezos and designed to serve them, not people like us. Winning an end to exploitation in the workplace and to oppression and inequality of all kinds will require the socialist transformation of society. Under socialism, the workplace will no longer be a dictatorship under the boss but run democratically by workers ourselves, underpinned by a globally planned economy. This would guarantee that the immense wealth we generate is put back into society and not into the superyachts of the billionaires, raising living standards to a far higher level. This would also allow us to work much fewer hours, freeing up time to indulge in our hobbies and interests, spend time with friends and family, and participate in politics and social life. The aspects of work which are rewarding and socially useful will remain, while the deep exploitation, alienation, and isolation we experience currently will be minimized or eliminated entirely.
Socialists stand against all forms of exploitation and oppression and we’re active in all struggles, big or small. The history of the socialist movement is totally bound up with the history of the labor movement – at all important junctures, socialists have been there and played a key role. Today, you still find socialists in the labor movement whether as workers organizing on the job or as supporters in the community. Socialists know a thing or two about unionizing, so if you’re thinking about unionizing and you see us around, talk to us!