Back in the 1950s, nearly a third of the American workforce belonged to a union. That number has cratered in recent decades due to a multitude of factors, but a shift in law and policy that places an increased focus on unfettered markets, as well as a raft of anti-labor laws, have been primary motivators of a gradual decline in workplace organizing since the early 1980s. In 1983, 20% of the U.S. workforce was unionized; today it’s closer to 10%, according to The Washington Post.
But after decades of retreat, the U.S. labor movement is showing signs of life. Members of Google’s engineering team announced on Monday the formation of their own union. Google’s workers will now embark on a long journey to gain formal recognition from Google’s parent company, Alphabet, but their organizing at all is itself a feat, and marks something of a crowning achievement after years of activism within the company and throughout the broader tech industry. Amazon’s warehouse workers have pushed for their own union for years to no avail, while Uber drivers have also petitioned to organize with the Independent Drivers Guild, only to see their efforts resoundingly crushed.
The movement has made deep inroads within media as well; scores of newsrooms have organized in recent years, including this one (Lifehacker and its fellow G/O Media sites are members of the GMG Union, a chapter of the Writers Guild of America, East).
What I’m getting at here is that you, too, can organize and achieve the formation of a union if you want one. If employees at a monolith like Google can unionize in the face of the untold power and global influence of their employer, why can’t you? Here are some of the basics of organizing a union from the ground up, so you can create the workplace you and your colleagues deserve—not just one that serves the interests of your employer.
The benefits of a union
If you’re vocalizing support or expressing interest in joining a union, you might encounter a skeptic (or two) who asks a simple question: Why?
You can counter with an even simpler, if not profound, answer: Unions are the reason we have weekends and an eight-hour workday. Beyond that terse yet totally accurate history lesson, you can explain that unions have the ability to create the working conditions you and your colleagues desire and deserve, whether that means implementing higher wages, setting fairer hours, securing better healthcare, or standardizing benefits like maternity/paternity leave, paid time off, and more.
Plenty of economic data backs up the general premise, as well. As a 2003 study from the Economic Policy Institute found the very existence of unions drives wage growth in both unionized and non-union workforces:
Strong unions set a pay standard that nonunion employers follow. For example, a high school graduate whose workplace is not unionized but whose industry is 25% unionized is paid 5% more than similar workers in less unionized industries.
How to organize
It usually starts with murmurings around your workplace, for fear of a nascent union drive being discovered and quashed before it takes off. Like any organic movement that starts small, it usually spreads by word of mouth or over private email chains. If everyone in the group has access to a computer or smartphone, I’d recommend starting a private Slack channel where everyone can participate in a more seamless and immediate way. In order to steer clear of the possibility that your employer may be monitoring your unionizing activities—and to ensure you aren’t violating the terms of your employment and jeopardizing your job—consider opting for an encrypted messaging service like Signal. Certainly no one should be carrying out union activity using business emails or workplace equipment.
Once a healthy number of your colleagues are onboard, you can start reaching out to larger labor organizations who can help steer your unit through the process of forming an organizing unit and getting your employer to recognize it.
Form an organizing committee
Every union needs an organizing committee to effectively lead the charge. These are employees who hold the job of holding in-person meetings with your company’s management. They’ll also educate the rest of the bargaining unit on the challenges and issues the union faces.
As a guide from the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America explains:
Leaders are identified and an organizing committee representing all major departments and all shifts and reflecting the racial, ethnic and gender diversity in the workforce is established. Organizing committee training begins immediately. Committee members must be prepared to work hard to educate themselves and their co-workers about the union and to warn and educate co-workers about the impending management anti-union campaign.
Identify your key issues and demands
Now two unions have a totally identical slate of demands, though many are common across the board. Your demands are the crux of your reason for forming a union, and an essential part of the organizing process. Prioritizing crucial issues—such as workplace diversity, paid maternity/paternity leave, etc.—will probably require a vote from everyone in the unit. Put the list of priorities to a vote and let the majority govern your approach. Unions are democratic by necessity, as indicated by this very process.
Sign cards and gain recognition
In order to actualize the process, everyone in the unit needs to sign union cards. These are essentially votes of intent that signal to management that you have a sizable majority gunning for a union contract.
Once everyone signs cards, they’ll be used to petition either the National Labor Relations Board or another state labor authority, which will then certify the cards in another election. It sounds complicated, because it kind of is, but the UE breaks it down on simpler terms:
The signed cards are used (and required) to petition the state or federal labor board to hold an election. It will take the labor board at least several 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 the union.
You won’t always need to get approval from the NLRB or another state labor board. There’s a few ways to gain recognition, one being that your employer can recognize your unit outright, without oversight from the government. The NLRB expands on these topics here.
Bargain like there’s no tomorrow
Once you have a formal union represented by a larger umbrella organization, your bargaining committee can finally sit down with management to talk turkey. Keep in mind that the entire process of securing recognition for your union may take months, if not years. The focus of this process is to ultimately iron out a contract that will govern your working conditions for a specific period of time. And that doesn’t mean your work is done: After that window passes and the contract expires, you’ll have to head back to the negotiating table.
Unionizing is a long, arduous process that’s often punctuated by no shortage of hindrances and potentially movement-destroying snags. But luckily, you’ll never have to go it alone: The union members you choose to organize alongside be with you every step of the way: strength in numbers; solidarity.