You have the right to union membership. Find out how to start a union in eight steps, get your coworkers on board to vote ‘yes’ and negotiate for higher pay, benefits and more.
A union is a local organization made up of workers who benefit from strength in numbers. Workers come together for both economic and social justice, by getting involved in the decisions that affect their work. Unions help workers negotiate with employers through a process of collective bargaining. This is typically over wages, hours, benefits, workplace health and safety and other work-related issues. Resulting union contracts help workers get higher pay, better benefits and much more.
How and When Did Unions Start? A Short History
Union organizing began in the U.S. in 1794 when the first trade union was formed, and union membership reached a high in the 1940s and 1950s. Unions have a history of influencing federal legislation, even leading to some civil rights legislation, and the creation of the U.S. Department of Labor. Typical union professions have historically included teaching, firefighting, airline staff, plumbers, bus drivers and manufacturers.
Unfortunately, in the last quarter of the 20th century, union membership dramatically declined in popularity. This can be attributed to industry shifts, government deregulation, increased foreign competition, inflation, widespread layoffs and more. The decline of unions was a response to a myriad of changes in the U.S., and was compounded by the lack of a labor party.
Despite corporate greed’s disdain for unionizing, it’s definitely a good idea if you know how to start a union: being a part of a union is beneficial to workers and local communities. Recently, there has been a resurgence of unionizing in the U.S. The public’s support of unions increased in 2021, and union membership is making a comeback. In December last year, the first Starbucks voted to unionize in Buffalo, NY. Since then, about 200 more stores have done so as well. Amazon warehouses are seeing similar movement.
Benefits of Unions
Starting a union begins with finding a union organizer. One example is The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) which helps retail workers unionize. Here are some of the benefits UFCW contracts include. These are not limited to UFCW or to retail employees, but rather serve as examples of what unions can do for people.
- Higher pay and regular raises: on average, union workers earn 26 percent more. This difference increases to almost 30 percent for women, and 33 percent for Black individuals. Latino union workers make 47 percent more than those not represented by a union.
- A voice: being a part of a union gives you the voice to negotiate your contract
- Guaranteed hours and stable schedules
- Legal protection from unfair workplace practices such as harassment or unjust dismissal
- Discounts on home and life insurance
- Job security
Benefits: union workers are much more likely to have affordable healthcare and retirement plans available to them. 95 percent of union members have both.
- college tuition benefits
- increased paid vacation days and sick days
- The right to strike: if you are unhappy with the contract your employer offers during the collective bargaining process, you have the right to strike
To reap some or all of those benefits, check out how to start a union in eight steps.
How to Start a Union
- Talk to your coworkers: explain the benefits of unionizing and find out if your coworkers want to improve conditions as well. Once you have people on board, you can move forward.
- Talk to a union organizer: look into local union representatives which have expertise in negotiating contracts in your field. You can start by looking at this list of some of the largest unions in the U.S., and the professions they represent. Or, you can contact the American Federation of Labor for assistance. Set up a meeting with a union organizer in your area who can help. This is usually done online or over the phone. Your union organizer will then be able to answer all your questions.
- Start a committee: with the help of your union organizer, you must organize a committee with your coworkers. Identify those most motivated and committed to unionizing, and determine who is willing to lead the process.
- Spread the word, quietly: the committee must work together to spread the word of unionizing. Talk to your coworkers about the benefits of being in a union and get more people on board so that you have enough people to vote. This must be done carefully and quietly, however. Management can be unsupportive of unionizing when they prioritize profits over people. If your management finds out there is an effort to unionize, there may be negative consequences. Make sure to spread the word quickly and quietly, and keep management from finding out until after the union is finalized. You can do this by having union meetings outside of work hours and off of company property, for example.
- Remember, you have the federal right to start a union. You have the right to talk to your coworkers about workplace conditions, pay and unionizing. However, employers may retaliate against unionizing in other ways. They will do so under the guise of another reason, because union busting is illegal. For example, Starbucks has interfered with unionizing by closing stores and firing workers. A Starbucks location in Memphis was ordered in August to reinstate seven workers who were unjustly fired for supporting a union. This unjust action is not uncommon, but it can be avoided by keeping union campaigning quiet.
- Sign union support cards: once you have a majority of your coworkers on board, you must sign union support cards which you will get from your union organizer. The cards confirm that you want to start a union and that your union organizer supports you.
- Vote: submit the union support cards to the National Labor Relations Board to request a union election. It can take several weeks for your election date to be determined. On voting day, you need a majority of your coworkers to vote ‘yes’ for a union. The decision is then finalized, and your employer must recognize your union and negotiate your union contract.
- Negotiate: you will work with your union representative and your coworkers to negotiate your first contract with your employer. All workers must then vote on the contract to a make sure everybody is satisfied with the conditions.
Maybe you are unhappy with your job or workplace conditions for other reasons, that starting a union might not be able to solve. To find out whether that’s the case and what to do about it, you can start with our guides on the topic:
- 6 Tips for Setting Boundaries at Work
- 11 Signs of a Toxic Workplace & Actions to Take
- 5 Ways to Make Employment Work for You
- Are You Part of Hustle Culture? It Might Be More Harmful Than You Think
- Here Are the Best Ways to Quit a Job
- 4 Day Work Week & Companies That Lead by Example
- Why Doing Nothing Might Be the Solution to (Some) of Your Problems
- Why You Should Take a Sabbatical From Work
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