Laura Berlinsky-Schine
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Are you considering starting a union at your organization? Members of unions often enjoy plenty of benefits, including increased paid time off (PTO), improved health insurance options, higher salaries than nonunion members and other perks.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, employees have the right to form a union, and your employers cannot fire you for unionizing. If you and your coworkers are thinking of doing so, follow these steps.

A word of caution: When your employer gets wind of your plan, they will likely secure a legal team to try to stop you. Make sure to prepare yourself and your fellow organizers for these attacks by reading up on your legal rights and devising a plan of action with your union organizer.

7 steps to forming a union

1. Discuss starting a union informally with your colleagues.

Being mindful of with whom you share your plan, discuss your desire to form a union with trustworthy coworkers who may share your interest in organizing one. While this is not a formal discussion, touch on issues you think a union could help resolve, naming specific working conditions or circumstances that need improvement.

2. Enlist the help of a union organizer.

Contacting a union organizer is legally-protected communication, so it’s a good idea to take this step early. Having a union organizer on your side to represent you can improve the process and keeping it moving forward. Your union organizer can help you devise a strategy and offer support and advice on steps to take. 

Also, note that if your employer attempts to punish you or retaliate against you because of your effort, your discussion with a union organizer can serve as evidence in a dispute; it is your right to start a union, and these records can help establish that any retaliation was because you were doing something that was completely legal and protected.

3. Choose a union to represent you.

Different unions represent different types of employees and industries. Find the one that’s right for you. There are plenty to choose from, and if you need help deciding on one, discuss it with your colleagues and union organizer to zero in on the most appropriate union to join.

4. Establish an organizing committee.

Most likely, the colleagues you identified to help earlier on will comprise a large part of your organizing committee, but it could also include new faces as well. Strive to be inclusive, representing different ethnicities, genders, backgrounds, departments and more in your organizing committee 

Committee members will need to be well-versed on workers’ rights and union protocol and procedures. Research information according to the issues you plan to address via your union, such as salaries, benefits, working conditions, overtime and more. The committee will also need to create a list of demands for your employer.

5. Have a majority sign on.

Under the guidance of your union organizer, prepare membership cards for your colleagues to sign. Once you have a majority of your coworkers sign on, you can petition the labor board to hold a union election. Keep in mind that the labor board will need several weeks to hammer out the details and schedule the election.

6. Win an election.

Next, of course, you must hold the election. Leading up to it, make a strong case to your coworkers about why you need a union and what issues it can help solve. Some employees pass out badges, tee-shirts, pins and other paraphernalia to promote their cause. To win the election, you will need a majority (more than 50 percent) of voting employees to vote in favor of the union. 

7. Negotiate a contract.

After winning a union election, you’ll need to negotiate a contract with your employer. Your employer must accept the results of the election and negotiate with you. Take strides to ensure that all your coworkers’ voices are heard when facilitating the contract.

Can you be fired for trying to form a union?

You cannot be fired for organizing a union, because it is your right to form a union and negotiate a contract concerning the terms of your employment should you win an election. 

There are a couple caveats, however:

• Your employer may prevent you from using work time for union-related activities, such as discussing the union, distributing flyers or paraphernalia to coworkers or otherwise using work time for issues that are not related to you working. You may discuss your plans during non-work time, however, such as during breaks, although you may need to go off-site to distribute materials. 

• If you are an at-will employee, you can be fired for any non-discriminatory reason. However, because you have the right to start a union, your employer must be able to prove that firing you was unrelated to union activities. 

Do I have to join the union at my workplace?

You may not be compelled to join a union under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

However, some states are Right to Work and others are not. If you do not work in a Right to Work state, you can still be required to pay at least a portion of union dues even if you’re not a member. Right to Work states include:

  • Alabama

  • Arizona

  • Arkansas

  • Florida

  • Georgia

  • Idaho

  • Indiana

  • Iowa

  • Kansas

  • Kentucky

  • Louisiana

  • Michigan

  • Mississippi

  • Missouri

  • Nebraska

  • Nevada

  • North Carolina

  • North Dakota

  • Oklahoma

  • South Carolina

  • South Dakota

  • Tennessee

  • Texas

  • Utah

  • Virginia

  • West Virginia

  • Wisconsin

  • Wyoming

For more details and up-to-date rules, check with your state’s labor department.

Unions can be very beneficial to members, but the process to set one up can be intricate. It doesn’t hurt to contact a union federation, such as the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the largest federation of unions in the United States, for advice on how to start a union if you’re feeling intimidated or overwhelmed. A union organizer can guide you through and facilitate the process, as well as serve as an important resource throughout.

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