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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

7 Steps to Start a Union—and Why You Might Consider Organizing

three coworkers sitting at a coffee shop talking
Bailey Zelena; MoMo Productions/Getty Images

It was the summer of 2020, and Tori Tambellini was working at a Starbucks in downtown Pittsburgh. She’d returned to work in-person during the COVID-19 pandemic—before vaccines were available but after some public health precautions had been lifted.

She felt unprepared to handle circumstances involving patrons who were unhoused or struggling with mental illness or substance use issues—difficulties that were exacerbated in the fallout from COVID-19. Tambellini says she even had to administer naloxone to reverse an opioid overdose. On top of how Starbucks handled the pandemic, she felt the company “just saw us as numbers.”

Late the following year, Tambellini’s fellow Starbucks baristas in Buffalo formed a union. Within a matter of months, Starbucks Workers United’s victory electrified workers across hundreds of Starbucks locations across the U.S.—including Tambellini. When she saw the success in Buffalo, it was clear the answer was unionizing. By the spring, she and her coworkers voted to join Starbucks Workers United.

The coffee workers are far from being outliers. During the pandemic, thousands of essential workers triggered a new era of organizing, as they realized the power they hold when they work together to improve their workplaces. Beyond the front lines, office workers began rethinking their relationship to their work. Millions quit their jobs during what became known as the Great Resignation. Others resorted to “quiet quitting.” Whether they’ve stayed or left, workers have become more “toxic aware”—recognizing their workplaces as unhealthy and realizing they deserve better.

The choice to unionize has grown increasingly common as workers transform their anger, frustration, and burnout into action. Though union representation still remains historically low, its popularity is on the rise. The number of workers represented by a union went up by 200,000 from 2021 to 2022, according to the Economic Policy Institute. And union election petitions to the National Labor Review Board rose by 53% between fiscal years 2021 and 2022—the highest increase since 2016.

Why would you organize?

Tambellini says it simply: “If you have a boss, you need a union.”

A union is, in its simplest form, a group of workers who’ve decided to come together to bargain with their employer as a group rather than individually to leverage their collective power and make their jobs better. Traditionally, a group of workers works with an established union whose staff have expertise in labor organizing and how to negotiate with management, though that isn’t always the case.

The goal is to create a contract—known as a collective bargaining agreement. Through persistence and teamwork in the contract negotiation process, a union can help you secure job protections, higher wages, improved benefits, and other workplace improvements specific to you and your industry. The contract created by employees and the employer might include salary minimums, break requirements, or mandated annual raises, just to name a few examples.

Perhaps you’ve considered unionizing but are unsure how. Only one in 10 U.S. workers are repped by a union, according to 2017 survey data, but nearly half of nonunion workers would join a union if they could. The Economic Policy Institute suggests the number might be even higher, given that public approval of unions rose to 71% in 2022—a 57-year high.

7 simple steps to start a union

To demystify the process of forming a union, we’ve broken it down in seven steps.

1. Talk to your coworkers.

The first step is straightforward: Talk to your coworkers and find out what they think about the workplace.

“You have to go to the simplest of questions,” says Michelle Gonzalez, a nurse in the Bronx and member of the negotiating team of her union, the New York State Nurses Association. “What do workers want? What’s important to this group of people?” adds Gonzalez, who was among thousands of New York nurses who went on strike earlier this year. You won’t be able to pinpoint the problems to tackle without asking. “You can’t identify what people want unless you talk to them,” she says.

Start with a couple coworkers you trust, says Tim Dubnau, the deputy director of organizing at the Communications Workers of America. You don’t want to reach out to everyone in your workplace right away, since you’d risk management finding out before you’re prepared to go public.

2. Find a union and build an organizing committee.

Dubnau recommends contacting a labor union that could represent you early in the process. A traditional union—sometimes called a trade union or labor union—will ideally have the staff, resources, and expertise to kickstart the process and represent you in negotiations. “Hopefully, the union will hook you up with a union organizer who can walk you through the steps,” Dubnau says.

Then, form an organizing committee—the group of workers who are committed to unionizing and spearhead building broader support. The workers who would be in the union—typically non-managerial workers—are what’s known as the bargaining unit. A union organizer can help you figure out who would be a part of the bargaining unit in your particular industry or company.

As you talk with coworkers, you’ll want to get to know workers from a variety of backgrounds to make sure the organizing committee reflects the bargaining unit as a whole, Dubnau says, in terms of race, ethnicity, seniority, title, department, shift, and more.

3. Build support.

At Tambellini’s store in Pittsburgh, lead organizers put together a list of all the workers at the store so they could make a plan to talk with everyone. Each person was given a general assessment of how enthusiastic they’d be to join the union—from joining the organizing committee to holding anti-union perspectives. This would inform how workers would approach conversations—often short exchanges while on breaks, but also off the clock and outside of work. Tambellini says it helped that the coworkers trusted each other already.

Dubnau says getting the green light to unionize from 30% of workers within a potential bargaining unit is enough to legally trigger an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)—the governmental body that oversees the formation of unions. But in reality, securing support from at least 70% of your coworkers prior to going public is much safer.

“We don’t want an election,” Dubnau says. “We want to win the election.”

Gonzalez advises pinpointing skill sets and expertise as you work to build support—perhaps someone excels at writing and another is good at one-on-one conversions to spread the word. “Part of organizing is identifying: What skills do you have and what can you bring to the rest of the group?” she says. “When you’re organizing, it doesn’t depend on just one person. It depends on your ability to work as a group,” she adds, “and what you can accomplish as a group. That’s the beauty of collective power.”

4. Sign cards, file for recognition, and hold an election.

Once you’ve built enough support to go public, the next step is to sign union cards indicating that you would like to be represented by the union you’re working with for the purposes of collective bargaining. You or your union representative then files the union cards with the NLRB, usually electronically.

But this step requires more than just signing a card. “You can’t win anything in secret,” Dubnau says. “You gotta put yourself out there publicly.”

Perhaps the day you file for recognition you decide among your coworkers to wear a T-shirt in support of the union or change your Slack avatar, or submit a letter to management announcing your intention to form a union and highlighting key grievances. At unionizing Starbucks stores, for instance, Tambellini says she and her coworkers call the public announcements about unionizing their “Dear Howard” letters—referring to the CEO of the coffee shop chain. Using the power of social media or speaking to journalists has increasingly become an element of building support.

“That shows power,” Dubnau says. “It takes away the fear. It really is a little taste of what it’s gonna be like to have a union card in your back pocket.”

A month or so after filing for recognition, the NLRB holds an election either in-person or through mail-in ballots. In lieu of an election, your company can voluntarily recognize the union if they choose. While this is growing in popularity, it remains rare.

5. Prepare yourselves for union busting and retaliation.

Once management knows you’re organizing, keep an eye out for union busting. Hired firms may train leaders and middle managers to spread misinformation about how unions operate or instill fear in workers through retaliatory tactics. “It’s very tired and well-worn and predictable,” Dubnau says.

Watch out for sudden mandatory meetings, or “captive audience meetings,” often used to speak negatively about unions or attempt to mislead workers. Companies rely on these meetings to contest union campaigns. Promises to make improvements or attempts to appease workers through small or symbolic changes are signs the company may be trying to persuade you that a union is unnecessary. Stricter rules or other unexpected changes in your workplace—like sudden schedule changes or surveillance of communications—are also signs of union busting. Management may also threaten to shut down the business—and some do.

Collective bargaining without fear of retaliation is protected under the National Labor Relations Act. If you think the law is being violated, you can file an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB, which triggers a process that can lead to a trial. But the truth is the law won’t always protect you.

Sometimes retaliation can result in workers—especially organizers or key leaders within the union—getting fired. Although illegal, companies hope this level of retaliation will quash union activity.

When Tambellini was fired last summer, she was shocked. The company alleged she clocked in nine minutes before officially beginning work—but the timing was peculiar since she was among the union campaign leaders, she says. Now, she’s organizing with the union and fighting for reinstatement with other fired Starbucks workers in an unfair labor practice trial. (Starbucks has denied any discipline or firing for any workers who are “supporting, organizing or otherwise engaging in lawful union activity.”)

Though there are risks, Dubnau and Tambellini agree there’s power in numbers, and solidarity is crucial.

6. Form a bargaining committee and negotiate a contract.

Once you’ve won an election, it’s time to actually negotiate with your bosses about what changes you want to see. The bargaining unit—everyone who will be in the union—should first elect a bargaining committee. These rank-and-file workers will be the key group to represent the unit in meetings with management.

Dubnau recommends creating a bargaining survey. Find out the specifics of what workers want and rank what’s most important to guide priorities. For example, you and your coworkers may want to fight for an increased hourly wage, basic healthcare benefits, parental leave, mandated breaks, or minimum staffing requirements.

Gonzalez says gathering survey data from nurses on their priorities was critical to organizing effectively—even in an already-established union. One example Gonzalez shared: If several workers aren’t getting breaks and don’t have enough time to use the bathroom, resulting in frequent urinary tract infections, that’s a concrete problem organizing can solve. But you won’t be able to pinpoint the problems without asking. “A lot of the work is simply having conversations,” she adds.

When the bargaining committee and management determine a tentative agreement, a meeting is held to explain the contract to the rest of the unit. Then, the unit votes to approve the contract or send it back to the bargaining table.

A majority of collective bargaining agreements (a.k.a., contracts) last for three years, but could be one year or even five years, according to Dubnau. However, he considers agreements longer than three years “unsettling.” Why? High inflation could outweigh a 2% annual pay raise agreement, for example, meaning wages aren’t keeping up with the cost of living.

7. Make a plan to maintain momentum.

Prepare yourself for a potentially arduous process. You might spend months organizing, and then many more months negotiating before you reach that coveted contract. The average time it takes for employers and new union workers to finalize their first collective bargaining agreement is 465 days, according to a Bloomberg Law analysis.

“We’re really playing the long game here,” Tamebellini says of contract negotiations with Starbucks, where management and baristas are at odds over holding hybrid bargaining sessions. “Getting everyone to sign the card—that’s the first hard step. The next hard step is winning your election. But I think maybe the hardest step is keeping up the enthusiasm and keeping morale up while you are waiting for that contract.”

If management isn’t negotiating with you in good faith or receptive to the demands, you can escalate pressure with a variety of actions, such as sharing information on social media or staging internal actions to show bosses what you’re unwilling to compromise on. The unit can also organize walk-outs or, in a last resort, authorize a strike.

Dubnau notes strikes are exceedingly rare on a first contract. But they can be effective. Thousands of New York City nurses—including Gonzalez—went on strike earlier this year during a contract renewal negotiation. The three-day action culminated in major wins for the nurses: a nearly 20% pay increase and increased staffing. (Following the end of the strike, Montefiore’s president, Dr. Philip Ozuah, said the center is “grateful for the dedication and commitment of our nurses who have served through very challenging circumstances over the past several years.”)

But Gonzalez notes the lead-up to the strike took years, and, at times, momentum faded. “When it dies down, what do you do? You can’t just lie on the floor and say, ‘OK, no more workers’ rights.’ I think you have to come up with a new plan,” she says.

When the path forward seems impossible or exhausting, Tambellini adds, you have to “remind people what they’re fighting for. Keep them aware of the issues.” The journey is a long one. But forming a union can lead to a safer and more secure work environment—one that you, your current coworkers, and future employees deserve.

“The question [that] I think Americans are asking themselves now is, ‘Are we going to just talk and complain about our jobs the rest of our lives? Is that our strategy? Or are we gonna do something about it?’” Dubnau says. “This is the time to be brave.”