ask the readers: how to unionize your workplace

A lot of workplaces have a lot of reasons to unionize right now, and organizing could be your only option if your employer is behaving badly and refusing to engage in reasonable dialogue with you and your coworkers.

This is not my area of expertise, so let’s hear from readers with experiencing with unionizing. What advice would you give people wondering about forming a union, especially around protecting their jobs from retaliation? (It’s illegal under federal law to fire you for organizing your coworkers or unionizing, but it does happen — so advice on minimizing that risk would be especially helpful.)

{ 205 comments… read them below }

  1. Ryn*

    Midwest Academy provides great training and resources for organizers, the Midwest Academy Strategy Chart is a must for any organizing work!

    1. Colleen Connolly*

      I like MidwestAcademy but FYI a few years ago I actually engage in a labor action target at MA because their ED was actually hostile to their unit. (their unit belongs to the same union).

      I’m involved with NOLSW (National Orgamizatin of Legal Services Workers)
      we represent human services agencies.

      I can get anyone in touch with a regional organizer anywhere in the country. any organizer would be happy to do an educational contact.

      Organizing is a hard, slow process. talk to an organizer!

      1. Yes Anastasia*

        I’m 1000% behind wildcat strikes, but I will observe that at the end of the day, unauthorized labor actions only go so far. Without the right to unionize, you can’t negotiate a contract or seek protection during a dispute with management. So we’re left trying to persuade state legislatures, which is pretty darn tricky in the gerrymandered, conservative states where public sector unions are illegal.

    1. Yes Anastasia*

      I’m in the same boat. Virginia just rescinded its ban on public-sector unions (hurrah!), but it only applies to localities – I’m not covered as a state employee.

    2. Well...*

      A way into legal unionizing is starting the activism within an existing union. This was the strategy of expanding unionizing on UC campuses starting with grad student teaching unions pushing for postdoc unions, and currently both unions are fighting to legalize grad student researcher unions.

      1. another scientist*

        plus the postdoc union has now expanded to include academic researchers, too!

      2. Junior Assistant Peon*

        It’s amazing how the same professors who are super-lefty on everything else are selectively against unionization when it’s their own grad students who are doing it.

        1. JSPA*

          To be fair, those who are against it for their students also often against it for themselves.

          There are some pretty common unusual assumptions and misunderstandings about organizing that pop up in academe.

          * I’d pay to do my research / I’d pay to be able to do research, that’s why I teach! [But people nevertheless need food andhousing and utilities and transportation.]

          * I am literally the only person in the world who can do my exact research, thus my job doesn’t exist, outside my individual identity! [But that’s irrelevant, as unions do not presume jobs are interchangeable.]

          * Do you know how much it costs / how hard it is to get access to the Cyclotron / the Rare Books Collection / sterile ice cores / recent archeological material from North Korea? [Sure, but many jobs put people in contact with shared resources they’d never be able to access as a random individual.]

          *My future is based on my hard-won collection of delicate samples or demanding organisms / my publications / attending conferences, not my work title. Honoring a strike over something work-related could injure my ability to concentrate on those more-important things. [No strike is going to stop you from caring for live animals, refilling the liquid helium, working on publications or attending conferences.]

          Academic jobs are completely consistent with unionization. The predecessors of the Dutch Educators union (Algemene Onderwijsbond) date back to 1842. The German Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft dates to the late 1940s. (I’m guessing there was something else pre-war.)

        2. yeet the rich*

          I tried to get my grad students to unionize at my last job because they were being treated abysmally #notallprofessors

    3. CindyLouWho*

      I worked for a county organization, and they had a union. Is it your local government that forbids organizing?

    4. Senor Montoya*

      I believe that Texas, like my state (North Carolina), is a so-called “right to work” state. Unionizing is not illegal, but workers in a unionized workplace cannot be compelled to pay dues etc, and unions cannot make agreements with management to cover all employees. Wikipedia has a very clear description.

      In other words, you can have a union but it doesn’t have any teeth.

      1. Amy Farrah Fowler*

        Right. You can have a union (and they can bargain), but only for those that choose to join and pay dues. If you’re not a member of the union, you may get some benefits (because if the negotiating works it’s often easier to employ it across the board than to try to remember who is and isn’t union). But the unions are much less powerful in Texas and other “right to work” states because they cannot require all employees to be members.

        1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

          There’s a middle ground too — at the hospital I worked at in Washington, all employees in union-covered positions were required to either join the union and pay union dues, or to pay the union a non-association fee – if you opted for the non-association fee, you still got some of the union’s negotiated benefits (for example, the union contract required that any resignation could be retracted once per position, and all union-covered positions had the same pay schedules/annual raise process), but you couldn’t vote, you didn’t get a union rep assisting you in a dispute, and you were neither obligated to join in a strike, or protected if you did so. (This is all my recollection at least – I left Washington in 2012, so it’s been a minute.)

          That last bit is why I actually ended up leaving the union and going non-associated – they held a vote on whether to strike over the no-blue-jeans part of the dress code something like three times – it never passed, but I didn’t want to be involved in something that petty.

          1. lou who*

            The circumstance in Washington you are describing was historically more of the norm for unions, and right-to-work laws specifically prohibit non-member fees. What you’re describing is not a middle ground, it’s just a union in a state without a right-to-work law.

            1. MRskier*

              I was a department manager for a large multinational manufacturing company. Most of it in Washington. We in management were all exempt. The administration staff was small, under 10 employees, not covered by the union and were non-exempt. The work crew were union members. Somewhere in the late eighties/early nineties the company negotiated with the union that the employees they represented were not required to be members of the union. There were very few members who chose not to be in the union. One or two people at the most. I’ve been out of the game for awhile now, but as I remember it in Washington the union was still required to represent all the hourly employees even those who were not members. (I also worked for the company in a right-to-work state in the Midwest. I think the union employees had 100% participation. There is a lot of peer pressure for the workers to be a member of the union. I made no difference to me. I had no preference to managing union or non-union employees).

        2. Natalie*

          No unions can require all employees to be members – closed shops have been illegal for decades. In non-RTW states, non-members can be required to pay an agency fee, representing whatever portion of the union’s activity they benefit from even as non-members.

          1. Double A*

            Is this true anymore after the Janus decision? Didn’t the supreme court make pretty much the whole country “right to work”?

            1. another scientist*

              but you are correct, Double A, that the Janus decision struck down the agency fee for non-members. Now it’s either be a member and contribute, or don’t be and still receive the benefits and bargained-for compensations.

    5. JanetM*

      @PJS — Check out TSEU, the Texas State Employees Union (CWA Local 6186), a sister union to my own United Campus Workers.

  2. Bob*

    Do all the planning in secret, offsite and use secure apps.

    Also start with trustworthy people, narks may think they are doing everyone a favour by protecting the company but this is self sabotage while believing they are doing the right thing.
    As for why they do this, protecting those with more power then them is intuitive for many people. Fear of retaliation perhaps or fear of losing their jobs from standing up for themselves. Its “safer” to continue being used then to risk consequences from standing up. Be ready for this.

    1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

      For some people, the risk is not worth the reward. I think you should use less loaded language when discussing people who may not have the flexibility to be unemployed in a failed bid to unionize that you do.

      Remember, unemployment is 14% and people over 50 who are laid off will likely not be able to secure another job, period.

      1. BasicWitch*

        I don’t think they are talking about people who simply don’t want to join a union, they are talking about people who snitch to management.

      2. Well...*

        Unions are by their nature adversarial and draw their power from a culture of solidarity.

        Call a scab a scab.

        1. Scarlet*

          No. Believe it or not there are legitimate reasons why unions do not make sense in certain instances or businesses.

          1. Bob*

            Unions typically form when employees are treated badly en masse. It hits a breaking point. This is a known phenomenon. And unions are not perfect either, they are a counterbalance to bad employers but this can cause ancillary problems.
            There is an old expression that responsible people don’t need rules. If employers treated workers well they would have no need to unionize.
            People who are afraid of standing up for themselves can sabotage their own best interests, and in the case of collective bargaining means they screw everyone while thinking they were actually doing the right thing. That said i can understand why some people think change is scary and taking the risk of standing up for oneself is too much to contemplate, but life can require you to take risks, especially if your downtrodden.

            1. Scarlet*

              I agree 100%

              We would not be here today if it weren’t for unions. I was actually just watching a show on YouTube called 24 hours in the past where a group of celebrities goes back to live in Victorian times, basically working all day for just pennies. Really puts it into perspective the hard won battles our ancestors fought for worker’s rights.

              I guess I just take issues with people who are pro-union no matter what. If my company were to unionize it would be a disaster. I genuinely love our management and HR team, they’re so honest and open with employees and consistently work to have the employee’s best interests at heart – especially during COVID; they’ve gone above and beyond.. but I know full well how lucky I am. Still though, despite everything they do for us and all the benefits/seriously top tier compensation, we still have people pushing for unions. Our sister company is unionized, and they have a plethora of problems. Let’s just say it’s like night and day and it makes me so frustrated my coworkers refuse to even see the obvious drawbacks.

              1. Krabby*

                Well, you also need to remember that when a union forms, almost invariably, working conditions and compensation go up for all employees in adjacent companies/industries. This is largely because employers fear that they will either lose their employees to the new union, or their own workers will unionize to get the same benefits.

                Not trying to dispute that your sister company’s union is a disaster, just that you are probably benefiting from being union adjacent, without actually being in one.

              2. JSPA*

                Correlation is not causality, though. When management is great, unionizing does not force them to be adversarial. When management is sub-par, unionizing forces them up to a minimum standard. Even with the same top team, the middle management isn’t identical, which means that there can be very legit complaints and sources of tension in one “sister” company, but not at the other.

              3. Taniwha Girl*

                My company has decent management and HR as far as I can tell, but we also have a union. I can’t really see any drawbacks because the union wants more rights for workers, management wants more opportunities for business, so as a worker who likes your management you win either way. Plus I have seen in hidden conversations with management and HR, sometimes management tries to do something unilaterally like change pay systems or benefits, and having the union means they have to discuss it with employee representatives first. And knowing that means they don’t decide to do things unilaterally–it forces them to keep employee interests in mind.

            1. Scarlet*

              I hear what you’re saying – but in the event that a worker legitimately and in good faith feels a union would be detrimental to the their workplace- what should they do if they hear talk of union organization, especially if they don’t feel comfortable or standing up (to what might be some very earnest union-leaning folks) and saying “hey, I disagree with this you guys”.

              As Alison herself has stated, there’s no such thing as “snitching” in the workplace. Some places like Walmart and Amazon suck and will punish all the workers for this kind of thing, but other places have management teams their workers trust to be honest and open- places that could actually open the dialog between management and the employees if they were notified of this kind of thing.

              1. Emi.*

                They can counter-organize; they can vote against the union; they can do lots of things that don’t put their colleagues at risk of illegal retaliation. If management were so nice the workers wouldn’t be organizing in the first place.

                1. Scarlet*

                  I wish that were true. The reality is many people think every company in America should be unionized, no matter how great the management is or how great the compensation is, etc. Sadly we have a large portion of our population that runs off emotions rather than looking at facts and making an informed decision.

                  I agree that those that disagree can vote against the union, but it doesn’t take 100% participation (or anywhere close) to vote in a union, and many people abstain from voting simply because they don’t want to “get involved” or start beef with their coworkers. I’ve heard stories about people getting their tires slashed for not voting for the union – like no thanks, I don’t want any part of that drama. I would abstain too if it meant my day to day didn’t turn into a nightmare.

                2. pancakes*

                  If many people thought every company in America should be unionized there probably wouldn’t be 27 states with right-to-work laws meant to discourage unionizing. That’s more than half. Odd assertion.

                  It’s odd, too, that you make a point of saying the differences between your non-unionized employer and its unionized sister company are like night and day but don’t say anything at all about what the differences are. Why not? Whatever it is you mean by this isn’t self-evident, and if you believe the differences support your views I don’t understand why you don’t want to explain them.

                3. Scarlet*

                  See. This is precisely my point. Too many people are so blindly pro-union that they think someone not wanting to dox themselves on the internet by divulging where they work and precisely the issues they raise means they must be lying about their personal union experiences.

                4. pancakes*

                  I was plainly not asking where you work. I asked what you meant by referring to night and day differences. It’s a fair question. Asking people to just take your word for it that the unionized company is worse off as a result and the non-unionized one is better isn’t fair at all, nor is it persuasive. Nor is trying to depict everyone you suspect of disagreeing with you of being emotional or myopic.

                1. JSPA*

                  Yep. It’s absolutely not the case that the default is, “if management doesn’t put a finger on the scales, workers with automatically vote Yes.” I’ve seen workers vote No on one union (didn’t like the attitude and the assumptions, as well as some leadership issues) and later vote Yes on a more flexible unionization plan with more agile structure, more daylight-y finances and more openminded leadership. If management didn’t come down like a ton of bricks (or at least with the attitude, “this is like volunteering to catch leprosy”), more workers would probably make better considered, better-fitting choices not only if, but when and how, to unionize.

                  In much of Europe, Management and Unions work excellently together, because each respects the other’s place in the process.

                2. Jojo*

                  I have worked at both union and non union. Yes it is night and day. Non union you can cross train and and learn a new job. Union you have to stay in your own lane because you cannot take some one else job or work away from them by crosstraining. Stuff like this. It is difficult to explain. But union shops usually have better pay, sick and leave policies….. the list goes on for both sides. But i prefer the union shop. Unions are still needed because there are still but businesses out there.

              2. Sacred Ground*

                Go ahead and inform on your coworkers. Accept that people you inform on will think less of you and will not trust you.

                You want to have it both ways, it seems. You want to think of yourself as pro-union and you also want to stop any unionizing efforts in your workplace, even to the point of informing on coworkers, knowing this would get them fired and prevent all of your coworkers from putting the matter to a vote. And not have anyone you work with think less of you or mistrust you.

                Congratulations on your good fortune with your particular workplace. I’m sure your particular experience there is entirely representative of all your coworkers’ experiences, and nobody in your entire company has ever been treated unfairly. Since that’s the case, this is all academic for you. You’ll not have to make such a choice.

                As I said below, your point is both true and irrelevant.

          2. Sacred Ground*

            Which even if true is irrelevant to the subject of protecting organizing efforts from snitches (people who inform to management) and scabs (temp workers brought in by management to replace striking workers and break unions).

            That’s like if we’re talking about cars and you point out that not everyone needs a car. Absolutely true, and not at all relevant to the topic. Useful to change the subject away from a specific issue of how to organize and turn it into an argument about the value of unions in general. Nice try.

            1. Scarlet*

              Not at all what I was saying, which was a reply motivated by Well’s comment about “scabs” and before that Bob’s comment about “narcs”. I was merely stating the extremely true fact that (while unions have their place and have largely been beneficial to 99% of the working population) they are not universally good for everyone everywhere. There are instances where they don’t make sense to implement.

              But it seems you’re too emotionally charged on the subject to recognize that not everyone is trying to personally persecute you or demonize unions, and therefore feel the need to get defensive and put words in people’s mouths, so I’ll end this here.

              1. pancakes*

                It doesn’t seem like that at all. It seems like you’re being extraordinarily disingenuous in an effort to avoid discussing anything specific about why you feel so strongly about this subject.

                1. Scarlet*

                  Are you suggesting I spell out where I work or give out identifying information over the internet? Perhaps rather than jump to “you’re being extraordinarily disingenuous” you should perhaps reevaluate your own biases and question for yourself why you feel the need to defend unions so feverishly when some people have had less than positive experiences? Despite what the internet may tell you or what popular opinion may say, it doesn’t work everywhere and it doesn’t make sense for everyone. Why is that such a difficult concept?

                2. pancakes*

                  I don’t see why you’d think for even a moment that I was suggesting you give out identifying information.

                  Not one person here is asserting that every employee should unionize their workplace, either.

              2. Sacred Ground*

                See my second paragraph above.

                What is the point but to distract from the specific topic AND turn it into a discussion of the value of unions generally, a subject that wasn’t mentioned in this thread until you raised it.

                Like people who say they support protestors but whose only contribution to any discussion of the protesters’ cause is to condemn rioters. Uh, thanks, we all get that, but that’s not what we were talking about, though we are now, thanks to you.

                Emotional? You started this by getting defensive over word choices. I do, in fact, care about the subject of bad employers and worker exploitation because it’s my damned life. This is all academic to you, you can afford not to be emotional, that is, you can afford not to care one way or another.

                Claim you support unions while announcing your own intent/willingness/desire to inform on any unionists at your own shop, while complaining that people don’t like informers and call them names.

                Worker, please.

      3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Let them speak the way they speak. It’s speaks more about the situation they’re all enduring than softening it into something more palatable for the genteel folk.

      4. pancakes*

        It’s illegal in the US to be fired for trying to unionize. Your comment paints a very different picture. I hope people will learn more about this rather than take for granted that trying to unionize will lead to them losing their job. From the National Labor Relations Board website:

        “You have the right to form, join or assist a union.

        You have the right to organize a union to negotiate with your employer over your terms and conditions of employment. This includes your right to distribute union literature, wear union buttons t-shirts, or other insignia (except in unusual ‘special circumstances’), solicit coworkers to sign union authorization cards, and discuss the union with coworkers. Supervisors and managers cannot spy on you (or make it appear that they are doing so), coercively question you, threaten you or bribe you regarding your union activity or the union activities of your co-workers. You can’t be fired, disciplined, demoted, or penalized in any way for engaging in these activities.

        Working time is for work, so your employer may maintain and enforce non-discriminatory rules limiting solicitation and distribution, except that your employer cannot prohibit you from talking about or soliciting for a union during non-work time, such as before or after work or during break times; or from distributing union literature during non-work time, in non-work areas, such as parking lots or break rooms. Also, restrictions on your efforts to communicate with co-workers cannot be discriminatory. For example, your employer cannot prohibit you from talking about the union during working time if it permits you to talk about other non-work-related matters during working time.”

        1. Natalie*

          Lots of things are illegal, that doesn’t mean they don’t happen literally all the time.

          1. Trachea Aurelia Belaroth*

            The person you’re replying to acknowledges that at the start of their comment. They are saying that they hope people don’t just accept the idea “I will be fired for unionizing,” and realize that that threat in itself is not allowed, and they are being downtrodden for being made to think it or being subjected to retaliation.

          2. pancakes*

            I’d like to add, there’s a 2019 report on this by the Economic Policy Institute. It’s titled, “Unlawful: U.S. employers are charged with violating federal law in 41.5% of all union election campaigns.” The report only looks at union elections supervised by the NLRB, but I think it’s well worth a read for people interested in the subject.

            It also reports that “On average, a worker covered by a union contract earns 13.2% more than a peer with similar education, occupation, and experience in a nonunionized workplace in the same sector.”

      5. What's Disgusting? Union Busting!*

        No, scabs are bad. If you don’t want to be part of a union, vote against it when it comes up for a vote. Don’t rat out your co-workers to management.

  3. darlingpants*

    My experience is in trying to organize graduate student unions, which are in an unclear legal place and so might be more complicated but:
    * If you are a large company expect it to take a long time, like 2-3 years before you have a contract at best. If you’re trying to organize a department of 10-50 maybe you can get it done quickly (the pandemic has accelerated a lot of things I thought would take years), but organizing takes a lot of time and effort and it will be an entire extra full time job by the organizers.
    * Unions have people on staff who’s job is to help you organize. They will help advise you on strategy and timelines. However they aren’t in charge of the effort, and they probably won’t tell you what to do.
    * I really wanted to join a union with someone in charge who would figure everything out at then tell me what to do. That’s not how it works. The organizer helping you isn’t in charge. YOU are the union, and if you don’t understand and own that it won’t be an effective union.
    * Winning your vote to unionize is just the first step. The contract negotiations can take as long, and the company will probably negotiate really hard. My sisters contract negotiations were 8 months of the university administration telling them they were stupid children without real responsibilities who didn’t need dental insurance or family leave. It really made a terrible impression on her. You may end up hating your company management if they fight like that and if you find out how much money they’re willing to spend on anti-union lawyers who are fighting you on spending any money on health and safety measures.
    * If the management is at all smart, once you start unionizing they will quickly come up with a bunch of improvements to salary and safety etc “just out of the blue.” This is to convince the undecided people that they don’t need a union, and is a direct victory of your efforts. They will try really hard to undermine your morale with stuff like that, and it’s important to keep in mind that it’s a win for you! They had to respond because of your efforts!
    * Solidarity is a beautiful concept that everyone loves to talk about, but when it actually comes up in real life it’s hard to live. Peoples brains are jealous and wily and most people aren’t used to talking about jealousy and fairness with their co workers. Unionizing is a lot of building trust, and that’s much harder and slower than I hoped and assumed at the outset.
    Good luck everyone!

    1. Tape & Glue*

      This are wonderful observations and great perspective! Thanks for your work organizing. I wish I had appreciated my grad student union (in Canada more).

      1. darlingpants*

        We never actually unionized: I got a lot of insight comparing our unsuccessful efforts to my sister’s successful effort (they voted on the contract in April I believe). Her university had a more robust, larger and older organization trying to organize the grad students, but a lot of the difference was in our approaches as well.

    2. Kalliopesmom*

      Some unions have organizers who help those that want to become part of a union. One in my office, he splits his time between helping those organize (and lead the campaign to unionize the company) and helping those who are not apart of the union file grievance against Davis-bacon. Depending on how CBA negotiations go it can be completed in as little as three months, however, if the NLRB is use when negotiations hit a stalemate it could take upwards of a year.

  4. Scrub Jays*

    I have wondered what happens when a group doesn’t have a national union TO join. My wife is a medical lab worker and hasn’t even been able to figure out if a union exists that her co-workers could even join. And if not, how to start one if it’s just you and two or three others in your shop?

    1. sssssssssssssssssssssssss*

      Lots of umbrella-like unions – mine handles day care workers, municipal workers and flight attendants, among other groups as well.

      Heck, I would even start with a local Teamsters group (if in the US). If your field is not right for them, they might know where to point you.

      1. AK Climpson*

        I have an old Teamsters jacket from my grandmother, who was a university clerical worker. Umbrella unions may surprise you!

        1. sssssssssssssssssssssssss*

          Not anymore. We also have as members chaplains from a large city network of hospitals!

          1. AK Climpson*

            Yes, sorry, I meant that it might surprise the general public, not you specifically (I think some people still have a very specific view of teamsters in particular). But that’s great to hear — loving the diversity of membership!

            1. Done with job hunting*

              My mother was a Teamster for a brief period in the early 70’s when she worked in a plant that packaged products. The union’s magazine always had pictures of its leader on the cover.

    2. SarahTheEntwife*

      A lot of large unions with specific-sounding names like the Teamsters Union actually represent a much broader spectrum of professions, so it’s worth checking even unrelated-sounding organizations.

      1. Beth*

        Yeah — there aren’t very many jobs left making deliveries from wagons drawn by teams of horses, so at the most fundamental level, none of the existing Teamsters is actually working as a teamster.

        1. UKDancer*

          Yes there’s one in the UK called GMB which stood for General, Municipal and Boilermakers. There are not that many boilermakers out there nowadays so it represents individuals in retail, textiles construction and the industrial sector, amongst others.

    3. darlingpants*

      A lot of unions take people who don’t seem to fit the union name. My grad school was organizing with Service Employees International Union.
      I don’t know how to decide who to organize with though. Is anyone else in her workplace unionized? The nurses probably are, she could talk to one of their union reps to see if they know what union she could join.

      1. blackcat*

        Yep, I also was a grad student unionized with SEIU. Lots of friends at other schools were unionized under AFT (makes sense) but also UAW.
        UAW and SEIU will work with basically any profession. Depending on your local where you are, they may have a specific division (our SEIU local was huge, but the higher ed division was smaller and more personal).

        1. another scientist*

          It might be interesting to know that UAW, known as the United Auto Workers, have actually updated their name to United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (and I think Academic should also be in there!) ;)

      2. JustaTech*

        When I was a lab tech at a university I was part of SEIU, who also represented the local child-care workers and nurses. They might have also covered the animal techs.

        I don’t know if the grad students were part of that union as well.

      3. higheredrefugee*

        My only caution with that is that sometimes you will want a different organizing unit representing you. Even if the groups have separate contracts and chapters, when push comes to shove, there are often conflicts of interest, and the larger group with more dues paying members will often get their negotiations and needs/wants prioritized. Within my federal agency, this is why people with my job went outside our traditional union, and it has resulted in far better negotiations for our much smaller subset of employees as we’re no longer compared to vastly different subsets of employees doing very different jobs.

    4. IKnowOrganizers*

      You become a unit of a larger local. I’m a member of a six-person bargaining unit in Teamsters 117. Our contract is separate from the other units and is negotiated on our specific basis. 2-3 isn’t too small to be a unit. If your wife doesn’t know where to start, she should contact SEIU or whatever unions have the hospital workers near her; if they aren’t the right fit, they’ll point her to who is. As the commenter above pointed out, unions are commonly more flexible than they used to be on who they represent, so it’s possible SEIU or OPEIU is a fit. She wouldn’t join your state’s fed of NEA, though; they’re education only.

    5. Femme Cassidy*

      It’s definitely possible to form your own union without connecting to a national one. I know of two in my area that both came about through work with a local socialist-run workplace organizing collective! Bloodworkers United and the Art Workers Union are both independent.

      Your wife could see if there’s any groups doing organizing workshops, maybe; the IWW has them often, not sure if they’ve gone online though. It’s worth going to their website and filling out the contact form for organizing advice to see what they’ve got. :)

    6. Mike C.*

      Yes, talk to any union you can find. If they can’t take you, they will most certainly pass you on to another union who will be more than happy to do so. I have personal experience here.

      1. Kalliopesmom*

        So true. If my union can’t help, I have a network of references to help point them in the right direction.

    7. hufflepuff hobbit*

      the medical lab right next to my office has union employees — I think they are SEIU, but I’m not entirely sure. Anyway, go with the umbrella union, like people are saying below

    8. PeanutButter*

      When I participated in organizing the ancillary staff (paramedics/techs, CNAs, housekeepers, basically non maintenance, nursing [engineers and RNs were already unionized] and practitioners [MDs, DOs, PAs, NPs, etc] ) at the hospital where I used to work, we went to SEIU. The medical lab people were going to be a part of it. They ended up voting not to join, and got outsourced within 6 months. Other ancillary departments that did not vote to join lost their shift premiums and other perks.

      At the same time, some of the doctors that were directly hired by the hospital system and not part of their own “group” unionized under the American Federation of Teachers.

      If you have a workplace that is very segmented like healthcare, look into having separate but cooperating unions! All of the union leaders (nurses, doctors, and ancillary staff) coordinated labor actions, informational pickets, and sticker days (patient care staff would wear stickers on our scrubs/badges about whatever cost-cutting measure we were currently fighting management on so patients would ask us about them and we could give the spiel, which helped improve public sentiment towards our actions). We were also able to get it so that ALL of our contracts were renewed on the same schedule so we could send in reps from all the unions to take on management together.

    9. Perbie*

      There are professional organizations for doctors, which seem to serve some lobbying functions At least

  5. sssssssssssssssssssssssss*

    I work for a very large union. My advice to the future members is “Prepare for a long haul.” It can take months to organize, get employees to sign up, have enough to officially join, lots of meetings, newsletters and updates. There may be a small fee to join (ours is five bucks). Warn them there are union dues and what those dues are for. Then there’s getting your local number, electing the executive, getting the bylaws set up and then more months for that first collective agreement. It’s a long road and many feel it’s worth it but that expectation of how long it can take needs to be set. And be sure that when encouraging employees to join that they know the law and what the employer can and cannot do or say to them regarding organizing.

    Explain the politics of bargaining. There’s a lot of concessions involved. Explain how striking works (and strike pay!) because you can’t “just strike.” Striking requires voting and if you didn’t agree by vote beforehand that a certain bargaining issue was worthy of striking over, then you can’t strike.

    Warn members further down the line that once the collective agreement is in place and you can grieve things, it’s not a cure-all for all problems, that there is often a good chance of disappointment because the collective agreement says X but you were still hoping for Y. But grievances can and do work to your benefit too. Set the expectations.

    Push for a clear language collective agreement and bylaws. So many collective agreements are full of legal jargon and they don’t have to be.

    1. Scarlet*

      This is great advice. I would add a suggestion to hold sessions to educate the workers on what the union can and cannot do, what they can and cannot accomplish, etc. Make sure that everyone understands what a union is for and what you all will achieve with it.

      Along with this – how the voting process works. Not sure if it’s all unions, but the ones that work in my industry require only a certain (rather low) percentage of the total employee population to “vote in” the union. If there are folks who maybe “just don’t want to get involved” or such, they should speak up and make sure to cast a vote one way or the other, or they may be lumped into a decision they don’t agree with (that kind of goes with all types of voting though, union or no!)

      1. IMC*

        In states without card check (which is 50% +1 of the unit) then it’s 50% + 1 of turnout. So if people don’t care to show up, then yes, it could be a small proportion of the unit but that’s on the eligible nonvoters.

  6. Recentlyunionized*

    Reach out to established unions, even if they are in distantly related fields. When my company unionized we did so under the CWA or Communicaiton Workers of America, which has seemingly little to do with our field, but it turned out it was compatible. An established union can provide guidance and advice.

    1. another scientist*

      if they see potential in organizing a workplace, established unions will also provide resources, such as paying salary for full-time organizing staff etc.

  7. we unionized!*

    My workplace unionized last fall. Our process went very smoothly, all things considered, but our employer has a lot of incentive to follow the law to the letter, so we did not experience any direct retaliation as a group (though some feathers were surely ruffled.)

    I would say the number one way to minimize retaliation is to keep all of your organizing a secret from management until the day you file with the NLRB. Do NOT use company-supported email or chat functions to talk about organizing efforts. We used a non-company supported Slack channel and a Google group to have conversations and set up meetings and so forth. If the company finds out about your activities before you file, it’s a lot easier for them to have plausible deniability w/r/t retaliation – “We didn’t know that Fergus was part of a union drive! We just noticed that his widget-building numbers were down this month and had to let him go because of that.” Once you have filed with the NLRB, your protection becomes a lot clearer.

    Part of doing that is figuring out who in your workplace can be unionized and who cannot – i.e. who counts as a manager and who does not, because managers cannot be in your unit. Neither can your HR employees, or anyone else who works with “confidential” information. If you’ve got a small cell of people thinking about forming a union, make sure you know who will be allowed to be a part of your eventual unit before you start expanding the organizing bubble. Also try to have a general sense of how your coworkers feel about unions or organized labor in general. When you start putting out feelers and seeking union reps, keep the organizing group to those most passionate and all-in on the idea. Once you have chosen a union rep to work with for your drive, then you can start expanding your circle more to people who might have more hesitation.

    In our drive, a handful of managers found out, but our senior leadership had absolutely no clue the drive was going on until the day we filed, which was ideal.

    1. Grbtw*

      I wonder if it would be smart for a small group to hire and independent contactor who simply sends info to the staff anonymously. That way, people can agree to receive info, but nobody knows who’s organizing. You’ll find out soon who’s sniffing around for the culprit, giving you a small head start.

    2. Angelinha*

      My union has managers in our unit. Some managers in the union even directly supervise other union members in the same union, same unit, same local, everything.

      1. we unionized!*

        Wow! We were told that the NLRB is very strict about not allowing anyone in the unit who has hiring, firing, or disciplinary authority over others in the unit. So people who supervise interns or temps may be allowed, but not a situation as you describe.

        1. doreen*

          Not every supervisor has hiring, firing or disciplinary authority over others in the unit. For example, the supervisors where I work know do not have hiring, firing or disciplinary authority over their subordinates. They supervise them, assign work , approve work schedules and time off, train them, counsel them and evaluate their performance and a host of other things that don’t come to mind right now- but they do not hire, fire or take disciplinary action or even make formal recommendations regarding those issues. That’s up to the manager.

          1. we unionized!*

            I understand what you and Angelinha mean now. In my workplace my manager (who can decide to fire/demote/discipline me) is the same person who supervises my work, conducts my performance reviews, and approves my timesheets/PTO – so I have a habit of using “manager” and “supervisor” interchangeably when that is not always true. The rest of my organization generally operates in this same way, but even we had edge cases where we had to consult our union rep to figure out whether someone was management or not.

            All this just makes it more important for anyone considering forming a union to understand these classifications within their own workplaces. If in doubt, ask a union rep to clarify before you accidentally bring someone into the unionizing conversation who could be considered management. Ideally, you do not want *anyone* who is a manager to know that you are unionizing before you file with the NLRB. Even if the manager is someone who is sympathetic to worker issues and not going to blow the whistle to higher-ups, knowing about the union before it is made public puts them in a very tricky position. When an organization’s workers unionize, if upper management is not happy about it, they will sometimes take it out on middle managers that they believe may have “helped” in some way, because the middle managers do not have the retaliation protections that the unionized workers do.

            1. Jojo*

              Usually jobs appointed by the company cannot be in the union. In my work place that includes leads. However, if a lead has a problem with management they can have a union steward involved to help them. Payroll and other admin cannot be in our union.

      2. doreen*

        You have to distinguish between “manager” and “supervisor”. I know of many unions that represent supervisors and plenty of those supervisors are in the same unit as their subordinates , and sometimes there may be three or four levels of unionized supervisors – but there is always a line between labor and management, regardless of which specific titles might be used.

        I must say I’ve seen enough problems when supervisors belong to the same union as subordinates that I wouldn’t recommend it .

    3. Not So NewReader*

      OP, pay close attention to this post by “we unionized!”.

      Do NOT use company cell phones, company computers or any other company technology to discuss union matters. Do not discuss unionizing while you are working.

      Knowing what I have seen, do not discuss unionizing on company property.
      Get paranoid and stay that way. I am not joking.

      My husband’s degree was in labor relations. Granted that was a while ago but he always said, “If you are talking about unions, be prepared to lose your job.”

      Moving ahead about 20 years. I was at a job where people who were deeply entrenched in unions and how unions work told me, “If you are trying to unionize, you are doing it for the people who come after you, because your job is over.” They went onto explain that the percent of people that end up unemployed while trying to unionize is VERY high. At that time, this person felt it was 100%.

      Fast forward to within the last 15 years. A friend tried to help unionize very well known company. I gave him the advice you see here. Well. One day it happened. Perhaps he had a long day or perhaps he was tired. He used a company computer to send out a pro-union email. The IP address was traced. He was fired immediately. He had been at that company for decades.

      I wished my husband was still alive to help our friend. But I concluded my husband’s advice would have been the obvious. Our friend was battle worn. What he went through just to get to the point where he wanted to see a union was an incredible story. (36 hour shifts, he refused to do the two straight days of a work shift that a cohort did actually do.) Friend could have gone to court but it would have been another battle. And how much of your life do you want to sink into this?

      So the case went to court. Yeah, if you google around you will find it. The articles make it seem like the employees made out okay. What the articles don’t show is that only a small portion of employees made it to court. Of what was discussed in the settlement, oh, so much more was not mentioned, overlooked or whatever. It boiled down to “Yeah, here’s your union. And now here’s a couple more kicks in the butt.”

      I highly recommend figuring out how much time and energy you are willing to put into this, first and foremost. And I also strongly encourage you to have Plan B. There are many ways this train can derail.

      After seeing all this I had to go back to what my (dinosaur era) father used to say, “If you need a third party to explain to your boss that you are doing a good job, then you need a new boss.[meaning: job].” The denseness of the bosses’ brains does not improve if there is a union. The bosses remain dense.

      The union I worked under made management look preferable. I had two bosses (real and union) that I had to tiptoe around. We were told that if we did not walk their picket lines, we would get a black mark next to our names. If we had trouble at work and needed union help they would check the number of black marks first before deciding to help us. I got a call 8 pm at night to walk a picket line 50 miles south of me the next day. I told them NO, so you know I got that black mark.

      They charged us a day’s pay each month for dues. For this they were going to teach me to read. They sent notices to all of us telling us we could now learn how to read. Yeah, notices in writing…….
      And these are the stories I can say on the internet. There are other stories I cannot say. I went through points where I was afraid for my well-being.

      1. sssssssssssssssssssssssss*

        There was a local in Canada that was put under administration for bullying, intimidation and possibly being mobbed up. The rep assigned to unravel the mess lived two very stressful years including getting his car tires slashed and the media hounding him.

      2. Lora*

        In order of most stressful events in my life to least stressful:

        1 – Getting divorced after a long marriage to an abusive man
        2 – Workplace unionization in a region of the country where getting a new boss was not easy (high unemployment in general, very little employment in my field)
        3 – Caring for my mother as her dementia got worse and she became physically abusive
        4 – Sexual harassment at work / university
        5 – Cancer treatment

        I’m not kidding. Cancer really is that far down the list, I felt like all I had to do was show up with a book to read, mostly. The other stuff was incredibly personal and directly cruel, does a real number on your self esteem, makes you lose faith in humanity. I’d rather just need a nap and throw up sometimes, it’s much easier than dealing every day with how monstrous people can be and wishing they would die already.

        Not even on the list, because comparatively it was NOTHING, was picking up stakes and moving several states away, to a location with much better employment prospects but very far from family and friends, having to make all new friends and get used to a new home. I know there is a management idea that if they locate facilities outside of the major hubs, they will save money on wages by being in East Nowhere, Tornado Alley, but frankly it is a bad bad move for quality of workplace and how well you are treated as an employee if someone invites you there. I had a job I thought was pretty OK when I lived in Tornado Alley, but I couldn’t even dream of the pay and benefits offered routinely where I live now. Yeah, there’s a cost differential, but just being treated like a person would still make it worth staying in the hub for me. Agree 100%, it is much less stressful to get a new boss, however you have to do that, if at all possible. Also agree, as others have said – the best way to ensure you don’t have a unionizing situation, is to be a good manager in the first place.

  8. NYWeasel*

    Be super careful if you are looking to partner with a larger union. My husband’s workplace wanted to unionize and the campaigning between the two large unions was so intrusive and creepy. They were mailing us 5-10 mailers a DAY, calling at all hours, showing up at our apartment and calling distant family members to ask them to tell my husband to vote for a specific option. Neither of the options were unions focused on my husband’s line of work, so they were looking to get the dues and membership numbers to help them advocate for their primary membership. What’s worse is that these side pockets of membership never could generate enough of a majority to get their interests properly represented, so they would have to pay dues but weren’t really well supported.

    1. Perbie*

      I am kind of curious how to judge/form unions to ensure they are providing the helpful functions they should and not just adding another later of self-serving bureaucracy. As a grad student I didn’t much like mandatory membership + dues, not something i had signed up for and had no idea what they were doing for it (even if now i have lots of ideas on how it could be helpful)

    2. Zer-Bert*

      I believe unions have their place but the hard press makes me really want to know what’s in it for them? Clearly there is a financial and/ or other benefit or they wouldn’t push so hard with up to 10 mailers a day!

      1. Kalliopesmom*

        I think the ten mailers a day is excessive. But the financial gain for the union is not as much as people think. We use our funds for taking care of the members. Special parties, incentives, organizing campaigns, fundraising for members who passed away, and so much more.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      Some of the union literature I had alluded to the “fact” that they could “see” into the voting booth and they would know how each of their union members voted in political elections. I am sure some people fell for that one.

      Yes, they call your house and they send you lots of mail. It’s not creepy, it’s freakin’ scary.

  9. ZSD*

    I’ve been wondering about this and have some questions:
    1) Is it okay to send out an email about unionizing using your co-workers’ work email addresses? I don’t have my co-workers’ personal emails, so how else would I contact them to start the conversation? Should I email to their work emails but from my personal email, and encourage them to respond from personal email?
    2) Rather than formally unionizing, which I understand takes months/years, how effective is it to just informally agree that no one will agree to, e.g., take on significant extra work without extra pay? That is, rather than having a union, can we just have a group of people who agree to stand up to unreasonable demands?
    3) I’m thinking about contacting just the approximately 15-20 people who do basically my job at the university and having us come to this sort of agreement. This seems more feasible than trying to get all 200 staff members of the school within the university to work together. What do you think about this strategy?

    1. dorothyparker*

      Hi! See my comment below yours but:

      1) Keep any exchanges about unionizing off of company computers/servers/email. Try and get on the phone as much as possible. I felt silly yesterday with a cloak and dagger text to a colleague, hey can I call you today to chat? and then used personal cell phones. If you don’t have cell phone #, start on your work phone and get their personal contact info (assuming your employer doesn’t monitor calls?)
      2) You can group together and start there. I’d suggest looking deeper into why unionizing works and decide if that makes sense for your org. Organizing doesn’t necessarily take years. A friend’s company organized over a few months.
      3) You don’t need every staff member on board to get the process going but again, if it’s a single issue, it might not make sense to join a union. Opening up the conversation, people might surprise you with their feedback and feelings and, even if it doesn’t feel right to you, others might feel more strongly about forming a union.

      1. PeanutButter*

        > A friend’s company organized over a few months.

        I know a doctors’ group that filed with the NLRB and held their election on the same day, or at least as soon as legally possible. Even though there was lots of labor organizing going on at the hospital at the time nobody knew the docs were organizing as well until they basically told management they were union. It was GLORIOUS.

    2. darlingpants*

      100% do not use work emails for this! Talk to them in person about it first and get non-work contact info. Universities like to act chill about unions because it makes them look like they support liberal causes but they are not chill. They’ve had union drives and they have the anti-union lawyers on standby.
      As for 2: joining an actual union gives you much stronger legal protections than the informal agreement you’re proposing. You could do that, but they could probably fire you all without penalty. If you organize around a formal union then you can’t legally be fired for it (people still get fired, but then they can sue).
      No clue about #3 unfortunately

      1. Natalie*

        I’m sure there are specific advantages to forming a union but I think it’s important to note that the NLRA protects labor organizing *whether or not* you are in a union or attempting to form one. And you have the same remedies, generally speaking.

    3. blackcat*

      1) Do not use work emails!
      You can use work email to send out an email saying “Hey, can I get your personal email?” You can also used linkedin or FB to collect email addresses. We made a google group of personal email addresses.

      3) Is there any group on your campus that is already unionized? For example, a wide range of workers at my grad institution are all under the SEIU umbrella (adjuncts, grad students, janitors, and some food service workers). If there’s any union already with a presence, that may be the right way to go.

      You have a lot more leverage the larger your group is, so I’d encourage trying to go for the bigger group.

    4. IKnowOrganizers*

      I think you’d end up in a bargaining unit of your own anyway, so #3 makes sense. For #2, you can do that, but it depends on how free your employer feels about terminating you. If you refuse to do extra work but your job description says “other duties as assigned”, that may be a way of getting the wedge in to fire you for failure to do your job. If anyone cracks under that kind of strategy, you’re all in trouble. Basically, do not recommend.

      Absolutely do not use work email or (ideally) even phones for this. Phones are less likely to be actively monitored, but the current administration is anti-labor and you’ll likely find yourself fired for “performance issues” regardless of the NLRB’s protection on organizing. Your employer doesn’t know you’re organizing if they learned it from monitoring their email system for keywords.

    5. Observer*

      If your workplace has a policy that they enforce against personal use of email, then you can’t use people’s work email for unionizing. If they don’t have a policy or it’s not enforced they cannot selectively enforce it against union efforts, but who needs the headache?

    6. Nonprofit worker*

      #3 – there is more strength in a wall-to-wall union, which basically includes everyone who is eligible. Also, legally it can be difficult to make the case that only 15-20 of you should be part of Union X. You absolutely do not want to file for a 2o person election only to find out that your employee successfully convinced the NLRB that your bargaining unit is actually 200 people – you’ll probably lose the election. Trump-era NLRB tends to agree that the largest possible bargaining unit is the most appropriate bargaining unit.
      The caveat is if your department does something EXTREMELY specific but even then it’s a gamble.
      I say go for the whole company even if it takes longer.

    7. Huff*

      My experience is that when you email someone at their work address and ask them to reply using a personal email, they 80% of the time do not do it and respond on their work email.

      Depending on your state and whether your university is public or private, it isn’t always so straightforward to figure out who would be in your bargaining unit. I was part of a successful unionization effort a few years ago, and we had to go to the state labor board and say “we think that these are the job titles that should be part of our bargaining unit for these reasons, and we think these job titles/duties should be excluded for these reasons, and here are the signed cards for an absolute majority of the people that we think should be in our unit” and our administration went back and said “we think that the union shouldn’t include this subset (of highly union-supportive workers) and should include this classification (of highly unsupportive workers).” The state board had to make a decision (they sided with us), but it could have gone the other way, which would have made things more difficult. We were working towards an unclear target, and the administration did what they could to further muddy the waters. It was a difficult task, even with the support of a large national union. There are so many variables and possibilities that we never could have just done it on our own.

      1. pancakes*

        Why not talk to them instead? And ask for their private email address or phone number if they’re interested? It isn’t necessarily straightforward to organize co-workers, no, but it is fairly straightforward to start the process by talking to one another.

        1. ZSD*

          But it’s hard to talk to people when we’re all working from home! Everything has to start via university email, university chat, or university Zoom these days.

          1. doreen*

            Then you start the conversation by asking for a personal phone number or email using one of those methods ( preferably not email) without mentioning specifically why. But that’s the last exchange on university anything.

          2. pancakes*

            Not all of us are working from home. I am, and was before the pandemic, but many, many people aren’t.

  10. dorothyparker*

    I’m working on starting this process now at a mid-size, big money non-profit. From friends who have done this in their companies:

    1) If you can get an org chart, or can mostly draw one out, make a spreadsheet of all staff with their roles. Then go through and rate 1-5 (1 being most likely to be supportive and 5 being least likely). You don’t need 100% of people to sign on to unionize. Then start reaching out! Offline! Try to avoid things in writing as much as humanly possible. Private slack channels are popular but find a way to get group communication going away from work.
    2) Make sure BIPOC voices are heard. Get Black staff involved if you’re white and in leadership roles if they want. More broadly, people are more likely to be engaged if they have ownership so don’t look at this as a professional development opportunity. Get people to take the lead and be willing to step back and not control everything.
    3) In the spirit of point 2–everyone will have their own reasons for wanting a union. Ask people to provide their specific goals and try and get the group to agree on priorities to take to leadership when you’re bargaining.
    4) Prepare for management to be upset (hopefully they’ll be receptive). I’m in non-profit and I’m sick of senior leadership who are paid 5x what I make saying, “I’d do this for free!”. I don’t have the finances to do my job for free and non-profit especially will lean on the mission. I’ve also heard stories of management pulling people into their offices one-by-one to talk about what’s going on and try to suss out who is leading the effort. Make sure that people feel like they know how to respond (this can also be where guidance from the union that you’re joining can help!)
    5) This should be higher but find a union to join and reach out! Also find friends in your life who are organizers and reach out to them for advice!

    Also, Secrets of a Successful Organizer is a recommended read!

    1. hbc*

      In my experience, #3 is really important. I mentioned in the original post that I had employees trying to start a union just before I took over the facility, and it was a mess. I mean, I genuinely didn’t care whether a union was formed or not, especially since one would help keep me on the ball about some stuff that obviously needed to be handled (an actual pay structure and job descriptions, for example.) But it all fell apart pretty much when they met with me and described why they were dissatisfied, and everyone gave a different answer, some conflicting, most of which couldn’t be addressed by a union.

      At least, I’m pretty sure a union wouldn’t have made the former boss stop lying about working from his lake cabin on Fridays during the summer. But they had some real issues that would have been useful to address together if I had been more like the old boss.

  11. Chronic Lurker*

    So I’m a union officer in a white collar union that only organized about 3.5 years ago, and got our first contract about 1.5 years ago. I was not at my job during the initial unionizing drive, but I am familiar with the process and with what goes into keeping a union running/functional. The basic process is:

    1. Talk to a small group of your coworkers about unionizing. Do this quietly, and probably don’t mention unions in your first conversation. Rather talk about some of the issues at your job (the way they’ve handled the pandemic is a great one) and then say some vague stuff about “I feel like we should be able to have more of a say in this” or “I wonder what would happen if we all took a stand together” and see what they’re reaction is. If it seems positive, maybe bring up unions. DO NOT talk to anyone who is super close with management. You do not want management to hear anything about it at this stage.

    2. Once you have a small group of people who are committed to the idea, contact a union that represents people in your area. If/when you vote to unionize, you will be a unit or shop within this union; you will pay dues to them and in turn they will provide you with resources. Unions have professionals whose whole job is to help you organize your co-workers. They are very good at it, and will have advice that is specific to your industry or for companies of your size.

    3. Work with the union to get as many people as you can onboard. Ideally you don’t want management to hear about things here, either, but they will probably find out some time during this phase.

    4. Once you have a majority on board, petition management for voluntary recognition; if/when they refuse, request a vote before the National Labor Relations Board. If a majority of your workplace votes to unionize, you have unionized.

    On retaliation specifically, there are a few general rules to keep in mind: The first is that there is strength in numbers. The more people you have on board, the harder it is for management to fire the union-friendly people and come up with a convincing pretense for why they did it. This is why you have to be most careful during step 1, when you are alone.

    Second: Don’t make it obvious who the people leading the charge are. Same logic as above.

    Third: Know your rights, and make sure everyone else does, too. Management cannot force you to answer questions about your involvement or non-involvement with the union. If they try to discipline you for refusing to answer questions about the union, that falls under the category of you being disciplined for union activity. Make sure people know that they can’t be forced to answer questions.

    The more people know their rights, the more people feel empowered and the harder it is for management to get a clear picture of what’s going on. This makes it harder for them to retaliate strategically, meaning they either wont’ do it at all, won’t do so effectively, or will make mistakes that the union’s lawyers can pounce on. (Ideally it’s the first one, but you never know.)

    And if anyone has additional questions, ask. I’m always happy to talk unions.

    1. dorothyparker*

      I’m still early stages and have only a few folks in the conversation. At what point is it not permitted for them to discipline for not answering questions about union involvement? Always?

      1. Nonprofit worker*

        Have you contacted a union yet to inquire about representation? The moment you make that contact, you’ll be much better protected legally.

        1. dorothyparker*

          I did contact a union. We’ve had minimal email exchange so far but I am hoping to get more from that soon.

      2. Chronic Lurker*

        So it depends a little what types of questions they are asking — but in general, the National Labor Relations Act protects your right to organize. This includes your right not to tell management about union activity. Management can’t interrogate employees about union activity, including their own involvement, or conduct surveillance specifically designed to investigate union activity. In practice, management does this kind of stuff all the time (keep your union organizing off company devices and email addresses!) but they still aren’t allowed to, and if you’re disciplined for not answering questions about the union, that’s pretty unambiguous.

        So if you all are even just talking about unionizing, under the NLRA, they can’t demand you tell them anything about it.

        (Of course, you still don’t want management to find out at this stage, but if they do, just know you are protected.)

  12. LizArd*

    Alison I would love to see an expert interview about this. I’ve worked for a union and it’s a long, difficult process to organize a workplace!

  13. A Programmer*

    Does anyone know what national union software workers (programmers, tech support, any related role like project managers, technical writers, and web designers) would join? I’ve seen a lot of stuff about “tech workers unionize” but am not aware of a specific company that has done it or what umbrella organization they fall under. My particular workplace is a software company so it doesn’t fall under some other industry group.

    1. we unionized!*

      Kickstarter went with the Office and Professional Employees International Union. I have no experience with them, but you could start there if you have a local branch :)

    2. But what if ...*

      Maybe “Transportation Communications International Union (TCU)” or “Office and Professional Employees International Union” ?

      When I worked at a hotel front desk, I was represented by TCU. (Which makes less sense than you would think, given that other departments in our company were represented by Unite HERE which, I think, the HERE stands for Hotel, Entertainment, and Restaurant Employees)

    3. IKnowOrganizers*

      OPEIU was going to be my guess too, but honestly, I’m a Teamster and I do communications, so you may also find SEIU or Teamsters is a fit. A lot of unions are more umbrella than they used to be.

    4. techwriter1*

      I formerly worked as a technical writer for a large US city, and we (the tech writing team) unionized under a local that was previously part of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE). Our group broke away from IFPTE several years ago because of membership fees and formed our own local org. It was not a big deal for us to unionize because all of the engineers we worked with were union.

      I’m not sure where you’re located, but IFPTE also covers Canada.

    5. Nonprofit worker*

      A group of Google contractors in Pittsburgh went with USW. CWA is also interested in software and video game programmers too.

    6. UKDancer*

      For anyone in the UK who wants to join a union but isn’t sure which one represents their industry, I’d recommend starting with the Trade Union Congress (TUC) website which has a tool allowing you to locate the ones covering your area.

      My company has a noticeboard at the tea point listing the contacts for the 2 unions present so people can get in touch with either.

  14. Failed Organizer*

    Be aware that you may need to approach several unions before you find one that’s willing and able to take you on. I tried to unionize my workplace in a field that has had a big union push in the last few years, and we contacted multiple unions for representation that said they were too overloaded with other drives to take us on.

    Also, spreadsheets are a good way to keep track of who you’ve approached in the office, who is going to approach which other coworkers, how many votes in favor you would have at any time, etc.

  15. Bobboccio*

    Foodora Canada dependent contractors (food delivery people) just voted to unionize, but before they could actually form a union, Foodora Canada had already declared bankruptcy. Not sure what’s next for the employees.

  16. Femme Cassidy*

    Vice published an article earlier this year on unionizing without getting caught. It’ll come up with a quick Google search for “vice union without getting caught.”

    A bit of advice I got from an organizer once was to be an IMPECCABLE worker as much as you can while you’re organizing. Because direct retaliation is illegal, employers can and will find excuses to suddenly crack down on things (like lateness) that used to be no big deal to them. The harder you work to be a “good employee,” the fewer excuses they have to get rid of you and disrupt the work.

  17. Emi.*

    Organizing is a ton of work and you have to have a lot of uncomfortable conversations that you’re not used to. I recommend connecting with a national union and asking for as much training as they can possibly provide. But this jokey article was my introduction to the idea of a structured organizing conversation: (Alison, I hope this is okay to post — it’s about organizing people for a candidate but it explains how to have the sort of conversations you’d have in a union drive.)

  18. Anon Today*

    I want to offer a perspective from my POV of a board member of a very small nonprofit whose staff decided to unionize (this was several years ago). This is not meant to discourage anyone from unionizing if that’s their best route toward getting what they need from management. In our case, it would have been helpful if the staff had been more clear about what they wanted and why they were unionizing before going down that route – in short, be sure you can’t get those things without unionizing. Their decision to unionize was really aligned with our overall mission and work, so we got it and generally were okay with it from that perspective, but we were so small that they could have gotten what they wanted by just bringing it up to the BOD and talking with us, without unionizing.

    In our case, the major issues were that the staff was not so happy with how they were being managed by the ED, and wanted a little more protection from termination (since they were all employed at-will as is normal here). We would have happily worked with them on those things without a union, but it never came up until we got notice that they had unionized, which forced us to negotiate everything through a painful contract process. In our case, the substantial effort the BOD had to put toward working on the union contract would have been better spent on fundraising, which was borne out by the reality that we ran out of money and had to lay them all off anyway (and the NLRB sided with us on that decision).

    1. LDN Layabout*

      In which case, you and the board failed miserably in demonstrating to your employees that you could be trusted.

      People don’t unionise out of the blue, especially in places where it’s fairly difficult to do so. The hand wringing of ‘oh we would have survived if not for the nasty nasty requirements of a union’ is just another flavour of ‘but if we raise the minimum wage we’ll go out of business and people will be unemployed!’

    2. Emi.*

      Soooo you were so willing to give workers what they wanted that you spent all your fundraising time trying keep them from getting it?

    3. They may have had no other choice*

      Staff in fear of termination by a bad ED have no way to approach a board without fear of retaliation — unless they have the explicit protection from retaliation that the act of organizing a union provides.

      I worked for an organization with a tyrannical, abusive, and irresponsible ED who put on a great show for the board. The senior executive who was second in command — a longtime employee, well respected — went to the board . . . and ED managed to convince the board that it was a matter of bitterness and loyalty to the previous ED. Tyrannical ED got her fired. During her cancer treatments.

      That was enough to silence everybody else. Tyrannical ED finally left on a sour note over a decade later, having practically driven the organization into the ground. Some board members had finally seen through her, but not all–one actually helped her get another job.

      Staff who are unionizing before coming to the board to request “a little more protection from termination” may be telling you that something is very, very wrong.

    4. Bookartist*

      How would the board have protected staff from unjustified firing without a contract of some kind? Would the board have willingly signed contracts with staff? Wouldn’t the ED have stopped that?

    5. Not So NewReader*

      I am on two boards.

      I strongly feel that one area where boards routinely fall down is the area of allowing others to go around the director and talk to the board.
      Fortunately we have become more aware and built tools for doing this such as harassment policies with designated board members as officers for harassment problems. (Ditto for discrimination issues.)

      But, to me, this is only a start. We need to do more and do even better. When subordinates feel they have no way to deal with their problems they will begin to think about outside advocacy. This is normal human nature, this is not a surprise. I do not understand why boards are not talking about this more. I am amazed that we have gotten into the 2000’s and we (society) have not figured out that this recurring problem is not unusual AT ALL and we need to have channels to talk about this stuff.

    6. COLimey*

      That’s funny, that’s what our management said too when we organized! Oh if only you hadn’t unionized you could have had all these things and all the rights!

  19. IKnowOrganizers*

    And most employers are not open to this. I’ve worked for an organization where the board knew a member of management was A Problem, but they did nothing about her. Which is the habit of most of the boards I’ve worked with. Makes it so that employees who are at will don’t feel like you’re going to be the sparkling unicorn board who will take feedback about organizational problems. And if the process was so drawn out that you couldn’t find raise because you wasted time arguing about the contraxt, how open to unionizing were you in the first place?

  20. memyselfandi*

    Look for your county, regional or state labor council, federation or institute. Councils bring together most or all unions and should have expertise. Alternatively there are non-profit organizations like Labor Institutes that offer expertise and training. I am sure it varies depending on the part of the country you are in. I am familiar with the two coasts, but not the center of the country.

    1. union staff*

      Seconding this! And if you can’t find a local labor council, you can go straight to the AFL-CIO website, click “form a union,” and click your way through to filling out a form. AFL-CIO is an umbrella federation for a lot of different unions, and their organizers can help direct you to a union that would be a good fit for your workplace and goals.

  21. Proceed with Caution*

    Having recently left a job with a union, I want to offer a word of caution. In the beginning, a union may help solve your issue. However, after times passes, the union bosses are another layer of people taking money out of your pocket and looking to increase their own personal positions. If you can solve your problem with a group of co-workers, as Alison oftens recommends, I encourage you to do so without obligating yourself to pay union dues for the rest of your career.

    1. Kate*

      A counterpoint: I used to think my union’s dues were a waste of money until I actually needed my union. My union dues pay for both a professional negotiator and a lawyer; those dues came in really handy when faced with some thorny legal issues around a harassment case. My dues over the years wouldn’t have made a dent in legal fees.

      1. MentalEngineer*

        Yup. I do contract enforcement for my local. People think the dues are a waste of money until HR wants to talk to them. Then they want the union rep and the lawyer on retainer without ever having contributed a penny to help out the other people who needed the same thing. (Never mind all the other stuff dues money gets used for, exactly none of which is going into our pockets.)

    2. Creag an Tuire*

      The “union bosses” aren’t some outside agents imposed from on high. They’re the people your co-workers elect into those positions according to the bylaws you set up, and they forget their role, vote ’em out.

      1. UKDancer*

        Yes quite. I vote for my union officials. They have to submit lengthy (and rather dull) manifestos saying what they stand for and their approach and I have a long ballot paper to complete once I’ve read the dull manifestos. If I don’t like their approach I can vote them out of office and I have done in the past.

        I can, if I wish, see copies of the union accounts and see what my money is being spent on and go to the annual conference and listen to debates and vote on motions. I don’t because it’s not that interesting to me but I am pleased the opportunity exists.

        Also from what I can see people don’t get a huge amount of benefit, financial or otherwise, from being a union official, at least not in my union.

        1. Scarlet*

          Real question – how transparent is the negotiation process for you? My friend was telling me they were helping with union negotiations some years back, but the union representatives kept arguing in favor of policies/issues that benefited their own interests rather than the interests of the employees. There was no check and balance, the rest of the employees never found out. It was very disheartening to hear, to say the least.

          1. UKDancer*

            I’m in the UK so how unions work may differ where you are as I know a lot of people on this board are in the US.

            How it works as I understand it is that the union in my company gets a mandate from its members (either at a meeting or in writing) for any actions it proposes to take in discussion with the management. They act in our interests because that’s what we mandate they do. I’d struggle to think of a circumstance in which they’d take action contrary to the interests of the members and by extension the workforce collectively. Any concession they get or pay rise achieved goes to the workforce as a whole.

            I know the shop steward in my part of the company reasonably well (he used to work for me) and I’d say he’s unlikely to lie to the members. Not only is he reasonably ethical but he’s the worst liar I’ve known in a long time. They meet the management to discuss a range of things, building refurbishment, the gender pay gap etc and report back regularly.

            My union also takes decisions, campaigns etc at national level and the motions for the national conference are discussed and voted on.

            I have to say I’m not really very active in the union so if I wanted to be more active and know more I probably could but it’s never been my area of interest. I’d never not be in a union because I believe in what they do and stand for but I’m not that personally involved.

    3. IKnowOrganizers*

      Another counterpoint: my union dues aren’t a patch on the $165,000 bill I got for a cardiac arrest, or the thousands upon thousands in bills for an associated infection. But my union dues paid for a negotiator to negotiate a contract where my health insurance is top of the line, 100% employer-paid, and I have a maximum out of pocket cap of $1500 a year – with $1000 available to me from the union for catastrophic time lost. My pension is 100% employer-paid, and it’s now portable. I got a $5000 raise this year because the union successfully renegotiated the steps in our contract.

      I pay a lot less in union dues than I would in benefits anywhere else. Not all contracts are as good as mine, but acting like you get nothing for (in my case) $45 a paycheck is so disingenuous as to be dishonest.

      1. Kalliopesmom*

        This! Part of my job is to help the members negotiate thru the employer paid benefits and make sure the member is taken care of. Yes on the surface paying dues is no fun. But these dues pay for me to have my job to take care of the members. Retirement, health insurance, supplemental support unemployment, training and so much more.

    4. MentalEngineer*

      I’m on the executive committee of my union, which has about 500 members and represents over 3,000 workers. We would kill to have even one contested election! At least in my case, we’re not in our spots long-term because we’ve entrenched ourselves, we’re there because finding people interested in union leadership is a constant challenge.

  22. Moocowcat*

    Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has an episode (Bar Association) covering the topic of unionizing. Watching Rom become a union leader and successfully negotiating with Quark for workers compensation is fantastic.

      1. Moocowcat*

        Honestly, it’s a great example of problem solving and also matches the general advice from Ask a Manager 1) Rom tried to speak to his manager to improve working conditions at the bar. 2) When unsuccessful, he gathered co-oworkers together to present their united case to Quark. 3) Rom formed a union when management (Quark) was totally being unreasonable. 4) Quark eventually changes his compensation package and long term improvements occur. 5) Rom finds a better job where he’s appreciated. Yay!

  23. So anon right now*

    Experience: Second job out of college, we unionized with ICWUC, which is part of United Food and Commercial Workers. First graduate school was also unionized when this was a very new thing, and contract talks had just started when I started my first year of grad school (Graduate Employee Organization, part of UAW). Many family members Teamsters.

    The bottom line is really, by the time a workplace decides to unionize, management is SO awful, that in a functional organization the executives would already have fired the middle – lower management for being terrible managers, so your problem is not just with Manager Bob who let a guy get killed on a forklift, it’s with Bob’s boss who didn’t fire him for letting a guy get killed on his watch, and Bob’s boss’ boss who gives no fks at all about getting sued by the dead guy’s family. These are already people with no cares about legal liability, regulations, money (they’re running a business! they SHOULD care about money, at least! they don’t though), or human life other than their own. Unionizing is not trivial, it is highly risky. If you are a senior manager, and one of your junior managers is stuck with a situation where his workers are threatening to unionize, your very first action should be to fire the junior manager for incompetence. Nobody does this stuff for funsies because they’re bored, or because they’re manipulated by a Teamster offering a cheeseburger in exchange for a signed card. That’s not a thing, no matter what the Pinkertons tell you (also FYI, the Easter Bunny isn’t real, and you’re never going to get that check in the mail). If you are a manager and you have a situation where people want to unionize, you need to start firing a couple levels of management and try to appease people, because you’re already in an extremely adversarial situation where your employees not only are “disengaged,” they are furious with you and an apologetic pizza party isn’t going to cut it.

    If you are an employee planning to unionize, or even just thinking about it:

    1) The union will have a lawyer to advise you on not getting fired. Follow their advice to the letter, for sure, but also…you might get fired anyway. Have a backup plan and savings to cover this eventuality.

    2) Use your home computer and home phone for everything. All meetings, discussions, etc. should be off site, after hours. Do not even hand out pamphlets during lunchtime. Do absolutely nothing on company property, while you are at work, or even on your breaks. Do not discuss anything in the smoke shack. Do not discuss anything in the parking lot. All whispers of any activity or plans or even friendly chats, must happen outside of work. “But lunch I am off the clock!” Doesn’t matter. Wait for 5:03, and meet at a coffee shop. Be very mindful of your surroundings and who is listening or sitting near you in the coffee shop. The correct answer to a friendly stranger who drops in on these conversations and says “I couldn’t help but overhear…” is “Eff You” and walk away.

    3) The company will hire anti-union consultants who will have you sit through videos about why it’s dumb to have a union. They will put you in a room and talk at you for endless hours about why a union sucks. Just sit there. You don’t have to talk to them. You can just walk in, sit down, let them talk, and say “mmmhmmm thanks for the info, bless your heart” and walk out. Do not get mad at them. Do not talk to them. They are not your friends. They are not there to help you. They aren’t really there to help management either, to be honest they are there to vacuum up money and they don’t care a whole lot. Historically relevant note: back in the day, the Pinkerton Agency was hired as basically a private army, to shoot the unionizing workers. Literally, to shoot the workers dead and kill their families too, and the company owners’ idea was that they would then bring in new immigrants to back-fill those jobs (it didn’t work, the incoming immigrants weren’t happy either). These consultants? They have zero problem with that. They are OK with firing you illegally, they are OK with blacklisting you, they will definitely stalk you in your home, harass you, try to hack your home computer or phone, they may try to threaten your safety. That is their job. They are not nice people. If it came to that, and it was a large enough company with a large enough union (e.g. Coca-cola vs Sinaltrainal) – they would hire some ex-Blackwater type of thugs to hurt or kill you and they would sleep well at night. Best to not engage with them and give every appearance of boredom noncommittal with the whole thing, so as not to be a target. Consider it your Oscar moment, poker face-wise, when you have to deal with these people. It will be a long painful slog that makes every day feel like 1000 extremely hostile years. For the most part in the US, they show a lot of movies and lecture at you for many hours, as shoot-outs are not viewed kindly by CNN, but harassment campaigns and threats are still fairly typical.

    Management will also do their best to make your life miserable. Assigning hated tasks, assigning dangerous tasks with no safety precautions, giving you far more work than you can handle, taking away your favored projects, verbal abuse, whatever they can think of to make you want to quit. That’s their job now. A few good managers may refuse to go along with this and simply continue as before. They are under immense pressure, try to sympathize with them.

    I cannot emphasize enough that the harassment campaign will be insanely stressful and you must be prepared for it with support from your family, friends, therapist, someone. At SecondJob, through sheer dumb luck, my therapist’s husband happened to be a labor lawyer who worked on various employment law cases with unions, and he happened to have heard about my then-workplace’s shenanigans. After a couple of weeks, when he had told her about this particularly awful employer where people were unionizing due to on the job injuries and horrible chemical spills and near-miss explosions, with the consultants threatening and stalking employees, she came to a therapy session completely horrified and said she didn’t know how much help she could be in the face of that kind of abuse. It’s just *really bad*. And it can go on for years, if management wants to drag it out.

    4) Once it seems like enough people want to join the union, the union will request an official vote. A bunch of people have to sign a petition (like the old union cards system) to have an election in the first place, and once it is demonstrated by sign-ups that the employees really do want to vote, an election will be scheduled. Votes are certified by both the union and the company management.

    5) After the election is certified by the NLRB, you can start drafting and negotiating a contract. The union will have a boilerplate contract to start from. Read it VERY carefully, there may be some errors in it and there will definitely be things you want to add that are peculiar to your workplace. Make those changes with the union lawyer so the language is correct. Multiple people may come to contract discussions. Drafting and negotiating the contract is a full time job by itself, usually done by shop stewards working with the union lawyers, so if you are doing this, be prepared for many 80-hour weeks. If you are the jerk who did absolutely 0 work to help draft revisions or sit through negotiations, and you still want to complain about how it turned out, you can sit down and shut up. There’s always one.

    6a) Hopefully after this some changes happen. You probably won’t get everything you want from the contract, but health and safety things are generally something of a surprise that companies end up agreeing to – the consultants tell senior management that the reason their staff is unionizing is for money (and that may be ONE reason but it’s rarely the ONLY reason), and when it turns out that actually, you’d prefer the forklift drivers didn’t get splattered all over the warehouse floor or that you’d rather have safety glasses provided by the company as they are already legally required to do, they do capitulate on those points.

    6b) Or, the company may decide to close up shop and move overseas. Or it may decide to lay everyone off and restructure. Or, it may decide to lay off everyone but the people they believe/know voted against the union in the election. And then you’re out of a job anyway. If the union is any good, the union lawyer will file a complaint with the NLRB that they did this illegally, but be aware that there will be absolutely 0 punishment for this. The very best you can hope for in such a situation is that some years down the road when it all percolates through the courts (for me, three years later), you will receive payment for the length of time you would have been employed had the company not laid people off before closing. In my case, the company laid everyone off but the low level managers, and ordered the low level managers to do all the work of technicians and chemists. This didn’t work out too well, and the company folded a few months later, so I got three months of back pay…three years after the fact. Not a lot. Amusingly, they also laid off people in the bargaining unit who were anti-union and constantly complaining about the union to anyone who would sit still – yet another reason to just Keep Mouth Shut, it doesn’t help you to be vocally anti-union either – it only makes you appear unreliable. If you are in an economically depressed area where jobs are hard to come by, or where it’s a small community and everyone talks, you may find you have to move out of town to get a new job.

  24. Sabine the Very Mean*

    I worked for a resort where the emergency response team tried unionizing several times due to very unsafe working conditions for them. Every single time, the company brought in union-busters to end those talks. Worked every time. Those poor people still get paid terribly, still are at risk, and still have no protections.

  25. Nonprofit worker*

    In the midst of a organization effort at my non-profit. It has been a frustrating and rewarding process. Frustrating because it takes months, but rewarding because I have met and talked to so many coworkers who I otherwise never would’ve talked to before.
    To echo the great advice provided by so many other commenters:
    -Try to find organization charts or staff lists so you’re not starting from scratch.
    -Even if you know managers who might seem supportive, do not let them catch wind of what is happening. It’s for their own good, as they aren’t protected by NLRA. The employer could argue in the end that Supportive Manager coerced their direct reports into supporting the union, and the votes could get dashed.
    -Your organizer contact is your ally, but ultimately it’s up to the workers to do the organizing work. You’ll be stronger and it’ll help combat employer claims that a third party is trying to organize the workplace. The union is YOU.
    -There are benefits (and downsides, of course) to organizing virtually. You don’t have the boss literally down the hall, but it can also be harder to track down far-flung employees to get them to call you back.

  26. Beth*

    My own personal experience is from working in theatre, on the technical side. After several years of prodding at our management to improve their terrible practices, we unionized by joining an existing theatre union.

    Things worth knowing that I didn’t know before:

    – Read up on gaslighting, DARVO, and other techniques that abusers use to control their victims. You are unionizing because, at some level, in some way, you are being abused. Unions provide a structure that protects against some degrees and types of abuse.

    – A union can, in term, be an abusive and/or corrupt power structure. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t unionize. Marriage can also be an abusive and corrupt power structure.

    – Within a unionized structure, some things leave your control, and you never regain that control. These things may not have been under your control anyway. Focus on what you have gained.

    – Management will do anything they can to make your life miserable and blame it on the union. Management will coerce you in hopes of preventing unionization. (The fact that it’s unconstitutional, illegal, evil, etc will not stop them or even slow them down.) Management will lie its pants off in an attempt to sow division and distrust amongst you. Through all of this, retain an awareness that these behaviours, and the power to engage in them, are one of the reasons you are unionizing.

    – Some existing unions have strong leadership and good negotiators. Some don’t. Some just pocket dues and rubber-stamp bad contracts. Others will go to the line for you and bring back everything they can. Research the union and make your decision based on information, not faith and blind hope.

    – There’s a very good chance that you already know people who have experience with unions. Find them and talk to them.

    1. Beth*

      “A union can, in term” — this should have been “A union can, in its turn” . . . dang.

  27. AVP*

    For anyone dipping their toes into this topic, I would highly, highly recommend watching American Factory, a documentary on Netflix about (among other things) an attempt to organize labor at a factory in the Midwest. They capture some very raw reactions from management and workers both about the reasons for organizing but also the process and violations/retribution that happens along the way.

  28. Creag an Tuire*

    Lots of good advice here that warms this Union Thug’s heart, so I’ll just add this in response to Allison’s original post: While it is completely illegal to fire or discipline a worker for organizing a union or discussing labor conditions, the boss will attempt to circumvent this law the same way bad bosses circumvent any other labor protection law: by inventing a bunch of completely unrelated “performance issues” that just happen to target the lead unionists.

    So once you intend to unionize, you and your first impromptu organizing committee should proceed the same way we advise an OP who expects to be retaliated against for illegal discrimination or whistle-blowing or what have you: Document. Everything. All your interactions with management, especially anything that even hints at performance or disciplinary action. While ideally management won’t find out about your union drive until you’re ready to spring a majority of signed cards on them, practically there is a good change word will leak, and you’ll need to be ready. Your primary defense against illegal retaliation (assuming the employer isn’t stupid enough to admit what it’s doing, which sometimes it is), is to demonstrate that the union organizers are being held to a different and higher standard to everyone else.

    Also. While flying under the radar is good while it lasts, if the boss finds out what’s happening your organizing committee should be prepared to “out themselves” if and when the employer launches an anti-union campaign, both to keep said campaign from undoing your work, and to provide some level of protection under the NLRB (once the employer has acknowledged that a union campaign exists, it’s obviously much harder for them to argue that all of the union’s supporters getting fired was a total coincidence, we swear).

    Final point. Do not organize solely around “higher pay”. Organize around “dignity and respect”, and whatever that means for your particular shop (is your management’s discipline arbitrary and capricious? Is your management pressuring you into unsafe working conditions? Are your bosses just obviously racist/sexist/whatever and getting away with it?). Organizing campaigns based entirely around money often fail because a savvy employer can just throw a small one-time raise at you to get the union to back off. It’s much easier for them in the long run. Not saying money can’t be part of the conversation, especially if you’re obviously underpaid, but there must be more to it than that.

    (This is also why I’ve admitted that following AAM’s advice is the easiest way to “union-bust”, because TBH a workplace where people feel safe, valued, and not like they’re about to be fired for sneezing wrong will often tell us to take our dues and eff right off. This is an open secret, and yet so many managers don’t heed it.)

  29. Employment Lawyer*


    0) Ben Franklin said “Three people can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” Choose your confidantes wisely; your best friends or the most motivated anti-boss folks may not be good choices.

    1) Don’t do it at work. Don’t talk about it at work. Don’t even plan meetings for later at work.

    2) Don’t use work email. Don’t use any email which anyone uses on a work laptop or work phone.

    3) Don’t use work cell phones

    4) Don’t use work laptops or access through work wifi.

    5) Hire a lawyer early. This will help for many reasons, not the least of which is properly documenting things in case you get fired.

    6) Remember unions are businesses, with a lot of political machinations and goals which may not match yours. Choose your unions wisely. Realize that they may not always be honest or objective. Be slow to trust. Be VERY slow to share information or contacts or anything else.

    7) Accept the possibility you may lose or get fired. If you can’t get fired, leave the job to someone else.

    8) Consider whether you can get what you want without unionizing. Sometimes you can. Sometimes it’s better that way, sometimes not–but it’s always worth considering.

    9) Consider your likely tradeoffs, joiners, and opposition. To use an example, the bottom 10% of the workforce (who is at highest risk of being fired) usually benefits most from union rules, while the top 10% (who is at highest chance of being bonused, fast-tracked, etc.) usually benefits least and may in fact be worse off.

    10 ) Carefully, carefully, consider your results. For example, do you see above, where everyone complains that BadED didn’t get fired? Guess what? BadEmployee may not get fired, either.

    Best o’ luck, if it’s what you choose to do.

    1. pancakes*

      Where did you get the idea that only the bottom 10% of the workforce—do you mean by pay or performance or something else?—are the primary beneficiaries of unionizing? Can you likewise explain more about why the bottom 10% should center its demands or potential demands around whether they’ll improve or worsen conditions for the top 10%?

      1. doreen*

        Some benefits of unionizing will apply to everyone – pay ( to some extent) , health insurance and other benefits, grievance procedures. But there are certain issues that are benefits for some people but not others. It’s not a benefit to me that someone has to have poor attendance for at least 6 months before they face discipline – I don’t have poor attendance. Seniority which is a part of every union contract I’ve ever seen (although to different extents) is another “benefits some but not others” . In a workplace where almost everything is based on seniority, from work schedules to assignments to vacation approval, you will often find that good performers with less seniority are somewhat dissatisfied, because someone who doesn’t perform as well got the more desirable schedule/assignment/vacation. Even with pay, top performers often resent that someone who does the bare minimum earns essentially the same pay. And when it comes time to organize , those who feel they will be worse off by unionizing will be opposed.

        1. pancakes*

          Unionizing does not intrinsically mandate a 6-month waiting period before an employer can discipline people with poor attendance for their poor attendance. I don’t see a good reason to pretend it does for the sake of argument.

          Is it self-evident to you that the comment I was asking about is meant to be about the top 10% of performers in a company? I still don’t think it is self-evident. In any case, people who are considered top performers or top earners tend to have considerably more freedom to move around in their careers than others do, so I don’t see why feeling resentful should intrinsically be a problem for them.

          1. doreen*

            It was simply an example of something that doesn’t benefit everyone equally – and perhaps people trying to organize a union might want to stay away from advocating that sort of attendance policy if it might lose them support. And yeah , when someone talks about the bottom 10% being most likely to be fired, and the top 10% being most likely to be fast tracked , I take that to be referring to the top and bottom 10% of performers. YMMV.

            1. pancakes*

              I haven’t seen anyone here advocating for that type of attendance policy.

              I also don’t see a source for the 10% claims, or any particular reason to find them credible. A quick search suggests it may have something to do with a 1980s management technique called a “vitality curve,” which has since been widely discredited as being bad for morale and potentially promoting bias and discrimination.

      2. darlingpants*

        For my sisters grad student union, the pay/raise structure they negotiated ended up being the average of what was happening for the funded STEM students anyway, so they put in a ton of work for no extra money. The arts and social sciences students got higher stipends, summer funding and guaranteed cost of living raises that ended up being around a 25% raise for many of them.

        Everyone got better health insurance, dental insurance and paid leave, but it definitely benefited the (already well paid for grad students) STEM students less.

        1. darlingpants*

          I want to add: I think that’s a good thing, and that the point of the union in part is to assure parity. But it brought up some hard feelings for the STEM students for a few days. It’s hard to make sacrifices to your personal good for the collective good! Solidarity is really hard! But I think/hope that they ended up feeling good about making grad school easier and fairer for their less-funded colleagues.

          1. MentalEngineer*

            Yup, the solidarity argument is the one you have to make if you want to win. STEM can also be brought on board over working conditions, since every area has at least one PI who’s utterly evil and believes they can operate with total impunity because of their tenure/pub count/fancy grant/etc.

            Also, at least at my school, STEM benefits more from the annual raises than humanities because the annual raise is calculated as a percentage and they have a higher base.

  30. Wiring Expert*

    Does it make sense to unionize if what you want is more transparency from higher ups? I don’t want to negotiate for wages or benefits.

    At my work, one group of employees (none of them are managers, they’re all individual contributors) gets constant budget updates from our CEO and CFO. The rest of our employees do not. I only know about this information because some of the work I do overlaps with the other group and I’m included on emails that detail out how the bosses want to handle our budget shortfall for the next year. This is giving one set of employees advance notice of layoffs, furloughs, cuts to benefits, etc. It’s also allowing for this group of employees to tell the bosses that they want the rest of us laid off before any changes to wages or benefits happen.

    I want the other group of employees to have this same info so they can plan and make decisions, but I’ve been told that won’t happen.

    I’m not sure if forming a union will put me closer to solving this problem.

    1. Scarlet*

      That’s pretty bs that some employees have an advantage for layoffs/furloughs where others do not simply because they have more information. I would 110% start talking to a union organization about this – a union would be able to protect you guys in the event that does happen and make sure the layoff process is clear and outlined, and that the company follows it.

    2. pancakes*

      Do you want everyone to decide together who gets laid off? Or for everyone to be notified whether layoffs are a possibility or not in advance of every budget being finalized? I can’t see either scenario being likely or workable with or without a union. For starters, planning for potentially large budget shortfalls and financial targets not being hit is generally wise to do even if they’re only slim possibilities. Audits and regulatory filings often require wind-down plans.

      1. Wiring Expert*

        I really just want them to give all employees the same info. Normally, there wouldn’t be this much transparency around our budgeting process, but we’ve had a bad couple of years, combined with the hit the pandemic has had on us and the bosses have promised “transparency” for next year’s budgeting. But so far, they’re only being transparent with one group of employees.

        1. pancakes*

          That’s very much the norm. I have another reply waiting in moderation, but in the meantime check out what Alison wrote about this recently – it’s at Vice and the title is, “Can I Ask My Boss if Layoffs Are Coming?”

    3. anon for this*

      Actually, if there’s a union, your employer may end up telling you much less, because the union is very often considered the enemy (right or wrong) and unions have a lot of legal rights. And the employer may want to make decisions on their own and then just notify employees rather than working with employees, because sometimes local staff are great but the outside union people (who are paid by the union, not your employer) may be jerkfaces. Or not; your mileage may vary!

      1. pancakes*

        Do employers in your industry typically work with their employees on making lay-off decisions? That’s pretty unusual. I’m curious about how that works.

        1. anon for this*

          I wouldn’t say that exactly – but we might, for example, ask people first if they wanted to select to be laid off for more severance pay. We might do it in a way other than seniority, since the most senior staff are not always the most capable…..etc. But if we had a union contract and layoff rules to follow, then we’d have to do it their way.*

          *Yes, the contract is negotiated by both sides – but in my limited experience, no one thinks about layoffs when they’re writing the contract unless they’re imminent, so that section often gets passed over in favor of workplace rules and of course wages & benefits.

  31. Galahad*

    Unionizing takes a long time and the end result 2 years later is not always what you thought going in. Even with an established union, grievances taking a year to resolve something pretty simple. Contract negoations are every 4 years and a lot is deferred (and dropped) at that time to focus on other issues. Some unions negotiating their salaries higher by promising to never strike, or get used as a scapegoat for a larger union’s political pressure for other contracts. (“See! Look at the hardline we took with small company X’s strike. You better negotiate with our large division, too!”)

    At the start, perhaps while starting the unionizing discussions in secret, I recommend using AskaManager tips on getting a group to approach management with specific issues. Maybe ask for a monthly joint safety meeting (which you will likely need to have after unionizing anyway) to continue dialog.

    Companies that refuse to talk or take group complaints seriously, and truncate dialog are strong candidates for unionization. But, often companies will “wake up” when approached by a group grievance. Any exec familiar with unionization in a former company certainly will.

    At all times, do not mention the word “union” when approaching management, unless you never really mean to unionize and are just using it to spark new behaviour.

    1. pancakes*

      It doesn’t invariably take years. Some of the highest-profile unionizations in my city (at media outlets) took place over a matter of months. There’s a 2019 NY Times article about it titled, “BuzzFeed News Is Part of a Union Wave at Digital Media Outlets.” Digitalwritersunion dot org has more info.

  32. Woodsy*

    It can be a long and frustrating process. In the 90s, I was closely involved in trying to (unsuccessfully, alas) organize LE rangers in the National Park Service. We started by interviewing existing federal unions to see what they could do for our situation. So that’s where I’d start for anyone else: who most closely matches your needs; who actually works for their members; and who do you have a chance of influencing to act on your behalf.

    There’s a lot of large unions who just want warm bodies as members but not especially interested if you don’t bring large numbers.Without those numbers, we (you) have zero chance of getting them to work with you for specific needs you’d have (which might be different from what the union provides existing member). Every bargaining unit is different with different — though often similar — needs.

    Because law enforcement was distinctly different from existing federal employees — we have specific physical fitness, medical exams, higher level background checks, and training. We also are responsible for potentially investigating our fellow employees and union members. As such, it seemed a bad idea to join with an existing union. So we tried to form our own as a separate “community of interest.”

    It helped that we had several critical issues all of our people were interested in: grade classification and retirement equivalent to existing LE officers, better training, better equipment. Having issues to rally the troops around is probably the first thing you need. Then you’ve gotta find a law firm to help guide you on the steps. This is expensive but we didn’t see a choice If you go with an existing union, though, they’ll provide the guidance and support.

    We did have an existing employee organization with a newsletter and a dedicated bunch of rangers who researched issues and put out articles on what our rights were and how our jobs would be improved and safer by adopting existing standards for LE professionals in other jurisdictions. It took about 3 years, but we completely changed the conversation from “meh, not interested” to something most everyone saw the need for and supported.

    In addition, we were in constant contact with political leaders, testified before Congress, and made sure we were very publicly involved in getting our message out and showing our members (not yet a union, though) that we could accomplish things and represent them.

    We got a successful show of interest vote but then ran into heavy opposition from the government, who have no love for unions, even fairly toothless federal unions. They opposed us at the Federal Labor Relations Board — and won. FLRB said we were not a sufficiently separate “community of interest” from other federal employees despite the clear differences we argued for. On appeal, we were also denied. Totally bummed, though the good news was everything we advocated for when our employee organization was formed, we eventually won even without a union.

    The down side was we couldn’t also gain the protections a union contract can afford individuals facing adverse personnel actions. Like many organizations, we’ve got some authentically crazy supervisors who just feel like they can do whatever they want with employees. If the employee is lucky, they’re in a park already covered by a union contract. These employees have always been successful in challenging unfair personnel actions.

    The other problem is, once you win your issues — either in forming a successful union or just doing so on your own — your membership drifts away and it’s just the same old dedicated crew running things. In our case, not only did that happen but a new generation of frighteningly timid and cowed rangers came in who were absolutely afraid to speak out.

    Glad I was involved and we were able to accomplish what I did. But, gotta say, without an issue to get people excited about, it’ll be hard to do. And, as above, you need a core group of dedicated people to work for that change.

  33. Maureen*

    I’m a union organizer, and most of what I was going to say has been said already, but I want to address the issues of what union to work with and how much support they’ll give you. It’s a good idea to join a union that already represents workers in your industry, because they’ll have existing contracts that you can use as leverage to get more concessions from your employer, but there are other ways of fitting in or not fitting in with a certain union as well. For example, the union I work for has a lot of staff and we guide workers every step of the way (although it’s the workers who are ultimately doing the work and making the decisions), so we’re a good fit for people who want a lot of support while unionizing. But there are also unions that don’t have any paid staff at all, which is good for people who want to have a lot of ownership as union members. Other things to think about in terms of what you want in a union: if you have coworkers who don’t speak English, does the union have staff who speak that language? How big are this union’s units, and are they a similar size to your company? Is the union a service-based model or an organizing-based model?

    If you’re having trouble figuring out what union would be right for you and your coworkers, reach out to your local AFL-CIO Central Labor Council–they should be able to point you in the right direction.

    Also, I second what other people said about the union not “getting” you anything. Everything that workers gain under a union contract is gained because the workers organized and fought for it, not because the union “gets” it for all their members. When it comes to union contracts, you get what you’re willing to fight for.

    If you work for a nonprofit or tech company in the Bay Area and want to unionize, let me know :)

  34. Dina*

    Attention Australians! I didn’t know this until recently and I wish I’d known sooner: You can join a union even if your workplace isn’t unionised!

    If you’re not sure which union to join, the ACTU has a joining service that might be of use: I used it and was directed to the Australian Services Union (ASU) who have been super helpful thus far!

    FYI if there’s a current dispute they can’t step in for you – it has to be something that’s happened after you’re a member for at least 30 days. So join NOW, not later!

  35. Ask a Manager* Post author

    Thanks, all, for one of the most interesting and informative (to me) Ask the Readers posts we’ve ever had. I’ll be referring people back here for a long time.

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