AMA: Everything You Want to Know About Unions
We answer all your questions about how to form a union.
A few weeks ago, employees at all five Chicago-based Intelligentsia locations joined their warehouse colleagues and announced their intent to unionize.
Intelligentsia is thus far one of the most high-profile specialty shops to organize, and I hope it will follow in the footsteps of successful union campaigns like the ones at Colectivo Coffee, Tartine Bakery, and the continuing drive at Starbucks locations across the nation. (There’s no one definitive guide to the Starbucks Union, but my fellow drinks writer Dave Infante recently interviewed Hanna Haddad, who created a handy Starbucks Union dashboard to keep on top of the campaign).
After the Intelligentsia union announcement, I received a few queries about unions, and decided to open up a broader Q&A on my Instagram where folks could submit any questions they had on the subject.
I consulted with a California-based union organizer, who also brought in two of his contacts: a restaurant organizer and a California-based lawyer (all three have asked to remain anonymous). They were gracious enough to spend weeks poring over their databases of information to try to find the best answers to everyone’s questions.
You can find those responses below. All of these answers reflect their collective knowledge, unless otherwise noted.
How do you bridge the gap between production folks and baristas/front-of-house workers in smaller companies?
The restaurant organizer: Long story short, I think we brought people together in the inception when there is fun (and sometimes booze). When I was working at a few different hotels, I had the privilege of being a room-service server where I interacted with front-of-house staff in our restaurant and the hotel front desk, as well as the back-of-house kitchen/housekeeping staff. I think the key is to find leaders within either department who are willing to bridge that gap.
Once you find a few leaders—ideally a few from back-of-house and some from front-of-house who are willing to bring people together—the rest is pretty straightforward. When we were organizing, I would invite both back-of-house and front-of-house folks to a bar across the street, and we would hang out after our shifts. Then I joined a soccer league with some of the kitchen guys and dragged along a few front-desk folks to play. The social moments are fun and also provide organic opportunities to do a bit of organizing.
This took a lot of…um, organizing! We spent about a month going back and forth making this Q&A happen. If you can, please financially support this work.
The California union organizer: Bringing people together to organize a union or take collective action will always involve overcoming differences in the workplace. The workers I primarily organize often break down along lines like job classification, work site, neighborhood, culture, and more. I find that the way to overcome those differences is to emphasize shared experiences at work. For example, maybe a custodian and an office clerk have different jobs and supervisors. Still, both can usually relate to the desire for dignity and respect at work.
Where workers are already unionized or in the process of unionizing, organizers and worker leaders will often look for organizing issues that explicitly connect the workforce. Think of problems that all workers at your workplace confront, even if they experience them differently. In my experience, these are often things like workload and appropriate staffing, wages, healthcare, sick leave, and vacation. But not always! In the last two years, safety—especially in light of COVID-19—has been a major universal concern for workers. And I have seen entire workplaces unite around opposition to the mistreatment of a beloved co-worker or anger at a racist boss.
Is unionizing beneficial even if you work in a right-to-work state?
The answer is YES! One thousand times, yes.
“Right-to-work” is a euphemism for some state legislatures’ efforts to undermine worker and union power by thinning union resources. “Right-to-work” is defined handily in this guide from the Economic Policy Institute: “‘Right-to-work’ makes it illegal for workers and employers to negotiate a contract requiring everyone who benefits from a union contract to pay their fair share of the costs of administering it.”
“Right-to-work” does not change or undermine workers’ fundamental rights to organize a union, participate in their union’s activities, or even engage in concerted activity absent a union. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects these rights for most private-sector workers at the federal level.
Why is the Intelligentsia campaign organized through an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local? How does an IBEW Local play into this?
This question is probably best answered by Ashley. However, generally speaking, as union density (the percentage of all workers organized into unions in the United States) has declined, traditional “jurisdiction” has become less of a priority for unions. There are debates among union activists and organizers regarding whether stricter adherence to jurisdiction would be more strategic and better for workers. However, with union density at 10%, it does not seem like most unions are overly focused on strict jurisdictional boundaries.
There are lots of examples of this playing out. For example, the largest graduate student union (including researchers and teaching assistants) in the United States is now the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW), best known for representing workers at the “big three” automobile manufacturers.
ASHLEY NOTE: This question came up A LOT because Intelligentsia filed their union campaign with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, or the IBEW. I got some form of, “Why did Intelligentsia choose to unionize with an electrical workers group?” So I reached out to the IBEW specifically to find out. Their response, which was sent via email:
“Intelligentsia came to IBEW after seeing our organizing efforts with Colectivo Coffee in Chicago. We had organized before the nationwide Starbucks movement with SEIU [Service Employees International Union] had taken off. We began organizing Colectivo in March 2020 and were certified by the NLRB in August 2021. Because of the local connection, this new group also came to the IBEW.
While coffeehouses don’t fall under the umbrella of “electricians,” the IBEW consists of a wide range of trades—including our primary focus of broadcasting. We represent construction, railroad, nuclear power, telecommunications, and so much more. The organization is thrilled to be including service industry workers in our portfolio. During last month’s IBEW Convention, our international president mentioned Colectivo Coffee by name. You can see a highlight video of it on our Local 1220 Facebook page.
Our commitment to the working class remains the same, regardless of coffee workers or camera operators. Colectivo, Intelligentsia, and any other chains who wish to be represented will receive the same commitment that our broadcast Brothers and Sisters receive. Together we make up this union. We look forward to the work ahead for our newest members and our hopefully new members if Intelligentsia wins their election.”
Can workers from an industry unionize all together? How would you unionize multiple organizations in the same industry who operate independently?
Yes! However, industry-wide campaigns are massive investments of time and resources, and labor law in the United States is not set up for industry-wide bargaining as a default. In the United States, union elections and collective bargaining are tied to an employer and, in most cases, even a specific worksite of a particular employer. While one union could focus on a particular industry—see UNITE HERE in hotels and hospitality—it would take thousands or tens of thousands of elections to unionize an entire industry. Not to mention, every employer would be able to insist on separate negotiations even if a union did organize a whole industry.
Honestly, it’s hard thinking of a genuinely industry-wide campaign since the entertainment unions won broad recognition in Hollywood or the theater workers won broad recognition on Broadway. This is likely the outcome of how our labor law is structured. In Europe and elsewhere, sectoral bargaining, where unions represent workers across an entire sector, is more common. However, whether a sectoral bargaining system is better than what we have now is an active debate among labor scholars and organizers. On an interesting side note, California is considering a form of sectoral bargaining for fast-food workers.
My basic suggestion for everyone is to contribute to unionizing your industry by starting at your workplace!
What does it mean when a multi-unit company has some stores unionize? (ex. Starbucks and Intelligentsia)
This is pretty common. Boeing has union and non-union aircraft manufacturing plants, Ganett has union and non-union newspapers, Marriott has union and non-union hotels, and Starbucks and Intelligentsia will probably have union and non-union stores. Generally, it means that workers covered by a union contract will enjoy the rights and protections of that contract, while workers at non-union locations will not. Sometimes to dissuade further unionization, management will bring the compensation floor up for everyone. Still, even if the pay and benefits improve for everyone, a union typically provides protections management will never provide on its own. Workers at union locations will have the right to negotiate over changes to wages, hours, and working conditions before their implementation and stronger protections against unjust termination.
I think the best-case scenario is that some of these places will enter into neutrality and card-check agreements, making it easier for new locations to unionize, like the recently announced agreement at Microsoft. But I have a universal rule about bosses (read: CEOs, presidents, etc.), which is that none, not even the most “progressive” boss on the planet, likes to share power, so I’m not holding my breath.
What is the timeline of actual unionization? What are the steps to unionization?
First, I’d recommend reading this helpful technical flow chart from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), as well as this helpful basic explainer. The NLRB only goes into technical procedures, so pre-filing organizing is not really mentioned.
This is a tricky question because it depends on many factors specific to each campaign. Therefore, the answer below is general and should not supplant specific advice a union organizer provides to you and your co-workers.
A union campaign typically starts with workers talking to one another about forming a union and usually, but not always, seeking help from an established union. This part has no formal time limit. Instead, it entirely depends on the size of the workforce, the momentum behind unionizing, and the judgment of the organizing committee (worker leaders of the campaign) and any union staff supporting them. This phase is usually secretive. The goal here is to build and assess support for unionization without scrutiny from the boss. Once a campaign has gone public, it is generally because the workers have asked for recognition after collecting proof of majority support through a petition or union membership cards.
Workers only need to collect a showing of interest from 30% of the workforce to trigger an election. Usually, union authorization cards or membership applications are used to prove worker interest. Most campaigns aim to collect cards from as many workers as possible, usually well over the majority needed to win an election. This is because organizers assume that union-busting will begin after the boss discovers the campaign and will reduce support.
Suppose your boss does not voluntarily recognize your union, or your union does not ask for voluntary recognition. In that case, the next step is filing a representation petition with the NLRB. Generally, a union files (or e-files) the appropriate representation petition with the NLRB regional office and the original showing of interest. The showing of interest, typically union membership cards, is only provided to the NLRB, not the employer. After you file for recognition with the NLRB, there is usually an opportunity for your employer to file any objections to holding an election. For example, anti-union employers may argue over the minutiae of which workers belong in the union, who is a supervisor, or the proper scope of the election. Employers often make these arguments to slow down the election process and buy more time to campaign against the union. The last data I found said that in 2020 the average time between filing a representation petition and the election was 31 days. However, the NLRB recently revised its rules to speed up the time between filing a petition and an election.
Once the NLRB holds an election, there may be objections to employer or union conduct during the election or challenges to specific ballots. The NLRB may conduct an additional investigation or hold a hearing on these challenges and objections. Ultimately, if workers win a majority after the NLRB resolves all challenges and objections, they win their union. After workers win their union, negotiations for a first contract begin.
Once again, there is no time limit here. Unfortunately, anti-union employers may try and drag this process out as long as possible in hopes that workers see unionization as futile and abandon their union. The PRO Act, a bill in Congress meant to reform our labor law, would lay out a process for first-contract bargaining involving mediation and, if necessary, binding arbitration.
However, under our current law, there is no set time limit or obligation placed on the employer, except that they negotiate with the new union in “good faith.” Therefore, staying organized through the election process and negotiations is essential so that your new union can exert pressure on the employer if they resist reaching a first contract.
How do you choose which union to affiliate with when there are so many?
First, almost any union is better than no union. There are very few exceptions to this in my eyes. Virtually any real union is going to give you more collective power on the job than being non-union. There are still some scammy company unions; however, their lack of history should alert you that they aren’t legitimate.
Second, if there is already a union organizing locations in your company, organize with them. They probably already have knowledge that will prove helpful in an organizing campaign, and more workers under a single contract will make for a stronger bargaining position.
Finally, talk to the local union you would be organized into and ask many questions about how they would work with you, from the initial organizing campaign through the first contract. If you have priorities—like winning a whole region rather than individual stores, or ensuring workers from production/roasting are included in the bargaining unit—tell staff organizers that. Ask any friends, family, or neighbors in the local union what they think. Ultimately, the reality is the leadership and structure of your local union will matter more than the leadership of the national/international union.
What is the smallest group of workers who can unionize?
Straight from the Basic Guide to the National Labor Relations Act, which is perhaps dated but I believe still accurate on this point: “A unit of employees is a group of two or more employees who share a community of interest and may reasonably be grouped together for purposes of collective bargaining. The determination of what is an appropriate unit for such purposes is, under the Act, left to the discretion of the NLRB.”
Tiny bargaining units like two or three people are rare for practical reasons, but they are not unheard of.
How do I start this process [of unionizing] without getting fired? How do you avoid getting fired for trying to unionize?
There are no guarantees that your employer will follow the law. Still, it is essential to start from a place of recognizing that it is illegal to retaliate against someone for organizing a union. The NLRB routinely investigates and prosecutes unlawful retaliation against workers for organizing. You do not have to be a lawyer or even well-educated in labor law to file an NLRB charge alleging a violation of your rights. If you call your local NLRB regional office, they will help you fill out the charge and start the process.
However, besides your legal rights, the best way to avoid being fired is to organize secretly and only go public when your campaign is ready. Ideally, your campaign should go public with a supermajority of your co-workers involved and prepared to take collective action to protect one another. However, the decision to go public will be unique for every campaign.
Starbucks workers are an excellent example of how collective action and big majorities can supplement workers’ legal protections. For instance, if a store wins 12-0, it is more difficult for management to fire an entire store. Similarly, workers can strike, picket, or call for boycotts to increase pressure on the employer while the legal process of prosecuting unfair practice charges plays out.
It is also crucial that worker organizers avoid giving bosses any “good” reasons to fire them. These “good” reasons may very well be pretextual, but it’s better if you don’t even give the boss an excuse to get rid of you. The best worker organizers I’ve ever worked with are also good at their jobs. Don’t be late. Don’t no-call-no-show. Basic things like that.
Finally, it is important to recognize union organizing is not risk-free. I wish it were. I wish our laws were better and the agencies enforcing them better-funded. But here we run into the problem of which came first, the chicken or the egg. The labor laws we do have were won by workers fighting and, in some cases, dying for them. Workers won the National Labor Relations Act with massive organizing and disruption of the status quo! Fixing our laws by passing reforms like the PRO Act may very well take a similar sea change. Organizing your workplace will hopefully be a part of this change.
What if your co-workers don’t want a union? How many co-workers need to agree?
The practical answer is you need a showing of interest from at least 30% of your co-workers to trigger a union election. Then you need to win at least 50% plus one of the votes at the election. Note you need 50% plus one of the actual votes at the election, not necessarily of the entire workplace. This point is actually a reason some union activists argue “card check,” a process by which a union is recognized when a majority of workers sign a union authorization card, is more democratic.
If you want to organize your workplace and your co-workers are unsure, ask them what is holding them back. Addressing your co-workers’ fears and anxieties is an integral part of an organizing campaign. Many union organizers use a structured one-on-one organizing conversation to help identify workers’ needs and help them overcome hesitancy. You can learn more about the organizing conversation through Labor Notes, the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), or the union you decide to organize into.
My general suggestion is to lead with empathy when talking to hesitant co-workers. Labor education is abysmal in the United States, and many people have no idea how a union works or what they could achieve in a union. Sometimes, with time and patience, even the most resistant co-worker can become a union supporter.
Does your job description change when you become part of a union?
Job descriptions and work assignments are mandatory subjects of bargaining. Therefore, when you have a union, your employer must negotiate changes to job descriptions and work assignments. It is true that union workplaces typically have more structured job descriptions, but this is purposeful. Many non-union employers provide inconsistent or opaque job duties and performance metrics that allow unfair treatment or exploitation. It is an improvement for most workers to negotiate clear expectations at work!