• Business

How to Start a Union at Your Company

9 minute read

It’s been a years-long fight for Amazon workers to officially form a labor union.

But on April 1, one warehouse in Staten Island, N.Y., finally did it, establishing their 8,000 workers as part of a formal bargaining unit in a landslide vote in their favor. Already, dozens of other Amazon groups are reportedly planning to follow their lead. Amazon, the second-largest private employer in the U.S., operates over 1,000 fulfillment facilities nationwide.

These workers made history. But they are not alone in their recent movement to unionize. Workers at Starbucks, Apple, the National Women’s Soccer Team, and Activision Blizzard have all made waves over the past year for efforts to form or strengthen unions. The rising tide of this decade’s labor movement has become front-page news, with workers campaigning for improved benefits, pay equity, COVID-19 health precautions, and transparency. Many workers—like Amazon employees now looking to the New York shop—might be wondering what to make of this unionization trend, and whether they should be getting on board, too.

For Murjani Rawls, the question wasn’t whether or not to unionize. It was how to get involved as much as possible to support his company’s attempts to secure a contract. Rawls joined The Root website, one in a portfolio of websites managed by G/O Media, as a staff writer in 2021, and joined the GMG Union bargaining committee within months.

“I wanted to join the union because it felt like a strong movement and strong conviction from people like myself who were wanting a better workplace for everyone, not just ourselves,” Rawls says. It was his first experience with a union, and it was a dramatic one: the GMG Union organized the first-ever open-ended strike by a digital media shop, walking out of their jobs to make a statement over the course of six days. In March 2022, their picket-line approach proved effective, and G/O Media management confirmed the contract. The benefits they won weren’t just hypothetical; Rawls saw base salaries increase from $55,000 to $62,000 for the role he was hired for, directly impacting his own bottom line. Other wins: 15-week parental leave, guaranteed raises, and commitments to a diversity budget and improvements in hiring practices. In the wake of their victory, units including the Buzzfeed Union and newly-minted Conde Nast Union have been able to point to their example as they pave new ground in media unionization, too.

Why are so many people unionizing now?

The goals of unions are simple: to organize workers in a company or industry, as a collective, and to use that collective power to bargain for better treatment by—and more impact on—their management. Often, this means improved compensation, better benefits and working conditions, and more equitable hiring and payment practices. In the current tight labor market, workers have turned to unions to maximize their power while they hold the upper hand. The Amazon union was spurred by a small walkout protest in 2020, led by then-employee Christopher Smalls, who was concerned about safety. Now, the union seeks fairer treatment for all its workers.

Some unions have fewer broad concerns, but want to make an official channel for workers to voice any grievances that come up safely. Starbucks workers in Buffalo, for instance, filed petitions for union elections this spring with hopes to mitigate understaffing issues and improve workplace health conditions at their store. Now, over 100 Starbucks stores nationwide have also petitioned to unionize, each with their own local issues raised.

For the GMG Union, the goal was to re-up existing protections. Lowell Peterson, Executive Director of the Writers Guild of America (WGA), East, was part of the original group that negotiated the contract back in 2016, and the process was—for the most part— “cordial,” he says. By 2022, however, the company had fallen under new management, venture capital firm Great Hill Partners, that didn’t like the contract. “The management wanted to take back a lot of things that their predecessors had agreed to. So it was going to be a battle from the beginning,” Peterson says. The GMG Union insisted on keeping what their workplace had already ensured in the past, like the salary bases that Rawls benefits from.

Meanwhile, just a few weeks earlier on Feb. 23, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team settled a class-action lawsuit with U.S. Soccer, winning $22 million to pay players for their work—contingent on the finalization of a bargaining agreement. The high-profile case is one example of how a union has fought through full legal proceedings to establish better conditions for its workers (in this case players) and protect their rights (in this case rewarding them back wages to reflect more equal pay with their male counterparts).

But not all union negotiations result in contentious battles.

“I think it’s a myth that it’s dissatisfied workers or angry workers that form unions,” says Tom Smith, an organizer at the Communication Workers of America, one of the largest national umbrella union organizations representing everyone from telecommunications workers to journalists. “Certainly there are times people have things that they deeply feel need to change. Other times, folks feel like they want to protect what they have. And they want to constructively have a say in their company and their work.”

He points to recent successful unionization by workers at Vodeo Games, an indie video game development studio, making it the first certified video game studio union in North America. Management voluntarily recognized the union right away, enabling the workers to develop a bargaining agreement with the goal to enshrine their current conditions—including a four-day workweek—as long-term standards.

How do I start a union at my company?

The first step towards unionization is to start talking to your coworkers, says Christian Sweeney, lead organizer for the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the U.S. The AFL-CIO is the central resource for national unions, providing access to information and contacts for almost all industries that currently front unions—and suggestions for how to start your own, if an existing union is not available.

“You can start off really, really small. If you have a person or two that you trust to say, you know, what do you like about working here? What do you not like? How do you think we can change that?” Sweeney says. “Organizing is about getting a group of workers together who are interested in having a say in making their workplaces better.” Peterson recalls that the original GMG Union began with just a few interested staffers joining together to talk. “Ultimately, what organizing and collective bargaining are about is people actually talking to each other, making decisions collectively, and then coming up with a strategy and executing it,” he says. “There’s no substitute for lots of meetings, phone calls, Zooms, cups of coffee, beers.”

Once you’ve brought together a group of interested colleagues, the next step is to go to a website like the AFL-CIO and start researching potential existing unions to join, or to submit a request to connect with an organizer directly. In the case of GMG, they went to the WGA East. Starbucks workers have collaborated with Workers United. The Amazon workers, however, organized independently. Their independence makes the win all the more surprising, and sets a new precedent for establishing unions where none have previously existed.

“So often people think that the union is a third party, the thing outside of them, when in reality, the process of organizing is really an [internal] process,” Sweeney says. Organizations like the AFL-CIO and other large national unions can provide resources, expertise, and support, but at the end of the day, unionization comes from inside a company.

Once union interest is established, eligible workers develop an organizing committee. Then they sign up colleagues, collecting signed cards that signify interest in participating in the union; they need to collect cards from at least 30% of eligible workers. These cards are submitted to the state or federal labor board as the basis of a formal petition to hold an election at the company. The point of the election: confirm that the workers want the union.

At the Amazon shop, the vote was overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. The ensuing vote has to win out with a clear majority; they won with 2,654 votes in favor, 2,131 against. After ratifying their vote with the NLRB, JFK8—as the Amazon union is called—can call itself an official union, and holds the power to bargain directly with management.

Bargaining—in which union members and management representatives work together to come up with a mutually-agreed-upon contract—is often the longest and most arduous part of the union process. It is a negotiation that can take years, as legal representatives and business stakeholders hash out contract stipulations with worker representatives.

Some companies have worked to counteract unionization efforts by employees, most often by refusing to voluntarily recognize the union or by trying to convince workers not to sign union cards or to vote against a union. Activision Blizzard, recently in the news because it is being acquired by Microsoft for $69 million, hired a noted anti-union legal firm. REI, Walmart, and Google have rejected unionization efforts as well, using anti-union propaganda, intimidation tactics, and legal mechanisms to stall workers in their attempts.

Amazon spent years in a firmly anti-union stance. It practiced a smear campaign against leader Smalls, and reportedly spent over $4 million over the course of years to delegitimize the unionization process. But the April vote and formal recognition of JFK8 opens the door for a new wave of union progress, where even industry behemoths like Amazon can be challenged by committed employees and sentiment on the side of workers. As people like Rawls at The Root have learned, the best first step is to “know your worth” as an employee—and be willing to speak up.

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Write to Raisa Bruner at raisa.bruner@time.com