How To Unionize Your Workplace — & Why You Should Do It Now

Photo: Michael Nagle/Getty Images.
In recent years, a new generation has discovered the many benefits that come with unionized workplaces. Thanks to unions, workers are able to collectively organize against office problems like racism and sexual harassment, they can more easily demand higher wages, and have increased bargaining power. Notably, the media industry — including the editorial staff at Refinery29, which is part of the Writers Guild of America, East — has seen a wave of unionization campaigns, with journalists finding power and strength in solidarity.
Over the last few weeks, influenced by the revolutionary uprisings against police brutality and anti-Black racism proliferate around the country, many workers are coming forward with their stories about racism in their respective industries. They seek to hold racist aggressors accountable — and they are sometimes doing so through the power of their unions. At Refinery29, former and current staffers came forward with their experiences of racism at the company. The editorial union stood in solidarity with everyone who came forward, and demanded accountability from management, including requests for diversity in leadership and anti-racism training.
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Power in solidarity is not just about this moment in time, of course: For decades, labor unions across the country have often been at the forefront of the most radical demands and changes that not only affect their workers, but also their communities. The Chicago Teachers Union, which went on strike for 14 days in 2019, were able to negotiate demands for more nurses, counselors, and other support staff. But through their work, they also demanded affordable housing assistance for families and took a stand against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
When standing together, workers have much more power to enact change, and now is a great time to do just that. So, if you are looking to unionize your workforce, here are some tips to consider and how to get started.

Build relationships with your colleagues.

One of the most important steps toward organizing a union is getting to know the people with whom you work. Organizing efforts (whether it’s a labor union or otherwise) have always relied on building relationships, because we’re collectively stronger when we are in relationships with one another. People should feel comfortable speaking up and also making space for colleagues to be seen and heard.  
“Don’t be afraid to talk to people and open up,” Molly Katchpole, who has been organizing with the Writers Guild of America, East for about three years, told Refinery29. “One big benefit [to unionizing] is that you get to know people that you didn’t know before and it breaks down silos that the company has in place, to its benefit.” 
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Opening up a space for dialogue about what issues people are having, what they want to change in the workplace, and what they want to remain the same is a good place to start, and then forming an organizing committee from there. 

Pick an organizing committee that represents the whole staff.

Staffers have different life and professional experiences based on gender, race, ability, title, and more. Any union organizing committee has to be representative of a multitude of staff experiences, with a priority around amplifying the voices of Black workers and workers of color.
“Unions can grow solidarity among workers,” said Katchpole. “Make sure your organizing committee is really representative of the workplace and is lifting up people’s voices.” 
Similarly, everyone should be as involved as possible throughout the entire unionization process — from talking to people about their concerns, to the bargaining table. After you’ve settled on a contract, you should be “constantly exercising your organizing muscle,” and not be afraid to take on fights, said Katchpole. After all, you have the union behind you. 

Be prepared for pushback from your bosses.

Management will likely fight back against your efforts to unionize, and you should prepare for this in advance. Bosses tend to use the same union-busting tactics across industries and they’re often based on fear, but if you prepare people ahead of time, these tactics will be much less effective, said Katchpole. Most of these tactics involve some level of manipulation, and your boss might even cry at a bargaining meeting. “It’s so predictable,” said Katchpole.
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Union-busting managers might tell you that the union is a third party that doesn’t represent employees, for example. In that case, Katchpole says that you should “remember always that you are the union and you work together to decide what you want to organize and demand. You all, as the workers, are the ones who decide what to prioritize and what you want to fight for.”
Another anti-union management tactic might be telling you that the company can’t afford it, or that unionizing could cause layoffs. But your union wouldn’t bargain for a contract that will force that to happen, and, as Katchpole stresses, “you all deserve more than what you’re getting.” 
At the end of the day, unions cannot protect workers against everything a precarious economy might throw our way. Layoffs can still happen to unionized workers — but they will be better protected in that event than workers who aren't unionized. And besides, standing in solidarity with colleagues will make everyone stronger when combating ongoing workplace issues, from pay disparities to systemic racism and beyond.
The unionization process might be hard, and it will be a lot of work, but, Katchpole told us, one of the most important things to remember along the way is this: “You’re doing this not just to lift up yourself and your colleagues now, but for everyone who is going to be working there in the future.”

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