How to Form a Union

A Minnesota labor and employment lawyer lays out the five steps

With heightened workplace safety concerns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many workers may be interested in exploring how forming a union could help keep them safe. Employment and labor attorney Joe LeBlanc of LeBlanc Law & Mediation in Minneapolis has seen increased interest amongst workers in starting up union-organizing campaigns.

“A lot of the times,” LeBlanc says, “things that really get people motivated to organize are safety issues. Sometimes related to things such as COVID—are they getting the right PPE protective gear? What safety steps could we do with trying to get people to work from home?

“One of the big advantages that unions offer is you're just-cause employed versus being at-will employed. With an at-will employment, you can be terminated for any reason or a prohibited reason, but with just cause, the employer has to actually follow progressive discipline and go through steps to actually remove you from employment.”

There are five steps involved in organizing a union.

Step One: Testing the Waters

First, coworkers should talk amongst themselves to see if there are shared issues—such as pay, work schedules, or safety—that the majority of them feel similarly about. “The tip I'd add: you don't really want to make this public yet,” says LeBlanc. “You want to talk after work, or outside of work, or on breaks about this. You wouldn't want to talk during work hours yet. Wait until you feel like you've got a good number of people who feel strongly about a similar issue.”

Step Two: Forming a Committee of Represented Coworkers

LeBlanc says the committee should represent about 10% of the total number of employees. “You want to make sure these people are active, engaged, and feel strong about the issue,” he says, adding, “You also want to have that committee to be as diverse as possible.”

At this time, workers should investigate preexisting unions to determine if joining one would be the right move.

Step Three: Building Majority Support

If forming a union comes down to a vote, at least 50% of employees have to vote yes. “You really want to try to focus about talking to your co-workers about how the union can help you with this,” LeBlanc says, “making sure they understand that in this process, the union is actually them. It's their responsibility to try to be actively involved in this process, and that's how unions give them a voice in their outcome.

Step Four: Making It Official

This can involve having coworkers sign authorization cards to let an employer know that there’s enough support to win a majority vote if there’s a union election. Then you must inform the National Labor Relations Board—or the Bureau of Mediation Services, if it’s a public institution—that you have enough support to request a vote. Alternatively, you can request the employer voluntarily recognize the union, bypassing the election.

“Sometimes the employer will skip the election, sometimes the employer won't,” LeBlanc says. “But if they do recognize voluntary recognition, or you win the election, then you go on to the next step, which is negotiating the contract.”

Step Five: The Negotiation

The last step involves creating a team that can get a strong contract in negotiations with the employer. “One of the big advantages if you're working with an established union is they usually already have a lot of contracts that have been negotiated,” LeBlanc says, “and have language that they can adapt to help you, which could really help you get a strong contract.”

And don’t lose sight of the original goals. “Think back to why you formed this,” he adds. “If it was job safety or job security, you really want to put those protections into that contract and fight for it. This gives you a chance to get a voice into your workplace.”

For more information on this area of the law, read our labor and employment law overview or seek out a reputable attorney.

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