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This is what you do if you want to start a new union

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Staffers at Gawker Media are organizing a union under the auspices of the Writer's Guild of America. This prompted a very bold member of the Vox team to observe to me that perhaps Vox should write an explainer on how one goes about forming a union. "Don't ask management how to form a union" is usually one good step.

The specific procedure actually differs depending on where you work. Government workers' unionization rights are governed by 50 different sets of state law. Airline workers are governed by a somewhat different process originally created for railroads. But for a basic private-sector worker who has nothing to do with airplanes, there is, in theory, a pretty clear process.

To delve deeper, the key thing to know is that labor-management relations in the United States are so bad, and American companies generally so averse to unionization, that there is a significant mismatch between how the process works on paper and how it works in practice.

A unionization drive in theory

The National Labor Relations Act basically says that if most of the workers in a given unit want to appoint a labor union to bargain on behalf of all of them collectively, they have a legal right to force management to recognize that union as their exclusive bargaining agent.

To make that happen at your workplace, you need to:

  1. Identify the unit of workers you're talking about. (At Gawker Media it sounds like all writers across the company's verticals, with discussion underway as to which editors are sufficiently senior to count as supervisors and be out of the union.)
  2. Identify a labor union that you want to represent you. (At Gawker it's the Writer's Guild, of which, full disclosure, my father is a longtime member. The Newspaper Guild, which represents most unionized print journalists, would have been the other plausible choice.)
  3. Send to the regional NLRB office cards or petitions indicating that at least 30 percent of the members of your unit want a unionization election.
  4. Secure at least 50 percent of the vote in the election the NLRB will then organize.
  5. Now your newly formed union local will bargain with management for a contract.

That's in theory. In reality, it could even happen! Maybe your bargaining unit is people who work at a factory in Tennessee building cars for a German company that is partially owned by the government of a German state and the German state in question has a newly elected Social Democratic government, and the union representing your German workers is pressing you to be neutral in the election.

A more typical union organizing effort, however, is a much uglier, litigation-riddled and politicized mess.

Union organizing in practice

The practice actual American labor unions advise is to try to informally organize in a low-key way without tipping off management for as long as possible. You want to start with an internal organizing committee that is broadly representative of the workplace. Then you want to try to build clear majority support for the union before you call for an election.

That's because once the election is underway, management has formidable tools at its disposal to tilt the campaign in their direction. Managers can't directly threaten to reduce employment if unionization is successful, but nearby Republican Party politicians can do it for them.

They're also not allowed to do favors for workers who wear anti-union shirts and pins to work while penalizing those who sport pro-union gear, but any normal person is going to have his suspicions.

Bosses can also hold meetings where they propagandize against the union, and generally take advantage of being the boss to shift the landscape in their favor.

There are also ample opportunities along the way to litigate.

For example, if your proposed unit is relatively small the bosses can argue that it's too small and the relevant bargaining group should be bigger, and you haven't hit the 30 percent threshold in that bigger group. Or if your proposed bargaining unit is really big, the bosses can go in the other direction and try to minimize the impact of unionization by making it smaller. Then they can litigate around the cards and around the election. Then, once the union is formed, the bosses can stall for years and years on actually signing a contract.

Unions are weak in America — except for in New York

Overall, labor unions are extremely weak in the United States, especially in the private sector. As of 2014, 11.1 percent of American workers were in a union, down from 20.1 percent in 1983. But Gawker writers might have better luck in New York, a state that somewhat bucks the trend.

In the private sector, only 6.6 percent of workers are in a labor union. This means that even though the vast majority of Americans work in the private sector, overall labor union membership is almost perfectly balanced between the public sector's 7.2 million workers and the private sector's 7.4 million workers.

union density rate

The rise and fall of US labor unions.

(Doug Henwood)

The private-sector unionization rate has been declining steadily since the early 1950s, which was partially offset for a time by a surge in public-sector unionization.

A partial exception to this, however, is in Gawker Media's home state of New York, where the overall union membership rate is a fairly high 24.2 percent and where the local political climate is dramatically more supportive of unionization than is the case nationally.

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