How to Start a Union at Your Company and Why Unions Matter
Itt’s been a years-long fight for Amazon workers to officially form a labor union.
One warehouse on Staten Island in New York finally made it happen. They established their 8,000 employees as part of a formal bargaining group in an overwhelming vote. There are already dozens more Amazon groups. reportedlyWe are following their example. Amazon has more than 1,000 fulfillment centers nationwide. It is America’s 2nd largest private employer.
This group of workers is history. Their recent unionization movement is not limited to them. 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.
Find out more 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 became a staff member of The Root website in 2021. It is one of many websites that G/O Media manages.
“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 Rawls first time working with a union. Over six days, the GMG Union held the first open-ended strike ever by digital media shops. Workers walked from their workplaces to make a public statement. G/O Media Management confirmed their contract after the picket-line strategy proved successful in March 2022. 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. Others wins include guaranteed raises, 15-week parental leaves, guarantees of increases, commitments to diversity budgets, and changes in hiring practices. As they continue to lead the charge in media unionization, Units like the Buzzfeed Union or the Conde Nast Union can point to the victory as they have.
Why is there so much unionization 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. This often means better pay, benefits, working conditions and fair employment and payment. To maximize their power in the tight labor market, many workers are turning to unions. In 2020, a modest walkout led by Christopher Smalls, an employee, was the catalyst for Amazon’s union. Smalls had concerns about safety. The union is now seeking fairer treatment for its employees.
While some unions may have less broad concerns than others, they want workers to be able to safely voice their grievances through an official channel. Starbucks workers in Buffalo have filed petitions to be elected this spring. They hope that it will reduce the understaffing problem and provide better workplace conditions. Over 100 Starbucks locations across the country have now filed petitions to unionize. Each store has their own issues.
The goal of the GMG Union was to restore 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. GMG Union demanded that their employer maintain the benefits Rawls had in the past.
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. This case, which is highly publicized, shows how unions have fought full legal proceedings in order to improve working conditions (in this instance players) as well as protect workers’ rights. In this case they were rewarded back wages that reflect equal pay to their male counterparts.
Not all union negotiations lead to 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. Sometimes people feel the need to preserve what they have. And they want to constructively have a say in their company and their work.”
Vodeo Games’ recent unionization success is highlighted by Mr. Smith. Vodeo Games was an independent videogame development studio that became the first North America-certified union of videogame studio workers. 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 can I create a union within my company?
Christian Sweeney is the lead organizer of the AFL-CIO. This largest union federation in America, Sweeney says that the first step to unionization involves talking with your coworkers. 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. It is possible to start very small. Is there anything you don’t like about working here? 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. GMG went to WGA East. Workers United and Starbucks employees have collaborated. However, the Amazon workers organized themselves independently. This makes it all the more remarkable that they won and establishes a precedent for creating unions in places where none existed before.
“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. While organizations like the AFL-CIO, or large national unions, can help with resources and expertise and provide support, it is not the only way to unionize a business.
After establishing union interest, workers can form an organizing group. After signing up, they collect signature cards to signify their interest in becoming members of the union. They must also gather cards from at minimum 30% of eligible workers. This information is used to create a formal petition that allows the organization to hold elections. This is the purpose of an election.
The National Labor Relations Board supervised the voting at the Amazon store. With 2,654 votes for and 2,131 against, the ensuing vote had to be won by a clear majority. 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. Negotiations can last for years as business and legal stakeholders work together to create the contract details with worker representatives.
Some businesses have tried to stop employees from joining unions. They did this by refusing recognition of the union, or trying to persuade workers to not sign union cards and vote for a different union. Activision Blizzard was recently featured in the media because Microsoft is buying it for $69 Million. They hired an anti-union law firm. Google, Walmart, REI and Walmart have all rejected unionization, using intimidation and anti-union tactics to block workers.
Amazon was steadfastly anti-union for many years. Amazon waged years of anti-union smear campaigns against Smalls and spent more than $4 million to undermine the unionization process over the years. The April vote and the formal recognition of JFK8 open the doors to a new wave in union progress. Here even giants such as Amazon are challenged by dedicated employees and workers’ sentiment. 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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