Wanna Start A Union? Check Out Our Guide To Unionizing

by Erika W. Smith

Capitalism got you down? If things at your 9 to 5 are all takin’ and no givin’, maybe it’s time to form a union. This guide, written by an experienced organizer, explains how to reclaim your power, stand up for your rights, and shape a future where workers’ voices are respected and heard

“When companies put executives first, what do we say?” “Hearst is the worst!”

Let me tell you, there’s nothing like calling out your employer at a union rally. Standing outside the 46-floor building that is Hearst Tower, dozens of union members from Hearst brands including Seventeen, Good Housekeeping, and my workplace, Cosmopolitan, came together to tell our bosses that enough was enough—we were done waiting. After almost two years of bargaining, it was time to put the pressure on: We needed a fair contract, and now.

It took another six months of bargaining, a walkout, a strike pledge, and countless hours of negotiating the contract word-by-word before it was done. But in May 2023, we finally ratified Hearst Media’s first-ever union contract, with an overwhelming majority of our over-500-person-strong union voting yes. My favorite parts of our sparkly new contract include a $60K salary floor for union members working in New York City and California, and a $55,800 salary floor for those working in other places (a huge difference from previous starting salaries, which were as low as $45K); a six-week minimum severance (up from zero); and just cause protections from arbitrary firings. 

I’ve now been a member of two separate bargaining teams for newly formed media unions negotiating their first contracts—first Refinery29 and then Hearst Media. But media isn’t the only industry that has seen a huge wave of unionization in the past few years. While some careers, like teaching and nursing, have a long history of unions, the labor movement is spreading, and fast! Starbucks baristas, Amazon workers, HarperCollins employees, Trader Joe’s workers, strippers, bartenders, even the knights at Medieval Times—they’re all forming unions.

And statistics show that not only are more workers forming unions, others are also cheering them on: The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) saw a 57 percent increase in union election petitions between 2021 and 2022, and according to a Gallup poll, 2022 saw the highest level of public support for unions since 1965.


Unions are a way for workers to have a voice at their workplaces, rather than letting management do whatever they want. When you form a union, you and your coworkers work together to collectively bargain for increased wages, better benefits, and worker protections. And although forming a union can be a multiyear project, the results can make a huge difference in people’s lives. According to the Department of Labor, nonunion workers earn just 85 percent of what unionized workers earn, and forming a union can help close gender and racial pay gaps by increasing salary transparency and setting minimum salaries by title.

In the U.S. about 12 percent of the workforce is in a union, but many more are eligible to form one. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) covers most private-sector employees (whether part-time or full-time, but not independent contractors). However, some industries are excluded, such as agricultural laborers, domestic service workers, and railroad and airline workers. This act also means that engaging in “concerted activity” with fellow employees is protected under the law, and you legally can’t be retaliated against by your employers. This includes forming a union, but also nonunion activity such as talking about your salary or discussing workplace safety concerns.

There aren’t any restrictions on how big a company needs to be in order for its employees to unionize—according to the NLRA, a union need only consist of “two or more employees who share a community of interest.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FuiJOsR9JqE pbs newsies where to put this


By now you might be thinking, “OK, sounds great, but how?” I’ll be the first to admit that unionizing your workplace is not a quick or easy task. The Hearst Union began organizing back in 2018, and we didn’t ratify our first contract until 2023, making it a five-year process. (This is longer than average because Hearst is more anti-union than average. You’ve seen Newsies, right?) But in my opinion, all the hard work is worth it. Because you know what’s even better than calling out your employer at a rally? Telling your coworker they just got an $8,000 raise. 

So, here’s how to form a union.

Start talking to your coworkers

Maybe you’ve seen management boasting about the company’s record profits while your boss tells you that no, the company can’t afford to give you a raise. Perhaps you have colleagues who are in a union and making more than you are for the same position. Or maybe you just know that, according to the rules of capitalism, if a company can exploit you, they will. Whatever the reason, if there’s something you’re not happy with at your job—like low wages, lack of raises and promotions, long hours with no overtime pay or comp time, or dangerous working conditions—odds are your coworkers aren’t happy with it either. So, start talking with them about the things that need to improve at your workplace, and ask what they think about forming a union to achieve those changes. Be sure to keep these convos private—don’t Slack your coworker, “Hey, want to form a union? : )” or discuss unionizing in front of your supervisor. As a general rule, don’t trust any communication method provided by your employer. Instead, try to have conversations in person or over the phone rather than over text, and outside of the workplace, too—like taking a walk with a coworker during your lunch break or planning a phone call after work. (Yes, I know you hate talking on the phone instead of texting; do it anyway. People will be more open if there’s no paper trail.)

Contact a union organizer

Once you and some of your coworkers know you’re interested in forming a union, you need to decide if you want to join an already-existing union. If there are unions in your field, you can benefit from working with organizers who already know your industry well. (For example, Hearst Union teamed up with BDG Union for several meetings because we were both bargaining our first contract.) Sometimes there are clear options. In the media, most unionized shops are part of either the Writers Guild of America East or NewsGuild. UPS workers join the Teamsters Union, which represents package car drivers, loaders and unloaders, and many others across the U.S. and Canada. Starbucks workers organized with Workers United, which represents food service, hospitality, and other workers across the U.S. and Canada. Many union organizations have a “Contact us” form on their website. Fill one out and an organizer will be in touch (give them your personal email, not your work email). 

For workers in industries that aren’t widely or historically unionized, this might require some creative thinking. For example, the Star Garden Strippers Union at Star Garden Topless Dive Bar in North Hollywood decided to organize with the Actors’ Equity Association, and some graduate student unions are organized through the United Auto Workers union.

Other unions choose to organize independently. Some are huge and contain many smaller chapters, like the Amazon Labor Union, while others consist of workers at a single company. 

Form an organizing committee

Next, it’s time to put together an organizing committee. This small group of committed workers volunteers to lead the efforts to get everyone informed and involved with the process of forming a union. The members should represent the wider workplace—including workers from different divisions of the company and people of different genders, races, sexualities, disability status, parental status, etc. The exact responsibilities of this group will vary depending on the specific union but commonly involve holding meetings to keep everyone in the loop about how many folks are interested in forming a union, against it, or undecided; asking others what their biggest issues with the workplace are; drafting talking points; and staying alert for union-busting tactics from management. (More on that in a minute.)

Sign your union cards

Workers who are interested in forming a union can sign “union cards”—and part of the organizing committee’s job is asking others to do this. This isn’t always a literal card; it’s 2023, so your “union card” might be a Google form with a simple statement saying that yes, you would like to join a union, and signing your name. These names will be shown to management, so it can take time—and many conversations, meetings, and discussions—before enough people are ready to take this step. The organizing committee can tell people that these actions can’t legally be retaliated against if they encounter resistance. Although you technically only need 30 percent of the workforce to sign cards before contacting the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), you should wait until a large majority of workers—the more, the better—sign union cards before informing management of your intent to form a union. 

Prepare for union-busting

As management hears rumors that you’re thinking of unionizing, prepare for pushback. It helps to be familiar with common union-busting talking points—like that the union is a “third party” coming in to slow things down (it’s not; a union is the workers) or your workplace is your “family” (it’s not; your mom can’t lay you off and make you sign a nondisclosure agreement to get severance). Be warned: In majority-women workplaces like Cosmopolitan, union-busting can take on a nasty, gendered tone, in which older, white, male CEOs scold and talk down to their lower-paid female employees. Naming these tactics with each other can help with the fear and frustration.

Declare your intent to form a union

Got those union cards signed? Good. Now it’s time to tell management of your intent to unionize. You’ll also need to contact the NLRB. 

From here, you have two pathways to forming a union—and they depend in part on how much union-busting your employer tries to do.

If management voluntarily recognizes your union…

If you can show management that over 50 percent of workers want to form a union, management has the choice to voluntarily recognize the union. This means that the bargaining process will begin sooner than it would otherwise, and the relationship between management and the workers will probably be less negative. Voluntary recognition is becoming more common, but it’s not a sure thing. In my own union experience, management at Refinery29 voluntarily recognized the union, but at Hearst, they did not.

If your employer doesn’t voluntarily recognize your union…

If management does not recognize the union, you’ll need to file an election petition with the NLRB, who will then mail a ballot out to every union-eligible worker. If over 50 percent of the workforce votes “yes,” you then have a union. 

Sounds simple, right? In theory, it is, but in practice, there can be many months between declaring a union and actually holding an election, and management will likely do their best to stall the process. Hearst Union declared an intent to unionize in December 2019 and wasn’t able to hold a formal election until July 2020. (Of course, the pandemic didn’t help.) But in the end, workers voted nearly three to one to form a union.  

Yay, you have a union! Now what?

Forming a union is hard work, and the work doesn’t end with the election. You now move into a new stage: bargaining the contract.

Form a bargaining committee

Just like the organizing committee, the bargaining committee should represent the workforce as a whole. They are responsible for writing the contract (based on survey responses, below) and attending bargaining sessions with representatives from management. They’re also responsible for onboarding new members, sharing updates with the union as a whole, communicating to the press, and posting on social media. 

Survey your coworkers

Here’s how the bargaining committee can find out what issues are most important to union members. They might ask whether workers want to have the option to work from home, and if that’s more important to them than other issues, like getting more vacation days. The survey can help the bargaining committee understand what most people’s highest priorities are. 

Write and negotiate the contract

Once they have this information, the bargaining committee writes and negotiates the contract, piece by piece. Just like salary negotiation, the bargaining committee should ask for more than the union would be willing to settle for and expect to meet somewhere in the middle. Generally, the noneconomic parts of the contract, such as workplace safety concerns, are negotiated before economic parts of the contract, like minimum salaries by title. In the Hearst Media Union, we looked at other media industry unions for inspiration on what to include in the contract and what to ask for. Learning about general industry norms for salaries, vacation time, and workplace safety conditions can help, too, so reach out to friends at peer companies. 

If you need to, start putting on the pressure

While “negotiate the contract” is a simple sentence, it’s not an easy process—especially if management crosses out most of what you’ve put in the contract rather than engaging in negotiation. Bargaining a first contract takes, on average, over a year; at Hearst, it was over two years. If it’s taking too long, it’s the union’s job to speed it up. There are a number of ways for unions to put pressure on management, starting with smaller actions, like posting on social media, wearing union T-shirts to work, signing a petition, and escalating all the way up to a one-day walkout or strike. A strike is really a last resort—before that, you might undertake actions like holding a rally outside of work hours or enacting a one-day walkout. Escalation shows management that there is widespread support for the union, and it can get those negotiations into gear.

Ratify the contract

Once the bargaining committee has the best deal they feel they can get, they vote to recommend the contract to the union as a whole. Then the union votes to ratify it. After a majority of the union has voted “yes,” it’s time to ratify the contract—and you likely now have higher wages and better benefits that are now in effect. 

Enforce the contract

It would be nice if ratifying the contract meant you could kick back and relax, but now you have to enforce it. Which means it’s time for another new committee! The union as a whole elects a labor-management committee, which meets with representatives from management periodically to make sure the contract is being followed and also brings up any new concerns. Your union might decide to form other committees as well, such as a diversity committee dedicated to promoting equitable hiring practices or an onboarding committee that welcomes new hires to the union.

Renegotiate the contract

Union contracts cover a set period of time, often three or four years. And when that time is nearing its end, it’s time to renegotiate the contract. But this time you aren’t starting from scratch, because you have your first contract to work with. This process means that often, a union is able to get better terms for the second contract than the first contract, such as more severance or higher minimum wages. When the time comes, the union will elect a new bargaining committee and go back to the bargaining table. It’s the labor cycle of life!


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