What is a union?
A union is a group of employees in which a majority decides to bargain collectively to try to improve wages, benefits and working conditions. They can do this independently or with the help of an established labor organization.

How do you form a union?
Basically, you sign a “union card” (a card that indicates that you would like to form a union at your workplace). If a majority of employees sign such a card, the cards are given to a government agency (The NLRB – The National Labor Relations Board) which then schedules and oversees a secret ballot election to see if the employees really do want a union. If a majority votes “Yes” then a union is formed, with which the company must bargain over wages, benefits and working conditions.

What does a union do?
The primary objective of a union is to secure a contract which spells out the wages, benefits and working conditions for employees. Once a contract is signed by the employer and ratified by the employees, the union then exists to help any employee who wants such help to smooth over problems with management. This is done through the grievance procedure.

The what?
The grievance procedure is a procedure spelled out in the contract that explains how any conflicts between employees and management is to be resolved. Basically it works as follows: Let’s say you’ve been written up for something and you feel it isn’t fair. You talk with your managers but they refuse to do anything about it. You then go to your shop steward (see below) to get help. The steward sits down with you and management and tries to resolve the issue. If it can’t be resolved at this meeting, a business agent for the union (see below) will come to the store to talk with management. If they still cannot resolve the problem to everyone’s satisfaction, the business agent will appeal to upper management. If this step fails, both parties will bring in a neutral arbitrator who will issue a final decision.

What’s a shop steward and a business agent?
A shop steward is simply a coworker that is elected by you to make sure that the contract isn’t violated. In addition, s/he is the person to contact when an employee has a problem with management and wants union help. A business agent is an official of the union that handles any problems the shop steward cannot.

What besides the grievance procedure goes into a contract?
See What goes in a contract?

Who negotiates the contract?
The company and the union put teams together. The company’s team is usually comprised of lawyers, local management and upper management officials. The union team usually consists of bargaining unit (see below) employees, lawyers, and union negotiators.

What kind of say do I get in the contract?
Before contract talks, the union passes out a form on which you list those things you’d like to see in a contract. The union uses this to base the negotiation on. Furthermore, you could be on the negotiating team, but at the very least you get to vote on the contract. If a majority doesn’t approve of the contract, the negotiating team has to go back to the drawing board.

How long do contracts last?
Usually 3 to 5 years.

What’s this “bargaining unit” thing I’ve heard about?
The bargaining unit defines which employees are eligible to vote for and be in the union. Excluded by federal law are managers and security guards.

Hey, if I sign a union card, does that mean I have to vote yes in the election? What if I change my mind?
You can vote any way you like in the election whether or not you signed a card. It’s secret ballot so no one, neither management nor anyone else, will ever know how you voted. If you do sign a card but later change your mind and want the card back, you can do so by asking for it back in writing.

What are union dues? What are they used for?
Union dues are the money you pay to the union to help pay for union support staff, legal costs, negotiation costs, arbitrator’s fees, etc. Teamsters Local 638 dues are calculated at the rate of 2.5 times (2 ½ times) your hourly rate rounded to the nearest dollar. Unions typically charge an “initiation fee” however Teamsters Local 638 waives the initiation fee for organizing drives and first contracts.

Geez, isn’t that a lot of money?
Yes, but these facts help: you don’t pay a cent to the union until a contract is ratified by the employees. So if wage and/or benefits gains in the contract don’t more than make up for your dues, simply turn the contract down.

What’s a “union shop”?
This means that all employees in the bargaining unit (see above) must be part of the union. It’s a standard part of most contracts. It enables the union to bargain from a stronger position, which benefits all employees.

Even if they voted against the union? That’s not very fair.
Well, for better of worse, it’s how democracy in our country works. What the majority votes for, the minority has to live with. Is it unfair that McCain supporters have to live with Obama as president? And remember, even those who opposed the union receive any increases in wages and/or benefits.

What’s a “local”?
A union is set up kind of like the United States. There is a national government, but many of the decisions that really affect you are on the state level. This is even more true of a union. There is an international union that oversees national operations. But the local takes care of the contract, helps employees that want help with managerial problems, etc.

So what’s this “International” do?
They lobby Congress for changes in laws that would benefit workers, send help to any locals that need it, coordinate national organizing efforts, etc.

Can you give me a better idea of what will happen during a union drive?
You’ll be asked at some point to sign a union card. Once about 65-75% of the employees in the bargaining unit are signed up (legally, you could file with as few as 30% of employees signed up, but it’s best to wait for a solid majority), the cards are submitted to the NLRB. (The National Labor Relations Board, the government agency that oversees union/management relations.) The bargaining unit (see above) is finalized either by the NLRB or by agreement between the company and union. An election date is set. The secret ballot election is held and a majority wins. Of course, during the few weeks before the election, both management and pro-union employees will try to disseminate information. Management will do this through mandatory meetings and memos in your mailboxes. Pro-union employees will try to get you to talk with them about concerns, hold voluntary meetings and may mail stuff to your home. Tensions may start to run high, but the best way to avoid this is by feeling free to talk with you coworkers about your concerns.

How democratic are unions?
The whole process is democratic. You get to decide if you want to sign a card. You decide to vote yes or no for union representation. You decide what you want in a contract. You decide which employees will be on the negotiating team. You vote to ratify the contract or not. You vote on who will be your shop steward. Every 3 years you vote on who will be the officials of the local.

What Goes in a Union Contract?
It is not possible to show you a typical union contract, because every workplace is slightly different, and so are the working conditions. However, some basic things are the same, and we list these things here.

All contracts are the products of negotiations between the workers and the boss. They are usually written in boring, legal terms, but these are very important for securing your rights in the workplace, should you chose to negotiate a contract at all. According to labor law, contracts represent the minimum compensation and benefits for employees. An employer may offer rights and benefits that exceed the minimum standards set in an existing contract.

It should also be pointed out that all workers in the workplace should know what’s in their contract, because the bosses often will try to violate contracts (that is why we elect shop stewards and negotiate grievance procedures). The employer can only succeed in undermining the contract if the workers don’t stand up for their rights. Remember, a union is only as strong as the workers in that union make it!

A List of Typical Contract Provisions (for US Workers) These are all Negotiable Items

– Union Shop: A provision that states that all employees must belong to the union as a condition of employment. Exceptions to this are granted for religious reasons and in “right to work” states.

– PAC contributions: this is NOT compulsory, but employees who wish can give money to a union political action committee. By the way, this is where unions get their money for political activities, as union dues may not be used for such activities.

– No discrimination policy: employers cannot discriminate against employees because of union membership, age, creed, color, sexual preference, religion, etc. These things are “guaranteed” by Fair Employment laws, but without a union grievance procedure, workers usually have to file costly lawsuits in order to win discrimination cases against the boss. A union contract makes this much easier to enforce.

– Seniority: the seniority system is spelled out. Basically, seniority is used to determine in what order employees are laid off in the event of a lay-off, in what order employees are called upon to work holidays, etc. Seniority is also used in bidding of jobs, vacation selection and a number of other areas.

– Grievance procedure: one of the cornerstones of unionism. This system provides a way for most conflicts between management and employees to be peacefully resolved. If an employee feels he or she has been wronged and cannot resolve it with management, a union representative will meet with a management representative and try to resolve the issue. If that fails, another attempt is made with the management representative’s superior. If that fails, an outside arbitrator is called in, whose word is binding on both parties.

– Hours & Overtime defined: usually 40 hours at 8 hours a day. If more than 8 hours in one day or 40 hours in one week are worked, overtime must be paid.

– Work breaks defined: usually two 15 minute breaks per 8 hours worked.

– Union Stewards: union stewards are simply employees who are elected to represent the union on the job site. They make sure the contract is not violated, help employees that have problems with management, and handle most of the grievance procedure etc.

– No strike/no lockout: during the duration of the contract, the union may not strike and management may not lock employees out of the workplace. The right to strike is guaranteed under the National Labor Relations Act unless unions choose to negotiate that right away.

– Appeal from discharge: in the event that an employee is fired, he or she can appeal to the union for help within established contractual timelines.

– Wages: the biggie! Union contracts will usually define what the base rate of pay is. If a union simply cannot secure a direct raise, there are other options available in getting better compensation for employees. Such as…

– Raises: Contracts will lay out the raise system for the life of the contract. Most union contracts base that rate of pay on either a fixed percentage or fixed amount proposed by the membership. A good rule of thumb is the fixed percentage should be at least as much as the annual increase in the cost of living.

– Shift differential: unpopular/inconvenient shifts can be awarded a slightly higher wage – either a flat rate (so much per hour) or a percentage of the employee’s normal wage per hour. (Often 10%)

– Sunday premium pay: compensates employees at a greater rate for working Sunday. Usually a flat rate. The best union contracts also require premium pay for working on Saturdays and legal holidays as well.

– Birthday as a holiday: Happy Birthday! Take the day off!

– Health care: Most unions will work to insure that the employee has access to Health Care including Dental and Vision.

– Pension fund/Retirement fund: the contract states that the employer will contribute so much per week/month to a pension/retirement fund. Some are multi-employer pension funds, and some are simple 401k plans.

– Labor/Management Committee: representatives for management and the employees meet in a committee monthly to work together to discuss non-contractual and contractual common workplace issues in order to create a better working environment.

– A Union solidarity clause: your union has the right to honor another union’s picket line.

– Length of contract: usually 3 – 5 years.

There are many other things that can and do go into contracts: they are tailored for each industry, shop, factory, etc. Some contracts will have special provisions for unusual cases. Some contracts may be “industry-wide” representing all workers in the same line of work for an entire region. Even collectively owned workplaces might have a union contract that protect the democratic rights of each worker-owner. Some of these points are taken from “How to Organize a Union” by Shannon Matthews, as featured on the unofficial ILWU site. We recommend you visit that site for more information.