How Hard Is It to Unionize?

October 11, 2023

Media outlets are reporting that the United States is facing another ‘union boom,’ where unions are forming rapidly and workers are organizing for their rights. However, the reality is, the average time it takes for employers and new union workers to finalize their first collective bargaining agreement is 465 days. Additionally, there are regulations around who can start a union that make the waters seem murky. So, how hard is it to form a union, anyway?

Online resources and tools have made it easier to develop and maintain a union than in decades past. There are ways to file for a union election and conduct union elections online, maximizing your reach and chances for voter participation. Unions rely on member activity and commitment in order to get off the ground and stand on their own. But other factors, such as right-to-work laws, can inhibit your ability to start a union.

Unionizing can be easier if you opt to start a local chapter of an existing, nationalized, or larger regional union, as the parent network will have a range of resources to help your local union get off the ground.

Who Can Start a Union?

The National Labor Relations Act states that any employee has the right to start or join a union, or refrain from doing so if they wish. However, who qualifies as an employee? 

The short answer is anyone can qualify as an employee and start or join a union, but it’s complicated. Essentially, anyone who could have a conflict of interest is excluded from union benefits and development, such as supervisors and managers. 

Employees who are tasked with managing other employees or making company decisions are classified as part of the company’s bargaining power, not the employees. If a worker makes employment decisions about other workers (including hiring, firing, or promoting) or directs employees (including re-assignment or changes in workflow), it can make a union vulnerable to retaliation tactics.

Other union-exempt employees can include:

  • Confidential employees
  • Employees employed by a parent or spouse
  • Contractors (but not all of them–check out our carpenters’ union voting guide for more information!)
  • Agricultural workers
  • Public employees
  • Domestic workers (track the progress of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act)
  • Railway workers (check out the Railway Labor Act for more details)
  • Workers outside of the US

In the majority of cases, you either have the right to unionize or have alternative legislation efforts to support your rights.

Can You Start a Union at a Small Business?

You can start a union at any business, be it a small, local shop or a booming corporation. The size of the business you work for does not impact your rights as a worker.

What Is a ‘Right-to-Work’ Law?

Right-to-work laws give employees the freedom to choose whether or not to join a labor union in a workplace. This makes it optional for employees in unionized workplaces to pay union dues or other membership fees required for union representation, whether they are union members or not. 

Critics argue that this law implies it provides freedom to workers, but can weaken unions by detracting from financial support and member participation that is necessary for unions to thrive.

Basic Steps to Form a Union

If you’re trying to form a union in a state with right-to-work laws, your biggest hurdle is convincing potential members to join. Membership requires financial contributions in order for the union to have resources for workers, and some companies will actively discourage workers from joining a union by mentioning union dues.

If your business needs a union, here is how you start one:

Contact a Union Organizer

Research regional or national unions for your industry and reach out to your local representative. Union representatives know exactly what it takes to form a robust union and can help you charter a new chapter.

Sign Union Authorization Cards

Connect with your fellow employees to gauge interest in union formation. A union doesn’t work if it’s just one employee, after all! 

Once you have a substantial amount of interest from qualified employees, employees must sign union authorization cards that are sent to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). These cards state that employees want to start a union. You need at least 30% of the workers to sign these cards.

After this, you will file a petition for a union election with the NLRB. They will be responsible for getting your union recognized as a protected union.

Ask for Voluntary Recognition

This step is optional, but can go a long way in keeping the peace with your employer. You may persuade your employer to voluntarily recognize the union after showing majority support by signed authorization cards or petitions.


Also known as ‘collective bargaining,’ this step can often take the longest as it is the negotiation of employment terms between an employer and a group of workers. Your union can negotiate working conditions, salaries, benefits, and more during this process. The end result is a written contract that both parties agree to.

Your union can only remain empowered when every voice is heard. To increase voter turnout and boost member participation, check out ElectionBuddy’s resources for unions!

Join 11,984+ organizations like yours that use ElectionBuddy to build more easy online elections

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