How to start a union – Part 2 – Strategic Considerations

Part 2 – Strategic Considerations

So, you’ve decided you would be better off with a union in your workplace, and you’re considering joining or forming one. This is Part 2 in our How to start a union series.

Unionizing is more of an art than a science. Unfortunately, there is no one recipe that will lead to success. This post deals with strategic considerations that are likely relevant across Canada. Our next post will deal with the legal and technical steps involved.

1. Be ready to fight

Employers, almost without exception, do not want THEIR employees unionized, and will fight against it. Having led, participated in and supported numerous union organizing drives, I have NEVER seen one that was friendly – even in businesses and organizations claiming to be progressive (including as real examples, an organic food co-op, feminist non-profit organizations, and union locals whose staff want a union). Employers enjoy tremendous power and freedom in our society. Having unionized employees limits that power because the employer must negotiate with the workers as a group rather than separately, and the union contract imposes additional workplace-specific rules on the employer.

Organizing a union is an adversarial, divisive and often hostile process. Be ready to fight and to make enemies. Make sure your team understands this, and be ready to provide them moral support when things get nasty. This is part of your job as organizer, and it is not a job for the faint of heart.

2. Start making lists … Are you ready to unionize?

The most common mistake that is fatal for union drives is over-estimating your support. It’s not enough for everybody to hate the boss or for working conditions to be bad. You need to know how many employees there are, who they are, where they are, whether they’re likely to support a union, and how much respect and influence they have among their immediate co-workers. In a large workplace with multiple departments, there will be cliques and divisions and each department will have its own politics. Some large workplaces are also divided by discipline, or along ethnic, linguistic and cultural lines. All of this is relevant and you want to learn and understand as much as you can.

Ultimately, you should have three lists. Your A-list is all the people you KNOW will sign a union card and vote YES. Your B-list is all the people you think they can be convinced and will likely vote YES, but they haven’t committed or you haven’t talked to them yet. Your No-list is all the people you won’t bother even talking to, because you know they’re anti-union. This list includes the company hacks and ladder-climbers. If you launch your drive in secret (see below), these are the people you need to hide it from.

If you can’t see the possibility of your A-list breaking majority with a little support from your B-list, then you’re not ready to unionize.

3. Do you have a team? You cannot do it alone.

In addition to your lists, you need a team. You cannot do this alone, even in the smallest shop. Maybe, like my first union drive, you will start planting seeds all alone, but you cannot succeed (and should not launch your drive) until you have a team of people who are ready to lead, and who you trust. You will strategize together, you will put in long hard hours together, you will learn together and educate each other, you will defend each other against the employer’s attacks, and you will lean on each other for moral support. When your union is formed, you will likely be its leadership, and negotiate the first contract.

4. Are you the best?

There are two ways in which you need to “be the best”. The first is that you must be liked and respected by the majority of your co-workers. This means you do good work, you work hard, you help out, and you treat your coworkers with respect. If your coworkers already come to you for support when they’ve had a rough day, you’re on the right track.

The second is that you must be a good employee. You are likely to become enemy-employee-number-one, so don’t give them a legitimate reason to let you go. It helps to have a clean record, copies of positive reviews and reference letters. Take dated notes when you get positive feedback from management. Build an evidentiary basis to defend yourself in future against wrongful dismissal.

5. Can you keep it secret?

There are real advantages to keeping your organizing drive secret for as long as you can. It’s especially important to keep it secret in the preparatory stages – when you’re planting seed, starting your lists and getting your team together. Once the employer knows that unionization efforts are underway, they will start working to undermine it. They will start gathering an anti-union team who will get special treatment. Everybody might suddenly get a raise or some other improvement … the employer will start bringing yummy food to staff meetings or decide the “team” needs a party or some other bonus. If your workplace is part of a larger corporation, your boss might even get “transferred” and replaced by a union-busting consultant or some other hot-shot from upper management.

A possible disadvantage to secrecy is that the employer might argue they didn’t know you were organizing a union when they find out and make up a reason to fire you. This is less of a problem if you’ve been a consistently good employee and have a record to prove it (see 4 above). And in large workplaces, it’s usually not possible to build a majority A-list without going public at some point. Once you’ve talked to enough people (even in a smaller workplace), word will get out. There is always somebody willing to sell you out for a nod from the boss.

Whether and when to go public is a purely strategic decision, and should not be treated as a matter of principle. Weigh the risks against the benefits.


Organizing a union is serious business. We do it because we believe in it, because it feels great when you win, and because unions improve lives and raise conditions across the board. But if you lose, you and your co-organizers will almost certainly lose your jobs. Hopefully the points above will help you to decide whether a union drive is realistic in your workplace. If you’ve done this assessment, and you think the time is right, or if you have an organizing project that’s big or unusual, don’t hesitate to contact us.


Featured image from New Old Stock, free from known copyright restrictions.