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First time Union Member? Learn the basics below. A Labor Union is an organization of workers formed to promote collective bargaining with employers over wages, hours, job security, and working conditions.
What is a Union?
A labor union is a 501(c)(5) nonprofit, democratic organization of workers who have formally come together to promote their interests and advocate on each other’s behalf.
What this generally looks like in practice is pushing for better wages or working conditions with specific employers, defending individual workers when their rights are violated on the job, championing state and federal laws and new legislation that protect workers rights, and holding irresponsible companies or government agencies accountable in court or by other means when they don’t do their jobs properly.
A few ways we do this is through negotiating contracts between workers and employers that clearly spell out wages and benefits in writing and makes company promises legally binding, through lobby days to make sure elected officials listen to the workers’ side of the story and aren’t just hearing from highly-paid corporate lobbyists, and through helping get the word out to the general public about the importance of issues impacting working people.
We also just like to have fun together and support good causes. UFCW members participate in events like Light the Night walks for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, food drives like Stamp Out Hunger, and other social activities together like amusement park days or parades, and hold toy drives to benefit local charities.
What is a Local Union?
UFCW International is made up of lots of smaller local union chapters around the US and Canada. Similar to how the Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts have troop numbers each scout belongs to and does most of their activities with, every UFCW member belongs to a local union that is primarily who they will interact with for most union-related things. A local union can be as small as the workers at one processing facility, or it can be tens of thousands of workers across several states at many employers. Each local union has its own bylaws and elected local union leadership, as well as a unique history that informs what it looks like today.
If you are a UFCW member and don’t know who your local union is, you might be missing out on important news and actions relevant to your area. For help figuring out what local union you belong to, you can check our Local Union locator, or drop us a line and we’ll be glad to help.
What is Contract?
What is a “union contract?”
In a non-union setting, the employer makes all the rules. They may promise to listen to employee input, but at the end of the day, they aren’t required to take any of that input seriously and ultimately still get to decide what the final policies are. But in a union setting, the rules are negotiated by the union and the employer with the union representing the best interests of the workers and the employer representing the best interests of the company.
The union has the right, as well as the legal obligation, to speak with one voice for all the employees that make up what is known as the “bargaining unit,” or employees covered by a particular contract. When we talk about having a “union contract,” what we mean is the official rules that have been agreed upon by the employer and the union, and that have also been voted on and accepted by the majority of the union membership covered by the contract.
How do contracts help a workplace run smoothly?
Contracts can help ease possible tensions between you and your managers by making it really clear what the agreed-upon rules are, as well as what to do when they are violated. Confronting your manager one on one can end up feeling like a personal attack or criticism with someone you have to work with every day and maintain a good relationship with. In the end, many people just decide to let minor problems go rather than risk creating an uncomfortable situation or even just seeming like they aren’t a team player.
With a written contract and union representation you have someone to call who isn’t your boss who can help you get the issue resolved if a problem comes up. It can also help you make sure you’re taking advantage of all the benefits you are entitled to by clearly spelling them out.
You can bet that getting paid a living wage is important to me. That’s why I’m a member of UFCW. They make sure my hard work earns me enough to take care of my family. They negotiate the strong contracts that make sure I can provide.
– Kevin Steendahl, Local 21 Member
What does a union contract cover?
So what goes into a contract? Anything the union members feel is important and that can be successfully negotiated with the company is fair game. This usually covers the basics like wages, raises, processes for discipline and termination, safeguards against favoritism, scheduling, retirement benefits and health care, but can also include creative language for concerns specific to the unique needs of the bargaining unit such as language protecting LGBTQ workers’ rights, weather-related policies, rules regarding accommodations for religious beliefs, or policies regarding the impact of online sales or automation. This is one of the main advantages of having a union contract instead of just relying on labor law alone – getting a law passed is time-consuming and may result in rules that aren’t even appropriate for all worksites. A contract gives you more control to make enforceable rules that are more of a custom fit solution rather than one-size-fits all.
How are contracts formed?
Many times unions use pre-bargaining polls or surveys to take the pulse of what the hot button issues for the membership are, but they often also have a pretty good sense of what’s been going on just from the kinds of grievances and other issues that have come up since the last round of negotiations with the company.
Exactly how the negotiations or bargaining process takes place is often determined in the individual contracts, but in general, a team of representatives from the union is pulled together who will be the ones responsible for sitting down the employer and going over proposals. This team is referred to as a “bargaining committee.” Because negotiations themselves are time-consuming and require a tremendous amount of effort from everyone involved, they are often necessarily small teams that can act efficiently and get work done while still remaining large enough to represent the needs of the unit as a whole.
Formal negotiations often begin with the union bargaining committee presenting the initial proposals to the company at an official negotiations session at a time and location agreed upon by both sides. Either at that same session or in a future negotiations session, the employer then presents their proposals. The process always includes face-to-face formal discussions with notes taken so there is a record of what was said in case there is a dispute later on. Sometimes negotiations are led by a single representative who acts as a spokesperson the whole time, or alternatively there may be multiple spokespeople for different issues within the contract.
Both sides go over point by point all the proposals in the contract, which can be quite time consuming, but when both sides reach a tentative agreement about what the final rules should be, there’s still the question of having them formally adopted by each side. For the employer, this might mean having it voted on by their board of directors or some other type of approval from a higher up in the company. For the union, this means taking the final contract to the members for a vote. Actual voting can take place through ballots in the mail or at in person meetings. We call this vote to accept a contract a “ratification” vote.
If the majority of the bargaining unit votes to reject the contract, however, sometimes it’s back to the drawing table and the union and the employer continue trying to work out a solution that will work for both sides. If common ground can’t be found, a neutral third-party mediator may be called in. Worst case scenario, the union may vote to go on strike if the employer continues to refuse to budge. The employer version of this is called a “lock out,” which is when the employer closes the facility.
Both strikes and lock outs are rare as both sides have quite a bit of incentive to avoid them, but often negotiations only start to get news coverage if there is a strike or a lockout, which can lead to a false sense of how common they really are. Annually, only about 1% of negotiations end in strikes. Smooth labor negotiations rarely make the news, even when they result in significant improvements to wages and benefits.
Contracts usually have a specific amount of time that they are good for before they expire, generally around 2 to 5 years. Once that term is up, it’s time for the union and the employer to sit down at the table again and negotiate a new contract, usually taking the old one as a starting point. The whole process starts over, ending with the members ratifying the new, hopefully-improved contract.
Without unions, workplaces operate like dictatorships: decisions are made by an elite few while workers bear the consequences of policy decisions. Democracy can be a sometimes messy process, but the end result is worth it – better workplace policies that fairly take into consideration the needs of both the employer and the employees.
What can go in a contract?
Anything the union members feel is important and that can be successfully negotiated with the company is fair game. This usually covers the basics like wages, raises, processes for discipline and termination, safeguards against favoritism, scheduling, retirement benefits and health care, but can also include creative language for concerns specific to the unique needs of the bargaining unit such as language protecting LGBTQ workers’ rights, weather-related policies, rules regarding accommodations for religious beliefs, or policies regarding the impact of online sales or automation.
This is one of the main advantages of having a union contract instead of just relying on labor law alone – getting a law passed is time-consuming and may result in rules that aren’t even appropriate for all worksites. A contract gives you more control to make enforceable rules that are more of a custom fit solution rather than one-size-fits all.
Who joins Unions?
At the UFCW, our membership is made up of slightly more women than men. We have members in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, as well as in Canada. We also have among the youngest memberships of any major labor union, with a high percentage of our members under the age of 35. They work part-time and full time. We’re proud of the diversity of our membership.
There’s a stereotype out there that union members are all older men who work in manufacturing. This is partly because of the dated way the “working class” is often depicted in news articles, movies, and TV shows. But the reality of who joins unions these days is as diverse as our workforce itself. Today, union members work in offices or customer service. They sell sporting goods or stock shelves. If you’re getting a paycheck and you aren’t someone’s boss, you can almost certainly join a union.
“Being a part of the union makes your voice stronger–it protects your job and your coworkers’ jobs. In health care today, when we all risk just becoming a number, the union has our backs.”
– Nicole Worley, Nurse & UFCW 21 Member
There are many different unions out there, and most tend to focus on a few main industries, but there’s no rule that says all nurses belong to one union or all retail workers belong to another. At the UFCW, most of our membership is made up of members in the grocery, retail, food processing, meat packing, health care, distillery, cannabis, and chemical industries, but we have members who work all kinds of jobs.
What union workers at a given workplace decide to join is up to the workers who initially vote on who will represent them. That decision may be based on what industry they work in, but it could also be something simple like what the nearest union office is or knowing other workers who already belong to a particular union.
It’s also worth noting that people who join unions aren’t people who hate their jobs, or even who don’t like their managers. Most of them love their jobs and want to either make sure they stay good jobs, or care enough about their work to want to make it a better place. While you might love the manager you have now, what would happen if they had to leave and were replaced with someone else who took an entirely different approach? What about problems that are well above what your manager can even address at their level?
What does it mean to Organize?
“Organizing” can be a confusing term for people because it can mean different things in different contexts. Usually when advocacy groups use it, they essentially mean it’s the work done to get a bunch of people on board with an idea or project. Labor unions will often use it as short hand to talk about non-union workers joining the union, but there is a bit more behind it than that.
Have you ever had to organize a party for someone? You have to get the word out it’s happening and get everyone who is helping out to agree on things like what food people are going to bring. Everyone might agree they want a party, but have different ideas about what flavor of ice cream to get or activities to do. But if you want that party to happen, everyone has to come to some basic decisions.
“When I started the union campaign, it was because I saw where the facility had weaknesses and how this was affecting the floor staff…In order to best serve the residents, we knew we needed a voice on the job, and the dignity and respect that comes with joining a union.”
– Kacey Walsh, RWDSU/UFCW Local 262 Member, Genesis Abington Manor
In the labor union world, it’s similar. Everyone may agree they want things to be better, but it may take some work to figure out exactly what that looks like. For non-union workers who are looking to start a union at their workplace, there’s the work of letting their coworkers know about the union. Then once a majority of workers agree that they are interested and want to make things better at their work, then there’s the work to figure out exactly what that means to everyone and what issues are the most important. There’s also more tedious work like paperwork to be filed with the National Labor Relations Board.
Because workers are often busy with their jobs and may have enough on their plates as it is, and because it can be helpful to have someone whose only job is to help guide worker through this process, the UFCW employs professional “organizers” who bring their knowledge and experience to help make things easier and provide structure to make sure things are moving forward. You don’t have to go through one of these organizers to join, but almost everyone does since it’s usually an unfamiliar process for most people, and unfortunately anti-union corporate interests have successfully passed rules that make joining intentionally confusing.
If someone is interested in joining the UFCW, the first step we’ll always say is to talk to an organizer who can listen to your concerns and advise about next steps. You don’t have to be an expert, you just have to be willing to work with your coworkers, and have a few ideas about how your workplace might be improved.
How contract negotiations work
How do negotiations work?
One of the most important benefits of coming together with your colleagues to form a union is gaining the clarity and security of a union contract. Having one means knowing exactly what is expected of you at work, and what you can expect from your employer in return. A union contract is a written agreement between the employer and the employees that details the terms and benefits in a clear and legally-binding way (more on the value of contracts here).
This might not seem like a big deal at first, but consider the power of being able to propose policy changes or raise issues with a company as a whole instead of just taking them individually to a manager. You could have the best manager in the world, but it’s unlikely they have the power to change company-wide scheduling policies, or tackle vital benefits like health care. Drawing up a contract with your company as equal partners is an incredible opportunity to dramatically improve your day to day life at work—and at home.
But how does a contract get written to begin with? The negotiation process can look slightly different from company to company and industry to industry, but here’s what’s generally involved:
You and your coworkers decide together that you want a contract.
Contracts typically expire after 3-4 years (depending on what length of time you and the company agree on together), so many times negotiations begin when an old contract is getting ready to expire. Alternatively, you and your coworkers could have just organized your workplace and this could be your first time sitting down with the company. All of the employees covered under the same contract are called a “bargaining unit.”
You come together to determine what you want to discuss with your employer.
Most discussions begin by starting with what you have now then building upon it, but you are only limited by what you and your coworkers can dream up together. Items up for discussion during negotiations are anything you want to address in your workplace, including, but not limited to:
- Pensions and Retirement
- Hours and Scheduling
- Paid time off
- Premium and holiday pay
- Working conditions
- Seniority and advancement
There are many ways to give input on what should be included in the new contract, including completing surveys, attending union meetings, texting or talking with union representatives, and emailing your local union office.
Meeting dates, sometimes referred to as bargaining sessions, are scheduled.
Two teams are established for the scheduled bargaining sessions, one representing the union members and the other representing the company. These negotiations can often take several rounds of meetings over the course of weeks or sometimes months. On the union side, we call the group representing the interests of all their co-workers at these meetings the “bargaining committee.”
Both sides hear each other’s ideas.
Formal negotiations sessions begin and both the employer and the bargaining committee listen to each other’s ideas and priorities. The process always includes formal discussions with notes taken so there is a record of what was said in case there is a question or dispute later on.
Your union and the company will go back and forth on terms.
During this time, both sides discuss and start to form the language of the contract. The union bargaining committee may request additional relevant information from the company to substantiate any of the employer’s claims, such as the impacts of various proposed changes on profitability. If common ground can’t be found, a neutral third-party mediator may be called in.
When both sides think they have come to a tentative agreement, the new contract is taken to you and your colleagues for a “ratification vote.”
The bargaining unit holds a vote, either in person or via mail. You will always have a say on whether to accept the tentative agreement or not. A contract is not considered to be in effect until the membership has voted to ratify it. Meanwhile, the company’s representatives also take the agreement to their stakeholders for approval.
Members accept or reject the contract.
If the majority of your bargaining unit votes no and rejects the contract, the bargaining committee and the company will typically restart negotiations and continue trying to work out a solution that both sides can agree on.
If the majority of your bargaining unit votes yes to accept the contract, it goes into effect.
Have more questions about how negotiations work for your contract?
In the Weingarten case, the Supreme Court ruled that Union-represented workers have the right to Union representation during all meetings or discussions with supervisors or managers that the member reasonably believes might lead to discipline. These meetings or discussions include discussions on the work floor, in work areas, offices and even outside the facility.
Nine times out of ten, stewards are the representatives who attend these meetings with workers. At the beginning of the meeting, this law requires the supervisor or manager to disclose all meeting topics and to give the member a chance to ask for a representative. Members can demand the presence of any on-duty steward. If none is available, the supervisor or manager must postpone the meeting until a steward is available. Companies may not punish members for exercising their Weingarten rights.
Encourage all members to exercise their Weingarten rights.
This is important because a member waives the right to a witness if the member does not speak up and expressly request a witness.
The role of stewards in disciplinary meetings is to hear everything that is said, and to ensure that supervisors and managers do not question the member unfairly by, for example, putting words in the member’s mouth or by bullying members into agreeing to things they otherwise would not agree to.
When supervisors or managers ask unfair questions, stewards should interrupt and demand that the supervisor or manager ask questions clearly and fairly. If they ask an awkward, run-on or confusing question, the steward can jump in and ask them to rephrase the question. Similarly, the steward can jump in if the supervisor or manager tries to trick the member into agreeing to something.
Stewards can insist that supervisors and managers permit members to tell their side of the story and present their case, and can ask for meeting breaks to confer with members.
Glossary of Labor Terms
Common Labor Terms
If you hang around union people long enough, there’s terms that will keep popping up that can be confusing if you’ve never worked a union job before or had much experience with labor unions.
A form voluntarily signed by an employee whereby the employee authorizes a labor organization (Union) to represent him/her for the purpose of collective bargaining. Some cards will also state that the employee desires an election to be held to determine whether or not the Union has the full support of the majority of the employees in the
Union certified by a government agency, such as the National Labor Relations Board, or recognized voluntarily by the employer, as the exclusive representative of all employees in the bargaining unit for purposes of collective bargaining.
The rights outlined in Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. Rights of workers to negotiate the terms and conditions of employment through chosen representatives. The bargaining agent is designated by a majority of the workers in a bargaining unit.
A group of employees in a given workplace who have a sufficient similarity of interest to constitute a unit for the purpose of bargaining collectively with their employer. A bargaining unit is usually defined by the National Labor Relations Board, or similar federal, state or local agency.
(B.A., Business Agent): A full-time representative of a local union whose job it is to represent members in the local.
Procedure whereby signed authorization cards are checked against a list of employees in a prospective bargaining unit to determine if the union has majority status. The employer may recognize the Union on the basis of this card check without the necessity of a formal election. Often conducted by an outside party.
Negotiations between an Employer and Union, representing a group of employees, that determines the conditions of employment. The result of the Collective Bargaining Procedure is called the contract. Collective Bargaining is governed by Federal and State Statutory Laws, Administration Agency Regulations, and Judicial decisions.
An Agreement in writing between the Union, acting as bargaining agent and the Employer, covering wages, hours, working conditions, fringe benefits, rights of workers and union, and procedures to be followed in settling disputes and grievances.
A formal complaint, usually lodged by an employee or the union, alleging a misinterpretation or improper application of one or more terms in a collective bargaining contract. The method for dealing with grievances is through a grievance procedure negotiated in the union contract. If a grievance cannot be settled at the supervisory level, it can be appealed to higher levels of management.
The appeal of grievances to an impartial arbitrator for final and binding determination. Sometimes called arbitration of “rights”. The arbitrator determines the meaning of the contract and clarifies and interprets its terms. Arbitration, where it is available, is usually the last step in the grievance procedure.
The steps established in a collective bargaining contract for the handling of grievances made by or on behalf of employees.
A person usually employed by a union (often the regional or international union), whose function it is to help the employees of a particular employer through the organizing process and o% er guidance on the best ways to go about joining the union.
A catchall phrase used in grievance and other legal action where a remedy is sought from an employer. Often used in discharge and discipline cases where the union seeks to have a worker, who had been wrongly discharged or disciplined, returned to work and reimbursed all wages, benefits, or other conditions lost due to an employer’s unjustified action
The employees in a non-union shop who are designated to represent their co-workers during the representation campaign. Organizing committee members, among other things, usually sign up their coworkers on authorization cards or petitions acknowledging support for union representation, hand out leaflets, attend meetings and visit workers at home to gain support for the union effort.
The carrying of signs or the passing out of literature protesting working conditions or actions taken by the employer. Picketing occurs during a strike, or in the form of an informational picket. In this tactic, designed to put pressure on the employer, union members inform the public and other workers about the conditions they feel are unfair.
Rank and File
The members of a union. This term does not apply to the leadership of a union.
Formal approval of a newly negotiated agreement by vote of the union members affected.
The union representative of a group of fellow employees who carries out duties of the union within the workplace.
EXAMPLE: Handling grievances, recruiting new members and monitoring compliance with the contract. The steward usually is either elected by other union members or appointed by higher union officials. The steward usually
remains an employee while handling union business. Some release time (with or without pay) may be available to stewards under specific language in many collective bargaining contracts.
Union Label or Bug
A stamp or tag on a product or card in a store or shop to show that the work is performed by union labor. The “bug” is the printer’s symbol.
The rights of employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act to request union representation during investigatory interviews if they reasonably believe that the interview could result in their being disciplined. “Weingarten rights” also guarantee the rights of union representatives to assist and counsel employees during interviews which could lead to discipline.
For a longer list, download the UFCW Glossary of Labor Terminology [PDF].