A Step-by-Step Guide to Unionising Your Workplace

Don’t get scared by the pandemic, get organised.
How to Start a Union in Your Workplace
Photo by Alfie Sylvest.

As coronavirus decimates industries from air travel to live music, workers across the world are feeling the impact. In April, British Airways announced that it would be making 12,000 roles redundant, while Virgin Atlantic cut a third of jobs. Media organisation have also slashed roles in recent weeks. If capitalism shows us anything, it's that profit margins, not workers, are the biggest concern for businesses – even during a pandemic.


Which is shit. But you don't have to feel powerless in your workplace, you can unionise.

Although Britain's trade union movement has arguably weakened since Thatcher’s fight with the miners, there’s never been a better time to join one. As Love Island’s Amy Hart espouses, unions have numerous benefits. In practical terms, having a recognised union in your workplace (where you have 20 workers or more) means that every year, you’re entitled to collectively bargain with managers over pay, hours and holiday; campaign for better rights for workers; and, if needed, strike. Unions are an opportunity to sit opposite your bosses and demand better treatment.

So, how the hell do you go from “OK, more rights sounds cool, I guess,” to organising your workplace and forming a recognised union?


First and foremost, decide why you want to unionise. Is there a huge wage disparity in your company? Is bullying an issue? Have redundancies been mentioned? Are there underpaid workers you want to fight for? Find the problems you want to solve, and let that motivate you.

“Union organisers should always start with ‘why?’”, TUC national organiser Carl Roper says. “They need to begin with the issues the workers care about most, and show they are responding to what the workforce wants.”

He continues: “Issues can be individual, only impacting a single person or a small number of workers. Or they can be collective, affecting a large group or the whole workforce. Supporting workers with individual issues is a vital part of union work. But it’s the collective issues that provide opportunities for organising and growing membership numbers.”


Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, agrees: “Organising needs good communication with colleagues to figure out those issues, to prioritise what changes they’d like to achieve,” she says. “That could be on anything from safe home working, mental health support and equal pay, to transparency over pay rates, training opportunities and career progression. Unions are great sources of support and guidance, offer expertise to reps organising in workplaces, and are there to provide support to all workers throughout their careers.”


Maybe you’re already a member of a trade union, or maybe you haven’t thought about joining one until now. Either way, you need to find a union that can represent the needs of your "bargaining unit" – the workers who will be in the union. A bargaining unit may be a department, a few departments, or your whole workplace excluding senior management.

Different unions represent different industries and workers. GMB, which has over 600,000 members across the UK, is a “general” union, meaning that they can represent workers from many different industries. Unison, the largest trade union in the UK, represents public sector workers like those in local government, education and the NHS. The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) represents gig economy workers, including Deliveroo cyclists and Uber Eats drivers. The National Union of Teachers, well, you guessed it, represents teachers.


The modern workplace has changed a lot since the peak of British union membership between the 1950s and 1980s. Today, many companies are made up of workers from a range of industries, meaning that it can sometimes be difficult to know exactly which union should represent you. If you’re confused, you can always reach out to the unions to get more information on whether there’s scope for them to represent you and your colleagues.


Unionising your workplace is fundamentally a collaborative job, so your first step is to find colleagues who also feel passionately about unionising. Once there is a small group of you, find a way to meet outside of work and start discussing how to build membership within your bargaining unit.

Your bosses may be spooked by workers trying to unionise and attempt to derail early attempts to build membership, so it’s useful to consider only speaking to colleagues you know and trust. You should also keep all communication to personal email addresses and phone numbers, not your work email.

All that being said, unions benefit both workers and employers, and it is your legal right to join a union and organise. You cannot legally be fired for joining a union. However, because bosses are often – how to put this? – arseholes, it’s good to keep your organising on the down-low until you have a large number of members.


Without knowing for sure how your company will react to your request for recognition, it’s best to hedge your bets and ensure that you have as many union members as possible before asking to be recognised (see below point, "Ask for Recognition"). The more members you have, the easier it is to show appetite and support for a union in your workplace.

Once you have a group of people who you know want to join a union, make a list of other workers you need to recruit. Divide these colleagues into those who you think would be 100-percent willing to join, those you're not sure about, and those who may be or apathetic, or even against a union.


Reach out to the colleagues who you believe will be supportive. Once you’ve spoken to them about their workplace concerns and how a union can help, suggest that they become a member of your chosen union.


Meet weekly away from your place of work, and discuss the issues you'd like to see changed and ways to grow your union membership. Bring snacks or homemade baked goods or get pints. Workplace organising can be long and a bit dry, so do what you can to keep everyone interested and aware of the end goal.

Unionising doesn’t happen overnight. Depending on the size of your workplace and appetite of members, it could take two months to build enough members – or ten months. That’s why you’ve got the keep the momentum up.

“When you’ve identified collective needs, you need to show that gaining union recognition from the employer will bring about positive change,” says Roper. “It takes patient work and long-term commitment. Employers may try to disrupt union organising. And workers may need reassurance that organising together is the best way to get change. But as millions are finding out now, being part of a unionised workforce is the best way to make your workplace safer and fairer.”


In UK law, a trade union can only collectively bargain (i.e. negotiate) for workers if there is a "recognised" union in the workplace. Workers can be members of unions as individuals, but managers are not required to engage with this union in the workplace. A recognised union, however, has the statutory right to collectively bargain for workers, as well as be consulted on mass redundancies and involved in dispute procedures for members.

There are two ways a union can be recognised in the workplace. Either, your company recognises the union voluntarily, or it refuses to recognise the union and the case is taken to the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC). If you have enough members – 50 percent membership, plus one – then the CAC will rule that it constitutes a statutory recognition. (If your company recognises your union voluntarily, then there is no set number of members you need in order to be recognised.) You can still gain statutory recognition with a lower percentage, but it won’t be automatic and may require other steps, such as a ballot. Even if you think your company might voluntarily recognise you, always aim for a high number of members.


Once you have well over 50 percent membership in your bargaining unit – you can go to your employer to ask for recognition of the union. This is essentially a letter, written by you and your trade union, asking to be recognised. Send this to the CEO of your company, or any senior figures you deem relevant. Explain your reasons for recognition.

How to Organize Your Workplace Without Getting Caught

In response, your company will either recognise the union (great); not immediately recognise the union but be open to discussions (you can work with this); or reject your request. If this happens, you would take your recognition case to the CAC.


Unionising can be tough but do not underestimate the power of collective action. Now is the time to fight for the overlooked people at your workplace and speak up for injustice. Do it now, before it's too late.


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