New to Unions Q&A

How to Join

Joining/Forming a Union 101

The most common question we receive at IFPTE is how to join our union. One might think this is a fairly straightforward question to answer, but the answer can be somewhat complex. The following explanations may provide a starting point for understanding how to join IFPTE.

Two Types of Unions

One of the biggest misconceptions we hear from those interested in joining IFPTE is the assumption that all a person needs to do is sign a piece of paper and pay a fee to join. To explain why this is not the case, it helps to understand that there are basically two types of unions: Trade Unions (sometimes referred to as Craft unions), and "industrial" unions, which we now refer to as Employer-Specific Unions.

Trade Unions are unions organized along particular crafts or trades, such that any worker who is licensed or accredited in that field can join the respective union. The core structure of these unions is based on the old guild model. Examples of these types of unions include the Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC).

By joining a craft union, an individual gains access to union jobs that the union has negotiated with a particular employer in advance. These workers also get access to benefits provided by the union that are usually not provided by the employer in their respective trades. In many cases, the employer, looking for licensed or accredited skilled workers, will seek out a trade union regarding a work project and will then negotiate the pay, working conditions and other aspects of the job with the union.

Basically, this type of union runs a hiring hall and plays the role of a contractor who is responsible for providing labor for a project, as well as benefits (medical, retirement, etc.) for the employees in many cases. The difference between a contractor and craft union is that the union is a non-profit organized and run by the workers themselves (e.g., officers of the union are democratically elected by the members) to ensure fair working conditions and good pay without regard to any corporate shareholders or making profits for an owner.

In contrast, Employer-Specific Unions, an updated term for "industrial unions," do not focus on a specific trade but rather unify groups of non-management employees who wish to engage in collective bargaining with a particular employer. In other words, in order to be a member of this type of union, an employee must be employed where the employees have already activated their right to engage in collective bargaining with their employer, or employees in that workplace need to organize to activate their right to engage in collective bargaining with their employer.

Employer-Specific Unions generally organize themselves along particular industries, occupations, and/or sectors of the economy. For example, the United Auto Workers (UAW) membership is mostly comprised of workers in the auto industry, while the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is made up of public sector employees.

IFPTE is an employer-specific union, not a craft union. The majority of our members are white collar employees, most of whom are professional and technical skilled workers in the private, federal and public sector. Though most of our members are in the engineering field, our members also include judges, attorneys, analysts, auditors, skilled technicians, scientists and many other occupations. A more comprehensive list of our member occupations and employers can be found by clicking here.

The rest of the information on this page pertains to employer-specific unions, not craft unions.

Who Can Form or Join a Labor Union?

Almost all non-management, non-supervisory employees have a legal right to engage in collective bargaining with their employer. Employees who have the right to form a union are generally those who do not have the ability to hire, fire, demote, promote, reprimand, or have the final say on another employees' performance review/rating.

The other group of employees excluded from collective bargaining are "confidential employees." The determining factor is not solely the fact that an employee has access to confidential information, but also an employee's role and duties when a group of employees negotiate with the employer. The most common employees who fall into the category of "confidential employees" are executive secretaries, some human resource personnel, and attorneys who work to defend their employer. For example, if you're a secretary and as part of your duties you take notes during a meeting of managers regarding negotiations with the employees, then you would be classified as a "confidential employee" because you have access to confidential management information as part of your job, creating a conflict of interest if you belonged to the union across the table from management.

Overall, the thing to remember is that job titles are not important, it's an employee's duties and responsibilities that determine if that employee is eligible to engage in collective bargaining or not.

How to Form a Labor Union

In order to form a labor union, the employees of a particular employer must democratically decide to activate their right to engage in collective bargaining with their employer. To activate this right, employees must either vote (more on this later) or appeal to your employer's good will (i.e., voluntary recognition/card check). Most employers, especially in the United States, will not voluntarily recognize their employees' ability to engage in collective bargaining.

In order to hold a vote to activate your right to engage in collective bargaining (referred to as a "union vote" from here on), you need to demonstrate a "showing of interest" among your colleagues to the appropriate government agency that covers your sector (i.e., private, public, or federal). To find out what agency is applicable to your sector and country, click here.

Employees who work in the United States in the non-railroad/non-airline private sector must demonstrate a "showing of interest" to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in order for that agency to conduct a union vote for you and your colleagues. The NLRB defines a showing of interest as 30% or more of the potential bargaining unit (see next section for more detail) signing a petition. However, here at IFPTE, we prefer to see 60% or more to ensure there is strong majority interest among your colleagues before we will assist in filing for a union vote on your behalf.

Petitions used to demonstrate a showing of interest are usually contained on individual index cards, called "authorization cards." Not only are these used to demonstrate your interest in having a union vote, it specifies which union (e.g., IFPTE) that you wish to join. Here is an example of an IFPTE authorization card:

After 60% or more of your colleagues have signed authorization cards, IFPTE can assist in filing these cards with the NLRB. Next, the NLRB will contact your employer to inform it that a petition for a vote as been submitted, and will request a list of names of all the employees within the potential bargaining unit.

After the NLRB receives this list of employees from your employer, the NLRB will compare the names on the authorization cards to those on employee list to determine if 30% or more have signed authorization cards, demonstrating a showing of interest. At no time will the employer have access to the signed authorization cards.

If a showing of interest has been determined, then the NLRB will schedule and conduct a vote by secret ballot that will allow all the employees (both those who signed and those who did not sign authorization cards) within the potential bargaining unit a chance to determine if they wish to activate their right to engage in collective bargaining. As with elections for public office, a simple majority (i.e., 50% +1) of those that choose to vote determines the outcome.

Usually the vote is held on the work site during work hours. In situations where employees are spread out geographically, mail or other approved means of casting secret ballots will be employed.

In the end, if a simple majority votes to activate their right to engage in collective bargaining, the NLRB will then certify your bargaining unit. Then the real work begins: negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with your employer in order to implement some changes.

Bargaining Units

A bargaining unit is a group of employees sharing a "community of interest" that wishes to engage in collective bargaining. Defining a community of interest can be subjective and is often negotiated with the employer, but basically the NLRB will look to whether employees have similar occupations, educational requirements for the job, geographic location, duties, pay structure, review or rating system, managers, etc. The NLRB is the final decision maker on who is included (or not included) in a bargaining unit.

It is also important to note that a bargaining unit must simply be an appropriate unit; it does not have to be the most appropriate unit possible, which gives the parties a degree of flexibility in determining which employees should bargain terms and conditions of employment as a group.

The reason determination of a bargaining unit is important before you hold a vote is that you should have a good idea who is going to be in your union before seeking signatures on authorization cards in order to file a petition for your union vote.

To illustrate, let's say Company X employs the following non-management occupations:
300 mechanical engineers
100 chemical engineers
100 electrical engineers
250 technicians
50 IT
50 administrative support staff

If the mechanical engineers are interested in activating their right to engage in collective bargaining, and they work with the chemical and electrical engineers, our advice would be to include all the engineers in your bargaining unit definition. Why? Assuming they all work closely together, even though their duties and responsibilities may vary, they share a community of interest (e.g., certified engineers, same pay and performance structure, require college degree, similar managers). Further, if you file a petition for a union vote with the NLRB, the employer could challenge your unit definition of mechanical engineers by arguing the appropriate bargaining unit should include all the engineers, even if the chemical and electrical engineers are not interested in engaging in collective bargaining, for the purpose of stacking your union vote with likely "no" votes.

Even though a bargaining unit of solely mechanical engineers could be argued as "an" appropriate bargaining unit, the union vote could be held up for months or even years by the employer while they argue in front of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that all the engineers should be in a unit. The key is to anticipate your employer's union deterrence campaign.

In another example, if all the employees at Company X wished to activate their right to engage in collective bargaining, they can file a petition with the NLRB for a "wall-to-wall" bargaining unit. This refers to a bargaining unit that includes every non-management employee at the work location regardless of their occupation. These types of bargaining units are less common today, and are generally more challenging to organize, but the benefits include greater bargaining strength and preventing the employer from challenging the bargaining unit in order to hold up the union vote.

Another example of an appropriate bargaining unit is one that includes all the engineers and technicians. Let's say, in our example, that the technicians work closely and alongside the engineers; one could argue there is a community of interest. Though the employer could challenge this definition, the NLRB would probably be inclined to accept this definition given we are arguing the community of interest is broad, not narrow. However, in this situation, when the union vote is held, the engineers will have two questions on their ballot. Everyone will be asked on the ballot something like, "do you want to engage in collective bargaining with IFPTE as your bargaining representative," but the second question that only the engineers will have will say something to the effect of, "do you want to be in a bargaining unit with non-professionals." Though this can be insulting to the technicians, the second question is required by law to be voted on and has its roots in the industrial workplaces of the past.

An example of an "inappropriate" bargaining unit would be if the mechanical engineers in this example file for a petition for a union vote that defines the bargaining unit of only those mechanical engineers who are in favor of forming a union (i.e., signed an authorization card). The NLRB would not find this to be an appropriate unit because attitudes regarding collective bargaining (and other personal beliefs) are not a factor when defining a community of interest (i.e., a bargaining unit).

Seeking Support from IFPTE

Most employees interested in forming a union will seek out the support of an existing umbrella union, like IFPTE, for legal support, strategy and guidance. In addition, seeking out support and joining an existing a union will increase you and your colleagues' bargaining strength, especially if your employer is likely to challenge you and your colleagues' wish to activate your right to engage in collective bargaining.

Seeking out an existing union to help organize is not required since any group of employees can join together to form a union. In fact, a number of IFPTE Local affiliates were at one time independent unions that organized and activated their right to engage in collective bargaining on their own, and then later affiliated with IFPTE for greater bargaining strength, support, and solidarity. However, in today's political and corporate climate, organizing on your own can be very challenging, even for government and non-profit sector employees, given most employers will hire a law firm that specialize in union deterrence.

Why do Employees Unionize

There is not one single reason why employees decide to activate their right to engage in collective bargaining, nor should there be. Each employee makes that decision based on his or her own interests and issues, and if a majority are so inclined, they will, as a group, activate this right.

For some it is about being compensated fairly; for others it has to do with benefits, such as medical and retirement. In our experience, the main theme we see when employees wish to organize is a feeling of an overall lack of respect from the employer, especially for professionals and highly skilled employees who at one time felt like they were part of the company or agency in question.

To be clear, people do not form unions in order to join a social movement, create conflict, or to get into partisan politics. In our experience, people simply want to feel productive and useful at work, receive praise by their employer when they perform their duties well, feel respected by their employer, and have time for their family and other activities outside of work. Unfortunately, many employers fail to understand these elements of work that are so important to people, but by forming a union, balance and cooperation can be restored.

In the end, forming a union is about taking responsibility over your career and work life. Instead of relying on your employer to do the right thing, by activating your right to engage in collective bargaining, you and your colleagues now have a voice that allows you to respectfully question decisions, collaborate to resolve challenges, and have a means to hold the employer accountable in a legally binding collective bargaining agreement.

What to Anticipate from the Employer

Unfortunately, most employers (even public sector employers), especially in the United States, will hire anti-union/union deterrence law firms to try to prevent their employees from engaging in collective bargaining.

The overall strategy is to create an "us" (employer & employees) vs. "them" (the unknown union) mentality, as well as to play off on their employees' fears (i.e., getting fired, demoted, or harassed) in the hopes that not enough authorization cards will be signed, or to get a majority of employees to vote "no" if an union vote is held.

The most common strategies employers use include:

  • Firing managers partly responsible for the employees wishing to unionize in order to win over support from the employees

  • Training managers in persuading their employees not to unionize. Even good managers would be required to conduct themselves in this unprofessional manner because managers have fewer collective bargaining rights than employees other than to quit their job.

  • Holding "captive audience" meetings, which are meetings during paid work hours where you and your colleagues are required (directly or indirectly) to attend and listen to a manager coached by the union avoidance "expert" on why organizing a union is not in employees' best interests.

    • Sometimes these meetings are held with small groups of employees and are led by a trusted manager whom the employees know and work closely with.

    • Common language used during these meetings can include:

      • "give us (employer) another chance"

      • "we do not need a third party (the union) to restrict our relationship"

      • "if you bring in a union, I'm not sure our company can survive"

Why would employers conduct themselves in this fashion? Simply put, most employers have no interest in negotiating with their employees. Even employers that treat their employees fairly well and/or say that they view their employees as family members generally are not interested in giving up any control. Most tellingly, they do not want their employees to have the ability to hold them accountable.

Where to Begin

Every unionizing effort starts out with one or a handful of employees who believe things can be better. The key is to determine if there enough interest among your colleagues to exercise collective bargaining rights. Winning such a campaign does not happen overnight, and it can take several tries, but in the end, when successful, it can be extremely rewarding.

If you and some of your colleagues are ready to start this journey in forming a union with IFPTE, please contact us by clicking here.

IFPTE at a Glance


IFPTE represents over 80,000 women and men in professional, technical, administrative and associated occupations in the United States and Canada.


Our members work for federal, public and private employers, and work in various occupations such as auditors, drafters/designers, engineers, judges, lawyers, researchers, scientists, and technicians to name a few.

Executive Board

The Executive Council is made up of Officers and Area Vice-Presidents. Area Vice-Presidents are elected by members within their specific area, and are responsible for governing IFPTE between conventions. A list of the Area Vice-Presidents can be found on our Officers page.

Executive Officers

The Executive Officers run the day to day operations of IFPTE and they are elected at the IFPTE Convention, which are held every three years.