Forming a Union Chapter

The AAUP encourages unionization of all eligible higher education employees as the best way to secure professional standards and to ensure that effective instruction remains the core institutional focus.

We strongly encourage you to reach out to the national office for support in developing an organizing plan and campaign, but—before you take that step—there is some preliminary work that you can do both to test your readiness for unionization and to lay the groundwork for a successful effort.

Below we also provide a brief, generic outline of the different phases of a union campaign. Please note, however, that an actual union organizing plan would contain much more specificity and would be carefully developed to meet the challenges of your specific campus.

Groundwork: Your Future Members and Leadership

At its most basic level, a union is defined by the power of numbers. Unions succeed when they are entities that build majority membership, effectively define common concerns, and act visibly and in unison to address those concerns.

Therefore, from the start, you need to think carefully about your future members. Who will they be? Are there any legal impediments to organizing them? Do you have any current capacity to mobilize those potential members? For example, are there already existing organizations on campus in which faculty leaders have been identified and developed? Will those organizations and the leaders that they have produced be supportive of unionization? To what extent do those faculty leaders have influence across the various constituencies within the university?

Unions are (or should be) constantly searching for and developing their leadership because with diverse and broad leadership comes a capacity to mobilize and to inspire. Effective unions have at their core a group of (ultimately) elected leaders who are capable of building the strong consensus necessary for organizing concerted public action. These union leaders, therefore, cannot have a narrow appeal; they must reflect and speak to and for the full diversity of the membership.

That said, many unions in a higher education context develop in part because the existing leadership bodies—such as faculty senates—have lost or are losing their capacity to speak for the majority and to mobilize faculty to demand change, or because the existing governance structure has been undermined by increasingly centralized administration and faculty bodies no longer have the authority necessary to influence policy. In these situations, union organizers must build, at least in part, a new leadership structure, and that new leadership must—over time—learn how to work together, to communicate effectively, and to build majority, public support for unionization.

Groundwork: The Organizing Committee

This union organizing leadership group is commonly called the Organizing Committee or OC. Prior to union recognition, this is almost never an elected body.

We recommend beginning OC meetings as soon as you have identified a core group of leaders—that is, people who have made a commitment to unionization and who have a record of mobilizing and influencing others. We might use the term “activist” for someone who has a passionate commitment to unionization but who may not be especially effective in leading others. Union “leaders” share with activists a commitment to organizing and, importantly, can inspire others to participate. The strength of an OC is often determined by how many real leaders are involved.

It’s important that you develop and share a common definition of your OC. Most simply, the OC is the group that gets the organizing work done, creates the organizing plan, and keeps the campaign on track. Usually an OC member is asked to commit a certain specified amount of time to weekly union work—including a mixture of things such as training (getting trained, developing training sessions, and doing the training), developing office visit schedules to recruit more OC members, conducting office visits (and debriefing those visits with the group), and planning.

The earliest tasks that the OC must complete are easy to define but sometimes challenging to accomplish, and you may need support from a professional organizer in completing them. They are:

  1. Developing a complete and accurate list of all future members with all pertinent information, such as department, contact information, and job category.
  2. Identifying and recruiting leaders from all areas of the university to serve on the organizing committee. Ideally, you would have one OC member for every ten to twenty future members.

There are many other projects that you might take on and that could easily become distractions. We recommend getting these basics in place before attempting to do anything else and before launching your campaign. 

A basic test of your readiness for unionization is whether you both have put together a complete list of all future members and are succeeding in forming a representative organizing committee.


Organizing campaigns often begin slowly and only “go public” when the organizers (the OC) are confident that they have majority support.

Before going public, but after you have built a considerable OC, there is often a lengthy period of extensive office visiting with future members to identify issues, to educate them on issues about which they may not be fully aware, and to get them ready for future actions (including signing union authorization cards).

One-on-one visits led by OC members and other volunteers are the single most important component of any organizing campaign. It is in these visits that the OC learns how to define the struggles that their future members face and the issues that they feel are paramount, and it is in these visits that support for unionization is consolidated.

To get ready for office visits, you will need the following.

  • A system for tracking visits (including a database, a plan for data entry, and contact sheets).
  • Talking points or a “rap” to be used in all visits so that activists deliver a common message and create a consistent vision of the union.
  • Training so that everyone conducting visits with potential members knows basic organizing techniques and is prepared to answer common questions (about dues, for example) and to “inoculate” potential members against the employer’s almost inevitable anti-union campaign.
  •  A system to maintain accountability and to make sure that you are sharing (as well as getting) results. The whole OC should know when and where you are experiencing difficulty.
  •  Some ideas about how to keep the work fun and sustainable.

As you begin office visits, you should be able to identify the issues and concerns that exist across departments and have the potential to unify your campus. You should also constantly monitor your progress in moving future members from being undecided to supporting a union. Often, you begin a campaign with a large number of “undecideds”; another test of union readiness is whether you are succeeding in moving those undecideds to support.

Before moving on to the next, much more public phase of your campaign, you should prove to yourself and to the whole committee that you have identified key, unifying issues and are clearly developing majority support.

The Signature Card, Going Public, and Proving Majority Support

If you have recruited a diverse committee that has “reach” to a large majority of union supporters, it may very well be time for you to begin circulating union authorization cards.

The act of putting one’s signature on a union authorization card is an active affirmation of support for unionization. The card drive phase of your campaign demonstrates whether you do in fact have majority support; the cards are an index of your future power as a union. Technically, you can file for an election with less than majority support, but we strongly discourage doing so. Even if you were to win an election with less than majority support, your administration would know that you did not have a “real” majority, and the perception of “soft support” for the union leadership will negatively impact your bargaining power in the future.

As you gather cards from a majority of eligible members, the OC will consider the right moment to begin to demonstrate the strength of the union. Unionization campaigns can technically be won without public displays of union support, but those unions are unions in name only; they do not have real power. Visible support for unionization is often demonstrated—in this phase—through photographs and quotes of union supporters and other visible displays of union support such as buttons, stickers, door hangers, T-shirts, and videos. All of this imagery sends a powerful message, both to your administration and to potential members who remain undecided.

Winning and Getting Out the Vote (GOTV)

There are at least two ways to think about winning.

One is somewhat utopian (which is not to discount its importance). You win as a union every time you demonstrate your capacity to organize a majority of your members and act as a union—often times through “visibility actions” or direct action. Arguably, even before an election is conducted, you begin “winning” in the public phase of your organizing campaign. Winning—in this definition—is something that must be executed regularly, but especially after you have won an election. It is through acting as a union and practicing grassroots activism that the union develops its muscle, discipline, and leadership. As members, it is exciting when you participate in and develop a sense of belonging to this kind of winning union organization.

The more technical or practical definition of winning is our focus here. In an NLRB election, you need union support from the majority of those who vote plus one. For example, if there are 400 potential unit members, and only 300 participate in the vote, you need 151 votes in favor of unionization to win. For public sector faculty, different states define “majority” differently.

Running a good GOTV campaign is often the difference between winning and losing. Elections are too often lost by one or two votes—votes that the organizers might well have had if they had done a more professional job with GOTV. As in any election, organizers need to have a very clear idea of who their “yes” voters are and to make sure that they all vote. Furthermore, even higher education employees can make errors in the way they vote, and one “ruined” ballot can cause a loss.

Therefore, part of the approach to any election is to make sure that voters know where to vote, when to vote, and how to vote. If the election is on site, organizers need to be aware of any obstacles that might keep supporters from the polls (such as childcare issues). If the election is a mail ballot, they need to make sure that supporters have the correct phone number to call to report a lost or a damaged ballot. Organizers also need a clear system to track who has already voted and who still needs to vote. When we do a good job with GOTV, we know exactly how many “union yes” votes will be counted.

Next Steps

It is very important to make plans in advance for celebrating your victory. Who will be invited to attend the vote count? Where is the party afterwards? How will you communicate about the victory? Will your OC be the first to communicate with all of the future membership? What will your message be? Too often, it is the university administration that gets out the news first and defines the union victory in ways that are less than flattering. So be ready with your message!

After you’ve won, celebrated, and communicated, you will need to take some time off to get recharged—for winning a union campaign is very hard work.

But your next steps, to be undertaken after not very much time has passed, will be to begin planning for your contract campaign.

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