Organizing 101

Winning a voice at work through organizing a union!

One of the most important things a union provides is a voice in the workplace. By forming a union, you and your colleagues will have opportunities for greater input into your work-lives. Through contract negotiations, you can gain more control, ownership and respect for the work that you do.

When you and your co-workers decide to form a union with the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT), your employer is then legally obligated to negotiate with you (as a group) over wages, benefits, hours of work, and other working conditions. The product of these negotiations is your union contract. The contract is a legally binding document that spells out the terms and condition of your employment.

Under Illinois’ Labor Laws, educational employees who do not have a union contract are called “at-will” employees unless you are tenured. As an “at-will” employee, your employer has the right to terminate your employment at any time, and without specific cause. While tenure provides some level of protection, every union contract secures a higher level of job security. Union members have more legal rights in the event of any arbitrary and unfair disciplines or terminations.

In addition to protecting jobs, the contract also serves to preserve and protect compensation levels and working conditions. While many of us feel that we are secure in our jobs, we must recognize that circumstances can (and often do) change, making the future uncertain. Because union members have the ability to negotiate wages, benefits, and working conditions in a legally binding contract for a period of several years, they know what the future holds for them.

What is a union?

A union is a group of people coming together to advance their common interests. It is a member driven democracy that requires maximum participation from everyone in order to be most effective.

As a union, you will be established as a 501- c4 non- profit organization chartered by the IFT-AFT. IFT’s purpose is to improve the lives of its members and their families, to give voice to their aspirations, to strengthen the institutions in which we work, to improve the quality of services we provide and to assist and support each other.

Who is the IFT?

As part of the IFT family, you will not be alone. You will have the backing of 90,000+ members of the Illinois Federation of Teachers and 1.4 million members of the American Federation of Teachers. We will help you negotiate and enforce your union contract and give guidance in other areas should you request it. Together, the IFT and AFT will be your resource center. We provide an array of services such as Professional development programs, Leadership training, grievance and arbitration assistance, contract negotiations, lobbying and personal services that are outlined in our member benefits booklet. These and other services will help your organization run effectively and efficiently.

How will joining the union benefit me?

The IFT-AFT is an experienced partner at the bargaining table, winning both economic gains and improvements in the crucial arena of career advancement and opportunity for professional staff.

Below are just a few examples of the negotiated benefits our members are currently enjoying and how forming a union can benefit you:


  • Guaranteed yearly pay increases
  • A pay schedule that rewards years of experience and academic achievement


  • Equal opportunity in the workplace
  • Standardize policy and procedures
  • Clear and concise job descriptions and job duties
  • Promotions and advancements

Job security

  • A defined grievance procedure with binding resolution by a neutral 3rd party
  • Multi- year contracts
  • Tenure earned after 3 years

A voice at work

  • A legal voice in the decision making process
  • Negotiated hours of work, pay increases, insurance and compensatory benefits and other working conditions


  • Professional Development
  • Sick Pay improvements
  • Tuition remission/waivers
  • Bereavement pay improvements
  • Pension and insurance benefit improvements

Union dues and why they’re important

As a non- profit organization, unions are 100% supported by its’ members dues. Union dues are monies paid to support the everyday activities of your union. This money is primarily used to maintain union offices, pay staff, attorney fees and to negotiate and maintain contracts. It also supports many other activities that benefit the members—member trainings, continuing education seminars, publications, professional development and political lobbying are all paid for using dues. Unions do not accept any monies from special interest groups or any other outside sources. A union’s mission is to support the interest of its members.

In Illinois, bargaining unit members have the option not to join the union, but because those ‘non-members’ still receive all contractual benefits and representation, typically union contracts require a “fair share” dues amount. Once “fair share” is negotiated in your contract, the difference between the cost of “fair share” and full membership dues is very minimal. In exercising the “fair share” option, those individuals forfeit all voting rights within the union. “Fair share” members will not have a vote in electing officers, representatives, approving your contract or any other facet of local union business.

In the field of education, training and library occupations, union members earn on average 27.3% more than non- union members, according to the US Department of Labor.

The Legal Process to Organizing a Union

In Illinois, employees who wish to form a union may do so by utilizing 1 of 3 options:

Option #1: Voluntary Employer Recognition

During the organizing process, employees have the right to demand voluntary recognition from the employer. Voluntary recognition allows for the employer to acknowledge your union without the board election process after which your union can be certified by the board. This option is not commonly used and in many cases, the employer wishes to see all union cards or petitions signed by the employees.

Option #2: Election Process

When at least 30% of the bargaining unit has sign union authorization cards, the union will file a petition for an election with the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board (the Board).

The Board reviews the authorization cards that are presented and compares them to a list of employees that the employer provides. The authorization cards remain confidential throughout the entire process.

The normal election process can take up to 45 days after the filing of a petition for election. Your election will be secret ballot and run by the Board. A majority of the people voting decide the outcome of the election. It is important that you and your colleagues exercise your rights by casting a ballot at your union election. If you and your colleagues elect union representation you can immediately begin the process of bargaining your contract.

Although this process has been around since the beginning of the bargaining law, it can be the most cumbersome option to choose. The employer typically tries to interfere with employees’ decision making during the election process by delaying the process or intimidating workers and discouraging them from voting for a union at election time.

Option #3: Card Check

Thanks to some new provisions within the Illinois Labor Relation Act, educational employees can now form a union when a majority of employees sign union authorization cards. This process is a lot less cumbersome than the election process. Once employees have a majority +1 of the bargaining unit sign union authorization cards, the union will file a petition with the labor board. The Board reviews the authorization cards that are presented and compares them to a list of employee’s signatures that the employer provides. Once it is determined that there is a majority, the board will start the card check process. This process takes 30 days to complete and the authorization cards remain confidential throughout the entire process.

Although the card check process has only been around for a few years, it has been found to be the most effective organizing process for workers to form or join unions. Employees in Illinois are now choosing this option when they decide to form a union.

What happens next?

Following certification of your union, with the assistance of the IFT, you will formalize your organization by creating a constitution and bylaws, electing your colleagues as union officers, and begin bargaining the contract for your group. It is important to understand that you are organizing a union that will be representative of the employees that work for the employer/institution. There is no one coming from the outside to solve your problems. Only you know what the problems are in your workplace. Therefore, you and your colleagues will elect officers and representatives. These leaders will oversee your organization and report to the members on all matters pertaining to the union. They are also responsible for enforcing your contract.

Want to know more?

Follow this blog (see right) or email the UISUF Organizing Committee at


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