Frequently Asked Questions

What is a union?

A union is an organization of workers united around common goals and demands. Workers are stronger when they are united together.  Joining together in unions enables workers to negotiate for higher wages and benefits and improve conditions in the workplace.  With a union, the employer can no longer dictate these things without input. While unions can help workers in many ways, a labor union’s most public role is to collectively bargain a contract between the employer and employees on the terms of employment.

What is collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining is a process in which a group of workers – a bargaining unit – negotiate a contract with their employer to determine the terms of employment. These terms then apply to everyone within the bargaining unit in order to achieve a contract that is as fair as possible for everyone. Every year, millions of America’s workers negotiate or renegotiate their bargained contracts.  A contract is the way in which workers are able to have a say in determining their own working conditions, pay, and benefits.

Like any other contract, it can be enforced by law. A Union Contract is a reflection of the power of the workers and their willingness to fight in a workplace at a given time.

What is a bargaining unit?

A bargaining unit is the group of employees that are covered by a contract and who are represented by a union.

Who will be included in the bargaining unit at Carmen?

While we can’t be absolutely sure who will be in the bargaining unit at Carmen at this early stage of the campaign, we believe that all non-management teachers, social workers, professional staff and non-professional staff are eligible to be included. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has the final say in determining who will be included in the bargaining unit.

What can union members bargain with their employers over?

By law, employers are required to bargain over “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.”  This includes:

  • Wages
  • Health and safety procedures
  • Discipline and grievance procedure
  • Arbitration
  • Seniority

Fringe benefits are also negotiable.  This might include:

  • Vacation
  • Holidays
  • Pensions
  • Health Insurance
  • Sick Time
  • Severance Pay

How does collective bargaining work?

After the Union is certified, one of the first things that happens is that all the workers will fill out a bargaining survey to identify issues and problems they would like to see addressed during negotiations.  A negotiating committee is elected by the workers who will then work with an IAM Business Representative to start contract negotiations with the employer.  Once a “tentative agreement” is reached, the workers will vote on whether to accept or reject the contract offer.  After the contract is ratified, both the workers and the employer must follow the agreements reached.

Why do teachers at Carmen want to form a union?

A union will empower teachers and staff to work with Carmen leadership to create a school that works in the best interests of all stakeholders, from students and families to staff and administrators. We want to provide input on decisions that affect our schools and the students we serve. We want to create schools and classrooms that are healthy spaces for everyone and have the chance to participate in determining our future at Carmen.

We can use collective bargaining to fight for:

  • Livable wages consistent with assigned work
  • Sustainable work schedules that promote a healthy work-life balance
  • Affordable healthcare
  • Equitable hiring practices, and due process and job security
  • School policies that promote equity for staff, students, and families
  • A dedicated space for social justice organizing and community partnerships

Are unions actually a good thing?

Yes! Unions give workers a seat at the table with their employer. Unions allow employees to be advocates and have honest conversations with leadership to make improvements to the workplace in a protected fashion. For most working-class citizens, it is nearly impossible to negotiate the terms and conditions of their contract to their satisfaction on an individual level. Unions support workers because there is power in numbers and community. Unions support employers because there is a greater employee satisfaction and retention.

In 2020, 7.2 million U.S. employees in the public sector and 7.1 million workers in the private sector belonged to unions. According to a 2021 economic report released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nonunion workers had median weekly earnings that were 84% of earnings for workers who were union members ($958 versus $1,144). Among major race and ethnicity groups, Black workers continued to have a higher union membership rate in 2020 (12.3 percent) than White workers (10.7 percent), Asian workers (8.9 percent), or Hispanic workers (9.8 percent). The union membership rate for Black workers (+1.1 percentage points), Hispanic workers (+0.9 percentage point), and White workers (+0.4 percentage point) increased over the year, while the rate for Asian workers changed little. The increases in the union membership rates reflect declines in total wage and salary employment for these groups, principally among nonunion workers. Furthermore, once a union is formed, workers are no longer “at will” employees. A union contract provides a due process with specific disciplinary actions that the employer must take before deciding to discipline or fire workers.

What are the priorities of the Carmen Workers Collective in organizing this union?

We have 4 priorities:

  1. Financial Fairness: Providing a living wage and benefits that matches teachers’ expertise and helps us recruit and retain strong staff.
  2. Sustainable Workload: Creating daily expectations that are reasonable for a single school day.
  3. Transparency: Integrating accountability, clarity, and teacher voice in the decision-making process.
  4. Equity: Prioritizing anti-racist and anti-discriminatory practices in our treatment of workers, students, and families. Check out the Demands page for more information.

How does the unionization process work?

There are several phases to forming a union:

  1. Concerned workers discuss whether they want to form a union. Oftentimes, this happens quietly so that workers can discuss without experiencing pressure from the employer. Workers who support the union fill out a Union Authorization Card (which Carmen Staff can do here!)
  2. Once the workers are ready, they bring their organizing campaign to the public.  Employees have time to decide whether or not they want to form a Union. Once a strong plurality of workers have signed Union Authorization cards, the Union files for an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
  3. The NLRB sets a date for an election.  If 50% plus one of the workers vote “Yes” in the election, then the employer must sit down with the workers and negotiate a contract.  If not, then the unionization effort is over with no union established.

Carmen Workers Collective creating a union infographic

I like the administration and leadership team. Should I still support the union?

Yes! The union is NOT an antagonist against administration and leadership. The union IS a community partner meant to advocate for our community needs. We believe that we are ALL passionate about our work and want to be happy while working. However, the reality is that stakeholder happiness and satisfaction at each of the six Carmen campuses is not equal. If your experience with administration and leadership is mostly positive, it doesn’t mean that’s the case for all the staff, students and families.

A union will not prevent you from talking with your supervisors. Working relationships and their boundaries are created by the individuals working together. We all know that our coworkers come and go though; a contract will establish expectations of professional relationships which can enhance the dynamics and give clarity on roles. Union contracts can also be shaped to preserve the structure of the relationships that you and your administrators have worked to create, regardless of future staffing changes.

If you like something about your work, secure it in a contract!  Make sure that positive workplace policies aren’t changed on a whim.  Supervisors can get transferred, promoted, or leave.  A contract guarantees some stability through these kinds of changes.

What is Seniority?

Seniority refers to the number of years a worker has worked at a workplace. Seniority rights is the way that a union ensures fair treatment for all workers at a workplace, based on how long they have worked there. It works because everyone knows that if they remain at the workplace long enough, they will have more seniority.

What is a Grievance Procedure?

What happens when the employer does not follow the rules written out in the contract? The union must move to enforce it. One way to enforce the contract is through collective action. Another way to enforce a contract is to file a grievance. A grievance is a specific kind of complaint, based on the language of the contract. It is done through a formal procedure which is also written out in the contract. It usually involves a written grievance form giving the company notice of the violation of contract language and detailing the nature of the problem and the proposed solution.

What do my dues pay for?

Dues secure all the benefits, rights, services and privileges that are negotiated through collectively bargained contracts. Dues enable the union to utilize all our collective power to negotiate the best agreement possible. During negotiations, the IAM traditionally trains its bargaining committees to ensure they are equipped with the skills necessary. Dues are also used for arbitrations, when grievances can’t be resolved between the union and the company. Union dues also include benefits that the union offers, such as scholarships, free online college, group health plans, and more.  Dues also allow for union staff to help unrepresented workers organize a union at their workplace.

Where do my dues dollars go? 

Will my dues money go to politics?

Dues money does not go to political candidates.  Every penny spent on political lobbying comes from voluntary donations to the Machinists Non-Partisan Political League (MNPL).

Will we have to strike?

Strikes get a lot of publicity, but the odds you will ever go on strike are slim. Every year, ninety-eight (98) percent of all IAM contracts are negotiated without a strike, through businesslike, professional negotiations with the employer. The IAM Constitution ensures no one in the IAM can order or force a majority of members to strike against their will. Members covered by the contract are notified and given the chance to vote on the proposed agreement and on whether to strike. It takes a simple majority (50%+ 1) of those voting to accept a contract, BUT it takes a two-thirds (66.66) majority to strike. With that said, sometimes union members do vote to strike. It’s a source of power and oftentimes it’s the best way to protect ourselves against corporate greed. Strikes are not taken lightly, however. That’s why it takes two-thirds of the membership at your worksite to vote to authorize a strike.

Why are teachers at Carmen unionizing with the Machinists Union?

It might seem strange for an educator to join an organization called the Machinists Union. When it was founded way back in 1888 it was exclusively for railroad mechanics. But a lot of time has passed, and the labor movement has evolved.

Carmen teachers reached out to the IAM to find out more about how to have a voice at work.  The IAM is a large, diverse international Union that represents workers in virtually every type of industry. 

The IAM has experienced labor negotiators and resources to help workers bargain, but it’s the workers themselves who ultimately know their workplace the best and will shape their contract.  When workers are in the driver’s seat, they fashion contracts that best suit their priorities and needs.   (Learn more at About The IAM.)

Here are links to some recent organizing wins with the IAM:

Milwaukee Art Museum Workers


Registered Nurses

Veterinary Technicians (election pending)


How will unionization promote social justice at Carmen?

In brief: stronger teaching staff, improved student outcomes, better communication, and more community engagement!

Firstly, we use collective bargaining to fight to end the one-way relationship between Carmen administration and the workers, and the inherent classism and racism implied by that kind of one-way relationship. This starts with having teachers on decision-making committees, a more transparent disciplinary process for staff, and a teacher on the Board of Directors. We believe that giving teachers more say in how the school runs will help prevent unequal treatment along lines of race, class, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation – especially when it’s not intended. These opportunities, as well as the financial security that union contracts can provide, are key to advancing social justice goals both within the school and the city as a whole.

Secondly, evidence shows that voluntarily unionized charter schools have higher overall achievement and academic growth in English Language Arts compared to non-unionized charter schools (read the full study here), as well as positive impacts on math outcomes (read that study here). While these studies do not provide an explanation, we at Carmen believe that providing adequate compensation and more stability for teachers will provide us a better opportunity to develop into excellent educators.

Thirdly, teachers and other front line employees are the ones that first hear complaints and concerns from students and families; we need a guaranteed seat at the table to communicate those concerns in a safe space. We can also advocate for more decision-making powers in the hands of students and families. For example, students and families often ask for more electives, especially classes that provide advanced academic opportunities (e.g., computer science and more AP classes) and pre-professional experience (e.g., auto shop and CNA programming). Teachers can help advocate for, and build, these options for students and families.

Finally, unions are organizations with a long history of being involved in the community. Voces de la Frontera, Leaders Igniting Transformation, and Black Leaders Organizing Communities have all worked closely with unions. With a union, we have another pathway to being more involved in community issues and have a formal organization with the weight of its resources to back our broader social justice work. In fact, the Chicago Teachers Union listed more affordable housing for their families as one of their union demands.

Unions were and are the way sustainable, living wage jobs were built in this country, and our students and families deserve to see it is possible to fight for a better world. Students deserve to understand the process of unionization for their future in the workforce, regardless of their job.

Will the union harm Carmen and students?

No. We strongly believe it will strengthen and improve our schools. That’s because workers who form a union are more satisfied and productive at work. Joining in unions also reduces costly turnover and makes the workplace safer. Additionally, by forming a union we’ll be able to hold more sway over workplace policy changes, giving teachers and students a voice. We are thoughtful, dedicated educators and Carmen will benefit when our perspectives are listened to, and when we are able to thrive.  

Will a union increase my job security?

Absolutely!  Without a union, you are an at-will employee and Carmen can choose to change your working conditions at any time, discipline, or fire without notice, and for any reason (with the exception of federal protections which protect against discriminatory employer actions.)  Once you and your co-workers unionize, you will no longer be “at-will” employees.  Carmen will be obligated to follow the disciplinary rules outlined in the negotiated grievance procedure in your contract.

A union contract provides a due process with specific disciplinary actions that the employer must take before deciding to discipline workers. While this grievance procedure may not overturn Carmen’s decision (in case Carmen was justified and followed the proper disciplinary procedures), it does provide workers with safety from unjust or unfair discipline or job loss.

If I don’t vote in the election and a union gets voted in, am I still covered by the collective bargaining agreement?

Yes, if a union is voted in, all employees in the collective bargaining unit are subject to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement regardless of whether they voted in the election.  In the same way that our government elections work, the results of the election apply to everyone.

What are my legal rights to organize a Union?

Most private sector workers have the right to join or support a Union under the National Labor Relations Act.

Worker Rights Under the NLRA:

  • Organize a union to negotiate with your employer concerning wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment.
  • Form, join or assist a union.
  • Bargain collectively through representatives of employees’ own choosing for a contract with the employer setting wages, benefits, hours, and other working conditions.
  • Discuss terms and conditions of employment or union organizing with their co-workers or a union.
  • Take action with one or more co-workers to improve working conditions by, among other means, raising work-related complaints directly with the employer or with a govern­ment agency, and seeking help from a union.
  • Strike and picket, depending on the purpose or means of the strike or the picketing
  • Choose not to do any of these activities, including joining or remaining a member of a union.


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