Collective bargaining is the formal process of negotiation between an employer and a group of employees that establishes the terms and conditions of their employment. The terms negotiated include pay, benefits, work hours, time off and more. The process results in a collective bargaining agreement, which legally binds both the employer and the employees to the terms agreed upon.

Often, employee groups that engage in collective bargaining choose to be represented by a union, an organization that serves as an agent representing a specific group of employees and collectively bargains with the employer on their behalf. In the United States, a federal agency called the National Labor Relations Board generally oversees the process for employees seeking to form or join a union.

In order to represent a bargaining unit — a specific group of employees who collectively choose to unionize — a majority of all the members of that bargaining unit must vote in an election in favor of joining that union. But first, a union needs support from at least 30 percent of the members of that bargaining unit before they can file a petition to proceed with that election. Organizers supporting unionization typically conduct “card drives” to demonstrate support for the petition. In a card drive, members of the unit can choose to sign authorization cards (or forms) to signal their support for union representation. Signing an authorization card is a pre-petition step and is distinct from ultimately voting for or against representation in an election.

Should a bargaining unit’s members demonstrate enough support, organizers will file an election petition, which would in turn prompt an election in which all bargaining unit members would be eligible to vote on whether or not to be represented by the union.  Ultimately, the election to certify a union as the bargaining representative for a bargaining unit is decided by a majority of votes cast by all the eligible members of the bargaining unit.

Further details on the election process are available on the National Labor Relations Board website.

Examples of Collective Bargaining Agreements: