What Is Unionization?

Unionization is the act of unionizing or joining, organizing, or being subject to a trade union's rules.

How Unions Are Born

Unions have a long history in the United States. For some industries, a union is the best way for workers to get benefits and pay that they may not otherwise receive individually. So how do unions start? Unions form as a result of employees who believe that unionization is beneficial to their workplace.

From this point, the group determines which union best fits what they want to carry out and contacts said union to decide whether the union wants to represent the group. If the union expresses interest, it will assign professional organizers to guide the employees through the process of unionizing.

Unions do decline groups due to lack of interest, however. The reasons for a lack of interest vary. But some reasons for a lack of interest may include an employer being too small, lack of knowledge, or comfort with regard to the industry of the company in question. If one union declines to represent the group, simply ask if they have any recommendations for unions that fit the needs of the group.

It is important to remember that an established union does not need to represent the group of workers. Established unions offer support and experience that a new union does not have. But the National Labor Relation Act (NLRA) specifically says unions can form independently for the purposes of representing people at a specific workplace. Sections 7 and 8 of the NLRA make this provision.

However, the main reason groups of employees opt not to form an independent union is due to the complexities of labor law and the expenses associated with it. Larger companies typically have the resources for employees to form their own unions.

Unionization History

Chicago, Illinois has a history of labor organizing, but it is not necessarily a labor town. Labor organizations have cropped up across the country throughout recent history. Some of these unions grew up to become strong organizational forces over time.

Just as unions have grown into strong forces in the labor movement, employers are still strong entities to contend with. As a result, struggles have erupted for unions against organized and forceful employers who will not budge. This explains how racial and ethnic diversity significantly influenced the labor movement. It is as much about social class as it is workers’ rights. Chicago became a central place for the labor movement because of its rapidly changing working population and the diversity that came to the city. These have benefited and challenged Chicago organizers.

Significant levels of immigration starting in the mid-nineteenth century through several periods in the 20th century rapidly changed the makeup of Chicago. New languages and cultures entered the city, making it incredibly diverse. People who immigrated to Chicago included African-Americans from the South and immigrants from South America, Puerto Rico, and Asia. This fact required organizers to discuss issues related to race for most of the movement. But the inclusion of these immigrants also changed and strengthened the labor movement.

During the mid-1880's unionization spread into many industries including the trades. This came at a cost. Workers in the transportation and clothing manufacturing industries faced opposition from employers who were better organized and called for the opening of their own stores. Resistance from employers led to a significant decrease in union organization starting in 1904 amid higher rates of unemployment.

Clothing and garment industry workers did experience an increase in union organization due to strikes in 1909 and 1910. They led to the expansion of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) also formed in 1910. But organization outside of this industry remained low all the way through to World War I.

The segregation and exclusion of African Americans in other parts of Chicago's labor movement caused an influx of these workers in the meatpacking and steel industries. This failure is one reason why the Chicago labor unions were weaker during the 20's and 1930's. Labor unions did eventually move into the industries of meatpacking, steel, and agricultural machinery manufacturing during the late 30s into World War II. This move prompted an increase in civil rights organization among African American, Asian, and Mexican workers.

Discrimination in some of the building trades persisted even after the passing of civil rights legislation during the 1960s. As a result, groups like the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists protested. Eventually, discriminatory practices in these trade unions ceased thanks in part to pressure from the federal government.

Chicago's labor movement became more powerful throughout the middle of the 20th century. But it remained divided between conservatives and corruption centered in the Building Trades Council as well as the progressive and more radical side of the union. This division existed in part because of the movement's evolution. During the 19th century the more radical wing was represented by Marxists who spoke German. Moving into the 20th century, John Fitzpatrick, the President of the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) represented progressives. As time moved into the 1930's and the war, new activists created the Congress of Industrial Organization unions (CIO).

The history of the Chicago labor movement illustrates its strengths and weaknesses. The city's increase in construction led to a steady demand for skilled manual labor while organizations that created goods excelled due to technological limitations. By the end of the nineteenth century, more than a score of unions had federated into a powerful Building Trades Council (BTC), which coordinated a complex range of work rules and crippling sympathetic strikes on sites throughout the city.

Throughout most of the twentieth century, conservative leaders from the building trades excluded women and minorities from their lucrative apprenticeship programs and dueled with progressive elements in the CFL. Women have been active in the city's labor movement at least since the formation of the Chicago Working Women's Union (CWWU) in the mid-1870s and were instrumental in efforts to organize the clothing trades and other industries with real female labor forces.

By 1980, unionization rates were back down to exactly the same level as they were in 1935.

Employee Rights

Under Section 7, the NLRA extends employees certain protection of activities such as rights to:

  • Discuss membership
  • Read and give out union literature in non-work areas
  • Wear items that support the union like hats, pins, or shirts while at work
  • Sign a card requesting an employer work with a union on items like petitions and complaints about terms of employment
  • Ask co-workers to sign petitions, complaints, and grievances

Courts have also protected employees’ rights in Section 8 of the NLRA. Under it, employers cannot offer or give out:

  • Promotions
  • Raises in compensation
  • Preferred work assignments
  • Other favors

This rule applies if the employee is in opposition to any unionizing efforts and is attempting to use these items as inducements to prevent a union from forming or to dissolve it. Additionally, employers cannot close down a work site, transfer work, or reduce benefits to pressure employees not to support unionization or dismiss, harass, reassign, or otherwise punish or discipline employees, or threaten to, if they support unionization.

Impact of Graduate School Unionization

As of August 2016, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in favor of student assistants at private high education institutions having the right to organize unions. This ruling came from a Colombia University case opened by students interested in unionizing with the help of a national labor union. It came after a ruling over a decade earlier in 2004. At that time, graduate students were ineligible for unionization because they received compensation to do work as students as opposed to faculty members or lecturers. Therefore, the Brown University students were ineligible under the NLRA.

Student Unionization is allowed by state law at the University of California and the University of Wisconsin. The argument against student unionization is that it would change the relationship between faculty members and graduate students. Completing a degree in higher education does require a joint effort between both parties. This joint effort, universities like Stanford, MIT, and others maintained, would turn adversarial according to an amicus brief. It goes on to say that the teaching and research work graduate students complete is an essential part of their academic experience. Research studies, however, suggest otherwise.

3,219 students were surveyed by researchers at Cornell University who studied the effect of unionization on the student and faculty relationship in 2013. The participants attended Ph.D. programs at eight research-focused public universities. Half of the schools had graduate student unions and the other did not. Unionized institutions tended to rate their faculty advisors higher compared to those who did not. Union graduate assistants felt that the faculty members saw them as professionals, provided help to them and served as role models displaying positive behaviors. The authors of the study suggest that:

"Either directly or through creating pressures that encourage management to rationalize practices, unions could encourage stronger mentoring by faculty advisors…unions strengthen the relationship between students and faculty advisors by pushing potential employment-related conflicts up to the university bureaucracy."

The 2013 study supports the findings of a previous study completed in the year 2000 on the same topic. The 2000 study conducted by researchers at Tufts University surveyed 1000 faculty members at universities that already had unions.  It found that faculty members are actually supportive of collective bargaining from graduate students because they are university employees. Collective bargaining did not prevent faculty from advising, instructing or mentoring graduate students.

Those surveyed did express some concerns with regard to having a process to register and resolve complaints given that collective bargaining happened on campus. In addition, survey respondents verbalized concerns about the impact agreements researched might have on choosing the most qualified graduate students.

The findings of this study provide evidence that the claims made by several universities about a change in the student and faculty relationship as a result of unionization are not entirely correct.

How Walmart Persuades Its Workers Not to Unionize

As an organization, Walmart is well-known for its anti-union position, though it prefers to be known as pro-associate. It requires the thousands of new hires across 4000 stores across the United States to watch videos that are anti-union. Walmart does have a right to clearly communicate this long-held position. They cannot, however, threaten layoffs, the closing of stores, or reduce benefits due to unionization by law.

The freedom to express an anti-union stance has not stopped the United Food and Commercial Workers Union from battling Walmart. The NLRB recently issued a complaint against the corporation after close to two dozen workers were terminated and 40 more disciplined. The actions came after strikes related to wages. While the NLRB rules that Walmart's actions were illegal, the company says otherwise. 

Walmart also offers other benefits to its employees to discourage unionization including:

  • Bonuses
  • 401k plans that are matched by the company for the first 6 percent of income
  • Health insurance with affordable premiums

The company maintains that these benefits are often better than what competitors offer. But it doesn't prevent them from showing anti-union media to employees. Nor will the benefits prevent future actions from employees wanting better wages.

A 1963 Supreme Court ruling states that employees are not required to join existing unions at their place of work. They may still have to pay dues or fees to the union, though. 25 states in the United States have "Right to Work" laws that do not require this.

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