What is a Labor Union: Everything You Need to Know
Labor unions are organizations that provide services and protection for employees, as well as represent employees in negotiations with company owners.8 min read
What is a Labor Union?
What is a labor union? Labor unions are organizations that provide services and protection for employees, as well as represent employees in negotiations with company owners.
Unions work to make America strong
Unions operate in many ways like a government. Unions will have elections for their leaders and representatives, who then help represent the union members and provide services for them.
Unions are organized locally but often have a national organization that will provide them a charter as their local branch. Examples of national unions are the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and United Automobile Workers (UAW).
A local union often consists of workers who work at the same employer or reside in the same area. Some unions may be organized so that they have members from many different companies but who work in the same industry.
How to Form a Union
Often times, a union will be structured as a bargaining unit in order to formally negotiate with an employer over employee rights and benefits. In forming a union, employers will often make the case for why employees should not make a union.
However, employers are not allowed to prevent union formation by making threats or physical force.
Once a union is formed, laws will require the employer to negotiate fairy with the union, although the employer will be free to decide the terms they agree to.
After negotiations have concluded, usually a collective bargaining arrangement will be signed. The agreement cannot be changed unless the union agrees to it.
Unions begin through the creation of this bargaining group. The collective agreements they sign will be valid for a certain time period and keep certain employment benefits stable. There are a variety of online resources you can visit to learn more about how collective bargaining agreements work.
Union dues will vary by organization and industry, but often will be around $50 every month. Unions will usually use these dues to in part hire staff to run the union on a day-to-day basis, although some also use volunteers.
Everyday Benefits to Help Working Families
Unions are able to negotiate collectively for employment benefits, which makes the union stronger in negotiations than an individual usually.
Unions vary significantly on how they operate. Many unions will have ways for members to contribute their dues only for certain operations and programs. Furthermore, many unions will also offer discounted goods and services with vendors they partner with. These discounts can be on everything from household necessities to entertainment.
Unions will also often have programs for members that have hit hard times. These will include temporary assistance and other benefits.
What is a 'Labor Union'
While unions vary significantly, the general definition of a union is that it is a formal group that speaks for workers collectively and negotiates on their behalf with an employer over employee rights and benefits.
Many unions will be organized as part of a specific industry. Unions are most common in the manufacturing and public-sector fields. In recent decades, non-public unions have declined heavily.
Breaking down 'Labor Union'
Unions generally will end up focusing on a particular sector. These unions then will have workers from companies in that sector come together to select representatives who will represent the union in its dealings. The union itself will usually be a local organization that will be affiliated as part of a national union. The national union will also collect dues on its own behalf too from the local members. The labor union will then advocate for the interests of the employees.
An Example of a Labor Union
Many unions are built the same way and also act in similar ways. A prominent union in the country is the NEA (National Education Association). The NEA:
- Is a union consisting of teachers and other employees who work in the education industry
- Is the country’s biggest union and has over 3 million union members
- States that its purpose is to advocate on behalf of its members and also to support the general goal of public education
- Works with school organizations and districts across the country to set compensation and other benefits for teachers and other union members
- Does this by creating a bargaining unit and then beginning negotiations with a particular employer
- Then will negotiate with that employer to set wage and benefit standards
Labor Union Definition
The union’s members will usually be in the same kind of industry or sector. Unions also vary heavily in terms of how big they are, sometimes being less than just a hundred union members or having millions of members.
Some unions will also be active in political causes, such as lobbying for legislation as well as elections. Because unions are a collective force, they can have a major impact on many aspects of society.
History of Labor Unions
Unions are hundreds of years old in the United States. For example, there were reports of unions forming in cities such as Philadelphia even in the 1790s. However, unions really began growing and making an impact during the middle of the 1800s.
The first unions were advocates for improved factory employment environments, more compensation, shorter work weeks and days, and worked to prohibit children working.
During the early to middle 1900s unions grew significantly and reached the height of their influence and membership. However, unions have declined in recent decades, except for public employees.
Examples of Labor Unions and Rights of Members
Many different industries have unions, ranging from teachers to actors to sports. Unions often will be part of bigger national organizations, such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) or American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). Certain federal laws, such as the Labor-Management Act (LMRDA) will protect the membership of unions as well as set out certain duties union officers must follow. Union member rights include being able to partake in setting union dues, being able to elect and remove officers, as well as speaking freely.
How to Form a Labor Union
Unions for public employees are regulated by a variety of state and federal laws. For private sector unions, they are controlled by the NLRA, which stands for the National Labor Relations Act. The National Labor Relations Board is in charge of overseeing the NLRA’s rules and regulations.
The NLRB’s goal is to protect private sector union members as well as employees in general. The NLRB creates an easy and accessible process for employees to report unfair work actions done by employers as well as find out how to create unions or join current unions.
The initial step in creating a union is to find out if other workers have an interest in a union. For the NLRB to get involved, there must be enough interest in a union for a union election to be done. It is easiest to get the NLRB’s consent if a majority of workers want a union.
A party interested in creating a union should also look to see if there already is a union operating in the area that is similar to the workers’ industry and goals.
The labor movement in America began because workers felt they needed a way to address similar concerns. The first unions were able to get significantly better wages and working environments for their members and workers overall, as well as end practices such as child labor. Unions also were a motivating force behind many employment protection and benefits programs.
Since the first unions early in the country’s history, unions have been active in the country’s affairs. Originally the labor market developed in late colonial times, where the first strike was recorded as happening in the 1760s and the first union, of shoemakers, formed in 1794 in the City of Philadelphia.
Unions spread from then on out often as guilds that set the prices for their employment as well as protecting their craft’s knowledge. The modern union structure first began forming when in 1827 mechanics came together in Philadelphia and brought together the disparate guilds in the city. Another similar organization was the typographer’s union, an international union, in the 1850s.
Unions were not connected initially to the rise of factories and unskilled workers. Unions largely originated with skilled workers, who had strong bargaining power. These early unions were mainly motivated by the material gain of just the members involved.
As the factory system expanded, more workers found a need to advocate for their interests. Many organizations formed during the mid-1800s which pushed for labor reform. Organizations such as the National Labor Union and Knights of Labor became prominent during this time and were able to make significant impacts for workers by the late 1800s through strikes and other advocacy activities.
Unions also often competed with each other, with the Knights of Labor eventually slowing down due to competition from other unions. Furthermore, many of the reforms some unions advocated on a systematic level were confusing and unrealistic, causing them to begin to decline as well. Certain ideologies also played an influential part on some parts of the labor movement.
Organizations such as the AFL were founded with the belief that they could bring about significant change for their workers as well as employees overall. The AFL believe it could do this through focusing on sector-specific unions and making slow progress in each sector, which would, on the whole, create a significant change in society.
The AFL nonetheless sought to bring together many workers under its umbrella, stating explicitly it was a union of all peoples. However, initially, the AFL only represented skilled workers. The problems facing the AFL were similar to what many unions faced at the time, which was how to achieve their goals realistically and especially given radical new changes in technology.
Many unions ended up being industrially-based. Furthermore, many unions ended up being segmented, in part due to the ways jobs and professions were divided up at the time. For example, the AFL created a whites-only union under it in the 1890s. Such discriminatory unions began becoming more common after that.
African-Americans ended up being just a tiny fraction of the AFL’s member. The AFL said that this discriminatory result was because of the way professions were divided, and the federalist way unions were organized, where local branches had control.
Many unions faced a questionable relationship between local and national organization. Certain union theories made it so that unions wanted to avoid interfering with politics and government affairs. However, some unions chose to actively engage in politics, even forming lobbying groups in D.C. Once the 1900s came about, more unions saw benefit in being involved in politics and created more lobbying arms to advocate for legislation and participate in changing judicial precedent.
Unions ended up support candidates such as Robert La Follette of the Progressive Party in 1924, and other candidates on the federal, state, and local levels throughout the years.
Unions eventually began making an impact, as the administration of Herbert Hoover began to allow certain concessions to unions. As unions won more victories, they started to retreat from directly partisan politics. However, once the New Deal came about, unions suddenly received significant power whereupon they were able to organize easily and advocate strongly for their members’ interests.
Nonetheless, unions often faced their own internal quarrels too, with many unions splitting off from each other over various disputes, such as in 1935 when the CIO was formed from workers who left the United Mine Workers.
By the end of World War 2, unions were at the peak of their influence and membership.
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