Since the birth of the United States, labor unions have existed in various forms to protect workers from hazardous conditions and other threats. However, they achieved a more formal status in the nineteenth century. In 1886, Samuel Gompers founded the American Federation of Labor, the first major union in the U.S. (Notably, unions are not unique to this country; they are thought to have originated in Europe during the Industrial Revolution.)
From the first known strike in Philadelphia in 1791, when carpenters fought for a 10-hour workday, to the present state of the still-in-force union, unions have had a long and fruitful history in the U.S.
A union is a group of working people who are united and collectively make decisions to improve their working conditions through bargaining and other measures. Union members can affect areas such as benefits, work hours, salaries, physical labor conditions, fair treatment and more.
Unions are responsible for many of the working conditions, protections, procedures and laws many of us take for granted, such as minimum wage, overtime pay and Social Security pay.
There are many industries that usually have unions. Some of the more common professions with unions include:
• K-12 teachers
• Bus drivers
• Farm workers
• Public employees
• Office workers
• Construction workers
• Electricians and other utility workers
• Railroad conductors
• Truck drivers
• Actors, directors and producers
• Camera operators
If you are part of a union, you have the power to elect officers to represent you and hold negotiations on your behalf. Depending on the level of your union, you’ll likely have peers — often from the same region or business — in the union with you.
Through collective bargaining, workers attempt to negotiate circumstances and contracts with employers, advocating in areas including benefits, working hours, wages, working conditions and more. Workers have more impact in a group as opposed to approaching employers one on one to advocate for themselves.
Collective bargaining doesn’t have to occur within the context of a union, although unions make the process run more efficiently and smoothly given their formalized nature.
When an individual employee refuses to come to work because she is unable to reach an agreement with her employer, that’s grounds for firing her. However, when employees band together in protest and stay home from work (or picket) for days on end, it becomes a problem for the employer. This is the power of the strike — and the union.
Unions usually strike because they are unable to reach an agreement with an employer. Most organizations cannot operate with so many workers absent — not to mention the bad publicity and negative attention they receive when workers picket or go to the press. That’s why striking can be an effective bargaining tool. However, in most cases, as long as workers are striking, they aren’t getting paid, which can hurt them financially, too.
Union members must vote for the strike, and leaders will call it to action based on a certain majority approval. Wildcat strikes — strikes that don’t have the approval of a union authority — sometimes happen, too.
There are three levels of unions:
Most local unions are affiliated with national unions. They are sometimes called branches of national unions and serve members of a particular area or region.
National unions are made up of local unions or branches. They generally serve members of particular industries. For example, the National Education Association of the United States is a union for public school employees. There are more than 60 national and international unions representing Americans.
Federations are associations of unions, providing services to national unions. The American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) is the largest confederation of trade unions within the U.S.
Union members enjoy numerous benefits. Because they have access to collective bargaining and representation, they often enjoy better working conditions and working hours than their non-union peers.
Moreover, union members tend to earn higher wages than their nonunion counterparts. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reveals that nonunion workers had median weekly wage earnings that were 82 percent of union members’ wage earnings in 2018 — $860 compared with $1,051.
Union members also often have access to a range of benefits, including robust health insurance, paid time off, retirement savings plans, career guidance and training, tuition reimbursement and much more.
Union workers tend to enjoy greater job security than nonunion workers, too. Employers must have just cause for firing employees, unlike at-will employees. Seniority plays an important role for union members as well, with those with seniority having first access to promotions and internal positions.
Of course, there are some downsides to being a union member. For one, some union members may resent their lack of autonomy and independence; they’re not able to make many important decisions, such as salary negotiations, alone and must instead do so as a group. This can be an issue if a member disagrees with the majority.
It can also feel like hard work is not rewarded when most promotions and other rewards depend on seniority, rather than effort, performance and achievement. Some critics of unions believe that this encourages laziness and takes away the incentive to try hard.
Union workers can also suffer financially in some cases. Union dues can add up, and if a strike occurs — whether or not the employee agrees with it — they are required to participate and will forfeit their earnings for as long as it lasts.
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