What is a union?
A union, also called a union or workers’ union, is an organization that represents the collective interests of employees. Unions help workers unite to negotiate with employers over wages, hours, benefits and other working conditions. They are often industry specific and tend to be more common in manufacturing, mining, construction, transportation and the public sector. However, while beneficial to members, union representation in the United States has declined considerably in the private sector over time. Effective unions tend to help maintain traditional pensions. They are seen as an aspect of social justice.
Key points to remember
- A union represents the collective interests of workers and negotiates with employers on issues such as wages and working conditions.
- Unions are industry specific and function like a democracy.
- Unions have local chapters, each of which obtains an organizational charter at the national level.
How a union works
Unions protect workers’ rights in specific sectors. A union functions like a democracy, organizing elections to appoint leaders. Union leaders are responsible for making decisions that benefit union members. The structure of a union is that of a group of local employees who obtain a charter from an organization at the national level. Employees pay dues to the national union. In return, the union acts as an advocate on behalf of the employees.
The national labor relations law, also known as the Wagner Law, guarantees private sector employees the right to form unions. The law also gives unionized workers the right to strike and to bargain jointly for working conditions.
Two major organizations oversee most unions in the United States: the Change to Win Federation (CtW) and the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). The AFL-CIO was formed in 1955 after the merger of the two groups and has nearly 20 million members. CtW detached from the AFL-CIO in 2005.
Unions exist in many countries around the world, including Sweden, Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Many large unions will actively lobby lawmakers – locally and federally – to achieve goals they see as beneficial to their members.
Although a boon for workers, unions have seen their membership numbers drop considerably since their peak in the mid-20th century
An example of a union
Almost all unions are structured in the same way and perform their functions in the same way. The National Education Association (NEA) is a union of professionals representing teachers and other education professionals in the workplace. The NEA is the largest union in the United States, with nearly three million members. The union’s goal is to defend the interests of education professionals and unite its members to keep the promise of public education.
The NEA works with local and state education systems to set adequate salaries for its members, among others. When negotiating salaries on behalf of its teachers, the NEA begins with a bargaining unit. This unit is a group of members whose duty is to deal with a specific employer. The bargaining unit, as its name suggests, works with an employer to negotiate and ensure that its members are properly compensated and represented.
US law requires that the employer – in this case, a school district – actively negotiate with the union in good faith. However, the employer is not obliged to accept specific conditions. Several negotiation cycles are conducted between the negotiating party and the employer, after which a collective agreement (CBA) is agreed and signed. The ABC describes the salary ranges and includes other conditions of employment, such as vacation and sick leave, benefits, hours of work and working conditions.
After signing the CBA, an employer cannot change the agreement without the approval of a union representative. However, the collective agreements finally expire, the date on which the union must negotiate and the two parties must sign a new agreement.