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Frequently Asked Questions About Unions

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE LABOR MOVEMENT AND UNIONS

What is the Labor Movement?

Labor unions are groups of workers organizing and taking collective action to improve their lives. The labor movement is all unions, union members and union organizations acting collectively.

There are approximately 15 million workers in unions and employee associations in the United States and approximately 4.5 million union workers in Canada. 

What do Unions Do?
Unions are the principal means for workers to organize and protect their rights on the job. The union contract or “collective bargaining agreement” establishes the basic terms and conditions of work.  Unions give workers a voice with employers and provide a means to gain a measure of security and dignity on the job. Most unions maintain a paid professional staff to manage their activities. 

Unions pursue strategies and activities that serve the interests of their members. These include representing members and negotiating with employers, recruiting new members and engaging in political action when necessary to support policies that improve working conditions for all workers. 

What is Collective Bargaining?
The simple phrase, collective bargaining, covers a wide variety of subjects and involves hundreds of thousands of union members in the process. 

Representatives of labor and management negotiate over wages and benefits, hours and working conditions.  The settlement reached is spelled out in a written document or contract.  The contract normally contains a grievance procedure to settle disputes.  It is the job of the union to enforce the contract on behalf of the members.

It has not been easy to establish collective bargaining as a permanent part of American life.  The efforts of unions to establish the concept of collective bargaining are a little known, but very important part of American history, involving great sacrifice and bitter struggle.  Historically, management took the position that because they owned the means of production, they had the sole right to determine the conditions of employment.  Collective bargaining forms the cornerstone of industrial democracy. 

Why are Unions Important?
Workers formed unions so that they could have some say over wages, hours, working conditions, and the many other problems that arise in the relationship between a worker and employer.  Unions are important because they help set the standards for education, skill levels, wages, working conditions, and quality of life for workers. Union-negotiated wages and benefits are generally superior to what non-union workers receive. 

Most union contracts provide far more protections than state and federal laws. For example, in many states there is no legal right for workers to take a break. More importantly, most states follow a legal doctrine called “employment at will” and non-union workers can be fired for reasons that might be arbitrary or for no reason at all.

Unions also work to establish laws improving job conditions for their members through legislation at the national, state and local level.  This ultimately benefits all workers.  The 8-hour work day is an example of a positive change won by unions that affects everyone.

Are Unions Still Important to Working People Today?
Unions are more important today than they ever were. It is no secret that in a global economy, the nature of work is changing and some employers resist unions. Research consistently shows that far more workers would join unions if anti-union campaigns weren’t so common. Misinformation and intimidation – including firing union supporters – are routine responses when workers try to form unions.

Workers have less power when they act individually, but acting together as a group they can effect real change.  Unions are the collective voice of workers. Unions are the workers’ watchdogs, using their power to ensure that workers rights under the law are protected.

In addition to ensuring fairness and equitable treatment, many employers recognize that there are advantages to offering workers better wages and benefits. Companies concerned about long-term profitability want to maintain a supply of skilled labor and minimize turnover. The basic reason for this is simple: if unions provide a voice to workers, the number of dissatisfied workers who leave is reduced. Another valuable function of an organized workforce is that workers are able to contribute their knowledge about the job, which helps increase productivity.

Why Join a Labor Union?
As a worker, you have a federally guaranteed right to form or join a union, and bargain collectively with your employer.  Business agents and/or stewards are the representatives of the union who help workers deal with unfair treatment, discrimination and with other workplace issues.  This helps balance the power that an employer has over individual employees.

Belonging to a union gives you rights under the law that you do not have as an individual.  Once you have formed a union, your employer must bargain with your union over your wages, benefits, hours and working conditions. 

Union workers, on average, earn higher wages and get more benefits than workers who don’t have a voice on the job with a union.