All About Unions
A guide to unions, how they are managed, and more.
What are unions?
A union is a collection of workers that act in the interest of all workers within an organization, often by advocating for better wages, hours, and working conditions.
The goal of labor unions is to protect the rights of workers within their particular industries. Unions are run democratically, in that they hold elections to appoint officers based on votes of all members.
The union officers are tasked with making decisions beneficial for their members and advocating on their behalf.
How are unions formed?
An organization must form a bargaining unit, which is a group represented by a union for dealing with an employer. Employers are allowed to dissuade employees from forming a union, however, they are legally prohibited from preventing employees from unionizing.
The National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act, guarantees private-sector employees the right to form labor unions. The act also gives unionized employees the right to strike and to bargain jointly for working conditions.
The National Labor Relations Act states that if most of the workers in an organization want to appoint a labor union to bargain on behalf of all of them collectively, they have a legal right to force management to recognize that union as their exclusive bargaining agent.
The typical process of forming a union is as follows:
A group of workers decides to organize
- The workers identify a labor union to represent them
The workers submit regional National Labor Relation Board (NLRB) office cards or petitions indicating that at least 30 percent of the workers within the organization want a unionization election
The workers secure at least 50 percent of the vote in the election the NLRB will then organize
The union local bargains with management for a contract
How are unions structured?
During the structuring phase, unions must obtain a charter from a national-level organization. Workers pay dues to the national union and, in return, the labor union acts as an advocate on the workers’ behalf.
Unions are largely structured and carry out duties in a similar manner. Unions work with local and state labor organizations to set adequate wages for its members, among other things.
When negotiating salaries on behalf of its workers, the union starts with a bargaining unit. The bargaining unit works with an employer to negotiate and assure that its members are properly compensated and represented.
While U.S. law requires the employer to actively bargain with the union on fair terms, the employer is not required to agree to any specific terms.
Multiple negotiation rounds are conducted between the bargaining unit and the employer, which results in a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that is agreed upon and signed. The CBA outlines pay scales and include other terms of employment, such as vacation and sick days, benefits, working hours, working conditions, etc.
Upon reaching a final agreement, the labor union seeks ratification from its union members. Contract ratification is the process by which a labor union contract is accepted by the union members. The union's bargaining unit presents the agreement to the members, who vote to accept or reject the agreement.
After ratifying and signing the CBA, an employer cannot change the agreement without a union representative’s approval. However, CBAs will eventually expire, at which time the labor union must negotiate, and both parties must agree upon a new agreement.
Union Member vs Union Represented
Workers that are members of the union have the right to vote on union business. They have the power to elect union officials, vote on negotiation issues, or ratify the CBA.
Non-members, while still represented by union officials, do not have a say in voting and decision-making. This makes it an incentive for non-members to join and have a say in union proceedings.
What are the roles and responsibilities of union members?
The highest executive power, overseeing all aspects of the union’s day-to-day operations and development.
A subordinate to the president, though they may assist and serve as a leader in the latter's absence.
Manages and reports the union’s finances, acting as a chief consultant and expert on all relevant financial matters.
A secretary is responsible for taking minutes of all meetings and handling official correspondence between locals.
Union members vote and take part in elections and votes that affect their working conditions.
Making unions work
Within many organizations, the union is often responsible for making significant changes that impact the organization and the workers within it.
Planning for sustained organizational growth begins and ends with the union. Having all of the right resources available to union members is critical for effective decision-making.