What Is a Union?

As an individual worker, it isn’t always easy to advocate for yourself. While it would be nice if all employers and workplaces were fair, the fact is that some aren’t. In some industries, labor unions can help employees deal with this reality and ensure that they have equitable representation, contracts and benefits.

What Is a Labor Union?

Union Plus defines a labor union — also sometimes known as a trade union — as “an organized group of workers who unite to make decisions about conditions affecting their work.” The goal of such employee groups is to aim for economic justice for all workers in a particular job, industry or company. A union job is one that protects its members’ interests and tries to improve the lives of its employee members.

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History of Labor Unions

According to Union Plus, the concept of labor unions has been in existence since the 18 th century in Europe; in the United States, the idea of unions emerged and played a role in the country’s bid for independence. Labor unions became more effective with the founding of the American Federation of Labor, which was founded by Samuel Gompers in 1886 and is known for helping its members negotiate higher pay and improve safety in the workplace.

In 1955, the AFL merged with another organization, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, to become the AFL-CIO. The growth of private sector unions continued expanding until about 1970 and then began to decline through the present day. But public sector unions have continued to expand over the years. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that union membership rate in 2020 was 10.8%, up slightly from the previous year.

How Do Workers Unionize?

The AFL-CIO lists the following four steps to organize a labor union, which will give you the right to enter negotiations with your employer about everything from salary and benefits to working conditions:

1. First, since a union requires a group of co-workers, find out if others you work with share your desire to form a union and explore the possibility.

2. Next, if you have enough employee support for unionizing, talk to a union organizer, who will have the expertise to help you strategize and understand the steps involved.

3. Keep building support for the union by discussing the matter with your co-workers.

4. If you have a strong majority of employees interested in starting a union, show the support in a tangible way, such as by holding an election.

According to the AFL-CIO’s website, “Once your union is official, you’ll choose your leaders and negotiate a contract. The process is democratic, and the more inclusive you can be, the stronger your union will be.”

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What Types of Jobs, Industries and Companies Have Unions?

According to Investopedia, there is not a union for every industry — private sector jobs, such as those in technology, for example, offer workers higher salaries and enviable benefits, which removes much of the impetus to form a union.

Considering the decline of private sector jobs with unions, most unions are found in the public sector — for example, in jobs in government and education. Investopedia lists the top five most unionized industries as:

— Educators.

— Steelworkers.

— Public service workers (such as nurses and child care workers).

— Auto workers.

— Electrical workers.

Other industries and professions — from office workers to actors, airline pilots, doctors and writers — also have unions. You can see a list of nearly 60 unions of the AFL-CIO here.

Pros and Cons of Unions

While the benefits of unions may be quite clear — providing worker protections and helping employees lobby for fair wages and benefits — there are still some criticisms of unions to consider. HR Exchange Network lists the following four drawbacks of unions:

1. Some unions require employees to pay fees or “union dues” that are deducted from worker paychecks and can amount to up to 2.5% of their pay.

2. Even if individual union members disagree with their union’s decisions, they are bound by them.

3. It can be harder to demote underperforming employees and promote high performers.

4. From an organizational perspective, it can be more expensive to hire unionized employees, which can drive up costs.

[READ: 8 Types of Employee Benefits.]

Are Unions Growing in Popularity?

The popularity of unions is on the rise. This reality has been reflected in recent media reports as well. In October 2021, The Washington Post said that “Strikes are sweeping the labor market as workers wield new leverage,” noting that the labor activism is “powered by the same grievances about wages, benefits and quality of life driving the Great Resignation.”

The article notes that employees have leveled strikes against 178 employers in 2021, as unionized workers dig in their heels to negotiate for the things that they want. The Society for Human Resource Management reported in 2020 that specific industries were seeing an increase in union membership, including transportation, warehousing, radio and TV broadcasting as well as entertainment.

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What Is a Union? originally appeared on usnews.com

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