Unions 101

by Celina della Croce

Unions have been in steady decline over the last few decades, from 20.1 percent of workers in 1983 to just 11.1 percent in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So what are unions, anyway? Where have they gotten us so far and why do they even matter at all?

Simply put, a union is a group of workers coming together to have a voice on the job and to fight for fair wages, treatment and conditions in their workplace. While the structure of individual unions varies, all unions are accountable to their membership. Members pay dues, which fund the union, and they have the right to vote on elected offices in their union’s leadership, to pass or modify bylaws, and to ratify or vote down contracts. Unlike nonprofits, which often receive grant funding, unions’ funding comes directly from the workers that they represent. That means whether you’re a teacher or a janitor or a nurse, if you’re in a union, your union works for you. They negotiate legally binding contracts with employers based on the issues that matter to members, such as wages and working conditions, and hold the employers accountable to that agreement.

Unions are the reason that we have the standard 40-hour workweek. They are the reason we have child labor laws, safety regulations, a minimum wage, and laws that protect working people. Even if you’ve never heard of a union, or if you’ve never been in one, union members are fighting for your rights, too.

Centuries ago, it was perfectly legal for companies to employ both adults and children in unsafe working conditions and, when someone was injured on the job, to get rid of them and simply replace them with someone else. Thanks to unions, we have laws that protect working people, like the Occupational Safety and Hazard Act, which forces your employer to abide by certain safety regulations, and an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that makes it illegal for your employer to discriminate against or fire you because of your race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or age.

How did working people with no money and no power win basic protections and fair wages? One worker alone has very little power in the scheme of things. Before unions fought for and won safety regulations, if your arm was cut off on the factory floor, your boss could simply toss you aside and find someone to replace you. But if all of the workers come together and say, “We’re not willing to do this any more. We will not work in unsafe conditions. We will not continue to live in poverty. We will not allow you to profit off of us until you meet our conditions,” the power dynamic starts to shift. Even without every worker participating, if a sizeable amount of your workforce has chained themselves to the front entrance, or is dominating the news cycle and bringing negative publicity to your company, it becomes more profitable to negotiate with your workers and figure out how to get them to stop. And that is the power of unions.

Unions have the right to negotiate contracts that set working conditions and wages. Thinking about that raise you’ve been asking for but keep getting denied? Or more support for a project you’re working on? Stuck with a bad boss and worried if he or she is out to get you? Just buy a new car and you’re worried about rumors of a lay-off? Feel like your boss never listens to you? If you’re in a union, you can negotiate over wages, training, job security, and layoff procedures, among other things. If you and your coworkers come together, you’re a lot more likely to get a strong contract. And if your employer violates that contract, you and your union have the power and the legal right to enforce it.

Without a union, you can be fired for any time, with or without cause. You may think your boss likes you, and maybe they do, but if they retire or move on, you are relying on good luck and the good will of your next boss to keep your job, or for your next raise. They may give you a raise, they may not. They may follow the company handbook, they may not. Without a union, you’re relying on luck and a favorable job market, and you have no mechanism to enforce fair treatment unless it’s a violation of the law. Remember who fought for those laws that are protecting you, too?  Oh yea. Unions.

In addition to negotiating contracts, many unions also advocate for laws and policies that will benefit working people and are supported by their membership. If you are a millennial with a tech job reading this thinking, “Why do I need a union? I make a living wage, and I can always find another job,” just remember that you have unions to thank for the basic protections that you have. If you fall and break your knee on your way to work, your employer is required to grant you a medical leave of absence through the Family Medical Leave of Absence. Unlike your company handbook, FMLA is legally enforceable. Unions fought for that, too.

Unions are formed when workers come together and vote for them. Without getting into the technicalities, if you’re interested in forming a union at your job, contact a union and ask for their support. If you already have one, start showing up at meetings. And even if you don’t work, or if you aren’t able to join a union for some reason, figure out how you can show up and support the folks who are out fighting for your rights.