Labor 101: What Is a Union?

The Working Stiff Journal Vol. 1 #4, Winter 1998 Column: Labor 101 by Jackie Dana Unions exist in many industrialized countries in the world as collections of workers who have something in common: they work within one industry, possess similar job duties or skills, or share a common employer. In simplest terms a labor union, as the dictionary defines it, is “an organization of workers formed for the purpose of advancing its members’ interests in respect to wages and working conditions.” Before the 1800s, unions were unknown in the United States. Instead, skilled craftsmen and artisans formed guilds, associations of all workers within a specific trade. Guild members protected and promoted their own crafts, including overseeing apprentices, and the guilds themselves had competitive requirements to join. Workers outside of guilds, particularly manual laborers and those in cottage industries, had few legal protections and lacked the support of a collective that the guild provided. At the opening of the nineteenth century, … Read more…