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, the Industrial Revolution in the United States changed the nature of work and manufacturing. With the growth of factories and unskilled labor, guilds became insufficient to address most workers’ needs. The first trade unions formed in response to unsuitable working conditions for huge numbers of unskilled laborers. Such workers manufactured products for long hours under unsafe and unhealthy conditions. Industrial and territorial expansion increased the number of factories as well as jobs in mines and on the railroads. Despite very low pay and the risk of injury or death, these new jobs were often the only means of survival for the majority of non-agricultural workers, particularly recent immigrants, women and children.

Despite horrific conditions, individual workers were powerless to challenge the factory owners. They had no skills or influence and a single employee could be easily replaced. Workers began to organize themselves, uniting to put pressure on their bosses to improve conditions and increase wages. Early confrontations were often marked by the violence inflicted on union members. In the end, large numbers of determined workers refused to be frightened or intimidated and their efforts forced employers to meet with them to discuss working conditions.

Today, labor unions negotiate contracts with employers through the process of collective bargaining. This system is based on a simple premise: management provides employment, and workers provide labor. Neither can exist without the other. Under collective bargaining, representatives of these two groups meet to determine contracts which define the rules for hiring, firing and promotions practices; establish safety procedures; provide for overtime and sick time; and promise health insurance and retirement benefits. If a contract is broken by an employer, or when a union and management cannot agree on the terms within a contract, in most sectors workers may withhold their labor and call a legal strike until an agreement can be reached.

In non-unionized workplaces contracts rarely exist between workers and their employers. Such workers tend to be paid 33% less than their union counterparts, and have few protections against unjust hiring, promotions and firing practices. As Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “If I went to work in a factory, the first thing I’d do would be to join a union.”

Union organizing efforts over the years have led to the creation of federal and state laws protecting workers’ rights. Because of unions, Americans have eight-hour work days, 40-hour work weeks, anti-child labor laws, workers’ compensation benefits and safety regulations, insurance and retirement benefits, higher pay standards, and even a holiday – Labor Day.

To actually form a union, workers collect petitions and vote to form a union “local” or branch. Such efforts demonstrate to the employer that a majority of workers support the union. Once established, employees do the work of organizing and hold elected positions within the local union. In most states, once a union has been formed, all employees are required to join the union. However, in Texas, a “right to work” state, employees are not required to join the union which represents them. Although this law gives the illusion of fairness in that it theoretically protects workers from being “coerced” into joining a union, non-union employees actually reap the same rewards as those employees who are union members and who worked for the benefits. Such “right to work” laws have the overall effect of weakening unions by providing disincentives to join unions.

Ultimately, unions provide a voice for workers, and by encouraging safe and comfortable work environments, they should be seen to be in the best interest of employers. As Senator Orrin Hatch (R. Utah) said in 1994, “We need unions to make sure that working people have a legitimate and consistent voice”.

The Working Stiff Journal was a free community newspaper produced in Austin, Texas and distributed across town. All of the articles were available online on the UT Watch site for many years, but they are no longer available, so I am republishing my own work here (in 2014). You can still read back issues thanks to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

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