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What is a Union?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A union is an organization of workers who act together to secure benefits and rights in the workplace. Unionism is an important tool for worker's rights, and many trade unions are open to membership all over the world. Members may range from machinists in auto-repair shops to in home care providers who belong to a service-workers union. Not all workers are unionized, but many are, especially when they work for large companies. Many unions are also quite powerful, since they represent thousands of employees, and they have traditionally played a role in politics as well, by endorsing candidates.

The first unions began to emerge in the 18th century, as industrialization began to rise in Europe. Some historians believe that these unions are related to trade guilds, medieval organizations which originally protected specialized trades such as weaving, bread baking, and building. Others feel that they are not, in fact, related to guilds, and that they arose as a natural response to changing workplaces.

Members of a union pay dues to support the activities of the organization, and they also elect leaders and stewards. These people are responsible for representing the collective interests of the union when it negotiates with a company owner or employer. Stewards usually work on the ground, ensuring that members are not being exploited and that the terms of their contracts are being met, while representatives bring issues to the bargaining table during negotiations.

Union bargaining typically results in set policies about employee benefits, working hours, and other issues of importance. In a workplace where non-unionized employees work alongside unionized ones, some of these agreements may cover those workers as well. The union will also represent the needs of individual employees, helping to arbitrate when an employee has a dispute about wages, working hours, and similar issues with his or her employer. In some cases, it may hold a strike or another type of labor action to gain the upper hand in negotiations.

Some well known trade unions include the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Knights of Labor, the Service Employees Union International (SEIU), and the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). Typically, when someone commences employment at a unionized company, he or she will be offered membership. In other cases, employees may choose to unionize their workplaces in the hopes of negotiating better working conditions.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon299238 — On Oct 24, 2012

What if you guy are in an unsafe workplace? What do you guys do about it? Do you tell OSHA or fix the problem yourself?

By anon110928 — On Sep 14, 2010

This site gives an impression that Unions are for "workers". Where are all the academics in this site? The lawyers, the engineers, etc.?

Unions negotiate salaries and are powerful organizations!

By anon101654 — On Aug 04, 2010

Unions by their very nature are going to represent their members that is their purpose, but if union benefits become the standard, all workers win.

Workers who believe paying dues is not worth having a voice in the workplace, collective bargaining rights, and a political voice with local and federal government have bought into the lies and propaganda spread by corporate bosses to keeping the working class down.

By krisl — On Jun 18, 2010

@bigblind – I never said they didn’t have a purpose. I just said that the way they operate these days has gotten dated and that no longer do they unconditionally have the interests of the people they represent at heart.

By bigblind — On Jun 18, 2010

@anon36160 and krisl – But you have to admit that unions have played a significant role in establishing minimum wage laws and helped dismantle the system of the sweatshop in the early 20th century. They also helped do away with the residual system of indentured slavery that was rampant on farms in the south following the reformation after the American Civil War. Unions have had a significant impact in raising many workers and their families out of poverty. Sure there is a political component to them, but any organization that gets anything done is subject to utilizing some political tactics. That’s just American policy.

By krisl — On Jun 18, 2010

@anon36160 – I agree with you. Unions in their current state are dated, irrelevant, and sometimes even harmful. I’ve had minimum wage jobs where I had to pay union fees in addition to income tax. And for what? They certainly weren’t helping me and others in my position earn higher wages, that’s for certain. Unions are simply political organizations now, and really don’t do much to help either the worker or the customer. Teachers’ unions in particular have a damaging effect on public education. They seek to make teachers, even the incompetent ones, less and less able to be fired. That said, I think teachers should make more money than they do, but teachers’ unions haven’t done much to help that situation and have made it more difficult to free up room for truly dedicated and worthy teachers. The structure and very nature of the union would benefit from some serious revisions.

By anon36160 — On Jul 10, 2009

This article is biased in support of unions. For example, it doesn't mention that unions are labor cartels, or that unionized workers only gain higher wages and better working conditions at the expense of lower wages and worse working conditions for non-union workers. Even the definition of unions is biased (and, in fact, false). In the United States, unions are political entities, created by the National Labor Relations Board, with special legal and political privileges not available to other workers. They don't act to "secure rights." Every benefit a union worker gains entails the violation of the rights of non-union workers (e.g. "scabs").

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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