All About Unions
This page provides answers to the following questions:
A labor union is an organization of workers joined to protect their common interests and improve their working conditions. It serves as an intermediary between the employer and the employees. The main purpose is to give workers power to negotiate more favorable working conditions through collective bargaining. Some of the largest and/or most prominent unions in the U.S. include the United Auto Workers, Service Employees International Union, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the United Steelworkers. The AFL-CIO (member list) and Change to Win (member list) are federations, large umbrella organizations of unions which have banded together to share resources and promote common political and organizing goals.
The Pros of Union Membership
Unions provide worker protections. In most U.S. states, non-union workers are at-will employees, which means that employers can fire employees for virtually any reason. However, there are limitations in place such as discrimination and whistleblowing. See workplacefairness.org for more information on discrimination and whistleblowing. To fire union members, there must be just cause and the decision must go through arbitration or a grievance procedure.
Unions promote higher wages and better benefits. Through collective bargaining, employees can negotiate from a position of strength with employers over wages, benefits, workplace health and safety, job training, and other work-related issues. Unions also serve an important role making sure that management acts fairly and treats its employees with respect. Unionized workers (workers covered by a union contract) earn on average 11.2% more in wages than their nonunionized peers (workers in the same industry and occupation with similar education and experience).
Black and Hispanic workers get a larger boost from unionization. Black workers represented by a union are paid 13.7% more than their nonunionized peers. Hispanic workers represented by unions are paid 20.1% more than their nonunionized peers. See the Economic Policy Institute website for more information.
Unions drive change. Before unions, weekends and provisions for workers did not really exist. Even though the U.S. workforce has not been 100% unionized, unions do impact trends that benefit all workers. Other examples include the minimum wage, Occupational Safety and Health guidelines, and overtime rules.
Political organizing is easier. Unions can amplify and advance political causes the working class supports. This doesn’t always mean unionized workers support the political agenda of their union, but unions do help keep candidates focused on issues that matter to the workers.
The Cons of Union Membership
Unions require dues and fees that some workers don’t want to pay. Workplaces with unions fall into two categories: open and closed. Open shops don’t require employees to pay dues or fees to the union. In a closed shop, employees must be union members to apply for a job. Some will allow candidates to apply for the job as a non-unionized candidate, but if the candidate is hired, the non-member must become a member. Some allow employees to work as non-members, but those workers are required to pay agency fees, which contribute to the work the union is doing.
Labor unions discourage individuality. Workers are bound by the decisions of the union even if they disagree with the decision.
Unions make it harder to promote and terminate workers. Unions focus on the seniority of the worker. This can impact advancement opportunities for high performing employees who have less tenure with the organization.
Unions can increase costs. Hiring unionized workers can be more expensive than hiring non-unionized workers if there is a significant difference in wage levels. The grievance process can also increase costs for an employer.
To form a union, a group of workers must either:
- have the employer voluntarily recognize them as a union;
- or have a majority of workers in a bargaining unit vote for union representation.
In either case, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) must then certify the newly formed union.
Once the union is certified, the employer is legally required to bargain in good faith with the union. The employer must come to the bargaining table with an open mind and a sincere desire to discuss the issues. Both parties must try to reach a settlement through negotiations, and when the agreement is reached, they must sign a written contract, known as a collective bargaining agreement (CBA).
According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a bargaining unit is a group of two or more employees who share a community of interest and may reasonably be grouped together for purposes of collective bargaining. Certain individuals are excluded from bargaining units because they are not considered “employees.” This includes agricultural laborers, independent contractors, supervisors, and persons in managerial positions, from the meaning of “employees.” In addition, the NLRB excludes employees who act in a confidential capacity to an employer’s labor relations officials from bargaining units. See the NLRB website for more information.
A collective bargaining agreement (sometimes called a CBA) is an agreement negotiated between a labor union and an employer that sets forth the terms of employment for the employees who are members of that labor union. A CBA may include provisions regarding wages, vacation time, working hours, working conditions, and health insurance benefits.
Once a collective bargaining agreement is in place:
- Management cannot reduce wages or change working conditions without first negotiating with the employees, through their union representatives. Employees are entitled to vote on changes made to their contract.
- Your contract is for a set period of time and cannot be changed at will by a notice or announcement.
- There will be no favoritism or change of policy to suit the whim of management.
- Your union enforces your contract to make sure the employer abides by the rules.
- Your union enforces your contract through a grievance procedure, in arbitration
For example, unions deal with practices regarding discipline and making sure proper procedures are in place so that employees are treated fairly. Most union members cannot be terminated or disciplined unless the employer has “just cause,” as defined by the collective bargaining agreement, unlike most non-union employees in the private sector, who are employed “at-will,” which means that employer can fire you or change your conditions of employment at any time and for almost any reason. For more information, please see our site’s at-will employment page.
There are many laws and court decisions that govern unions, a few of which will be discussed below. The main source of law regarding unions is federal law, as most unions are national organizations. The most important federal laws governing unions include the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the Labor Management Relations Act (also known as the Taft-Hartley Act), and the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, discussed in more detail below. While the NLRA generally governs union organizing and collective bargaining for private sector employment, the Railway Labor Act governs employment relations for airlines and railroads enforced by the National Mediation Board, and public sector collective bargaining is generally regulated by state statute.
In September 2015, the Workplace Action for a Growing Economy Act (WAGE Act) was introduced in Congress. If passed, significant protections not currently in place for workers would be in tact to allow them to organize and join a union without fear of employer intimidation. Although other legislation including the NLRA provides union protections, the NLRB has relatively limited enforcement ability to penalize employers for violating employees’ rights when it comes to workplace protections; the WAGE Act would amend the NLRA to add these protections. This pending legislation would prove helpful in an era of smaller bargaining units with less power over coercive employer tactics. For more information on the proposed WAGE Act, please see the WAGE Act Fact Sheet.
Labor unions officially obtained the right to represent employees under the law when the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was passed in 1935. It guarantees basic rights of private sector employees to organize trade unions, engage in collective bargaining, and enjoy other rights including striking if necessary.
The NLRA covers employees who work for employers involved in interstate commerce. The term interstate commerce has been interpreted broadly over the years and basically includes any employer whose business involves more than one state. Today, this number stands at 14.1 million employees who are union members.
When the NLRA was passed by Congress, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was also created. The NLRB has two basic functions: 1) overseeing employees decision making process of whether to be represented by a labor organization and; 2) prosecuting NLRA violations. Essentially, the NLRB’s job is to police the relationships between employees, their unions and their employers and ensure the NLRA is enforced.
Although many workers are covered by the NLRA, there are several important exceptions. The following groups are exempt (or not included):
- Confidential employees such as company accountants;
- Farm workers;
- The families of employers;
- Government workers;
- Most domestic workers;
- Independant contractors; and,
- Certain industry groups that are otherwise regulated.
This Act, also known as the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA), was passed in an effort to limit the power of unions over employees and added a list of prohibited actions by unions, or “unfair labor practices,” to the NLRA, which had previously only prohibited unfair labor practices committed by employers.
Specifically, it was passed to address problems like restraining or coercing rights of employees when exercising their rights; discriminating against an employee because of member status in a union; refusing to bargain in good faith; encouraging employees to stop work to force special union matters; and charging excessive fees to both employees and employers. For more information on unfair labor practices, please see our retaliation for union activity page for additional information.
The Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act or LMDRA, was passed to impose a code of conduct upon unions, union officers, members, employers and management consultants so that all actors would behave fairly. Essentially, it regulates labor unions internal affairs.
Yes, there are laws in some states governing unions. The NLRA has specific provisions that allow the states to pass laws regarding specific areas of the law dealing with unions. For example, the NLRA allows states to pass “right to work” laws or “open shop” laws, which means you have the right to work without joining a union or paying union dues. See the National Conference of State Legislators website for more information.
To begin representing employees, a union must first make an application with the NLRB asking to be the representative of a particular bargaining unit. In that application/petition, the union gives a description of what workers it would like included. Typically, the employer will protest that description and want it to be narrowed – if a compromise cannot be reached, then the NLRB, using its discretion and reasonable interpretation of the NLRA, decides who is included.
A union “local” is a locally-based group of organized employees holding a charter from a national or international labor organization. A local may be confined to union members in a particular geographic area or company, or it may cover multiple contracts with various employers in the same business sector. They are often numbered to distinguish each local from each other. (For example OPCMIA Local 21). Locals have their own governing bodies which represent the interests of the national or international union but are able to organize regular meetings and be responsible to their constituents. Within the local governing body is usually an executive board elected to look over the interests of the union, control finances including union dues, and manage interactions between workers and employers. These positions often include a business representative/business agent, secretary and/or treasurer. Local branches may also affiliate with a local trades council or district council, an organization of local unions involved in all aspects of a particular trade or industry in a particular geographic area. An example of this is a local building trades organization comprised of many union locals.
Most unions have a paid staff that operates and runs the union. This staff is paid by the dues you pay as members of the union. Each union varies in size, so amount of staff will also vary. Frequently, there will also be member volunteers – so your co-workers and fellow union members may decide to volunteer their time to assist in the efforts of the union.
Yes. There is a fee associated with being a member of a union. Union dues are what you pay to help support the unions’ operating costs, which include union support staff, field staff, legal costs, negotiation costs, arbitrator’s fees, and other related costs. Many unions also use dues to create strike funds, and to support union organizing and political activity. Although there is no law that specifically designates the amount, the fee must be reasonable. Dues structures vary widely from union to union based on needs. Some unions charge a fixed monthly rate while others charge of a percentage of members paychecks. In addition, many unions charge an initiation fee when an individual first joins.
The NLRA provides that “any employee who is a member of and adheres to established and traditional tenets…or teachings of a bona fide religion, body or sect which has historically held conscientious objections to joining or financially supporting labor organizations shall not be required to join or financially support any labor organization as a condition of employment….”
Workers whose religious beliefs don’t allow them to pay dues are entitled to alternative arrangement, allowing them to be exempt from paying dues. However, these individuals may be required to make a contribution in the same amount to a nonreligious organization or a non-labor organization, and still may be required to pay reasonable costs for grievance claims on their behalf if handled by the union.
Whether or not you must join the union to work at a particular job depends on what type of “shop” is present in your workplace. The type of shop that exists within a union bargaining unit will generally be included in the contract between the union and the employer. There are four typical kinds of shops in unionized workplaces, which are:
- Closed shop
- Union shop
- Agency shop
- Open shop
A “closed shop” requires its employees to be union members as a condition to being hired for a position covered by the bargaining unit and does not allow the employer to hire anyone not willing to join the union. The most extreme example of the closed shop is the hiring hall, where employers are required to recruit union members from the hiring hall, and cannot hire employees directly. The Taft-Hartley Act made a closed shop illegal in 1947.
With a “union shop,” an employee is not required to join a union in order to be hired, but must join the union within a certain period of time after starting work, generally within thirty (30) days of starting work.
However, the employer can only fire the employee for non-union membership if the union rejects or expels the employee for nonpayment of dues/fees. So, in theory, an employee can still maintain his/her job. You should realize that although you may not be “officially” required to join the union, you may suffer a cold shoulder from other union members and officials.
If you are part of an “agency shop,” you are required to pay union dues and fees, but you are not required to have an actual membership in the union. So you can choose not to be an official member of the union, but you still have to pay dues as though you are a member. The dues you pay, however, only cover the costs of activities related to collective bargaining, contract administration and grievance adjustment, and not other items such as organizing and political activity.
If you object to your dues being spent on a particular purpose, you have the right to object until it is determined whether the money being spent is used for activity related to representing you in bargaining with the employer. Under a 1988 US Supreme Court decision known as “Beck,” unions cannot force non-members to pay a full agency fee if any portion is used to pay the costs of union political activities. As a result, unions may be required to calculate that percent of their total budget allocated to political activities, and refund that portion of your agency fee (which may be very small).
If you pay agency fees, the union, in return, must represent you in negotiations with the employer, as in an open shop bargaining unit. However, the union’s duties end there – if you are not an official member then you do not receive the broader protections, such as disciplinary processes, included in union contracts. This arrangement is legal as long as your state has not passed a “right to work” law. Most examples of these types of shops are public sector unions including teachers unions.
If you are in a “right to work” state, you may be part of an “open shop,” where the unit represents the entire bargaining unit regardless of whether or not all employees are members of the union. Right to work laws guarantee that no person can be compelled to join or not join a union, or pay dues. Generally, most open shops are in right to work states where employees are not required to join a union and pay dues, but the union is still charged with fair and equal representation of all members of the bargaining unit – not just the union members. States currently having right to work laws include: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
Yes. There are two types of elections associated with unions. There is an initial election to determine if the majority of employees in a bargaining unit want to be represented (or discontinue representation) by a union or whether or not to switch their union affiliation.
Once the initial election establishes the union’s presence in a particular workplace, then the union is supposed to be run democratically, where majority rules – so there will be elections and voting to choose officers and make decisions. For more information about democratic principles and unions, see the Association for Union Democracy.
In short – yes, but it must be careful. The company has the right to express its opinions. However, the NLRA has rules that somewhat limit that freedom – companies cannot violate their employees’ right to unionize if they so choose. It is often a fine line between expressing a policy preference for no unions, which is permitted, and telling employees they cannot unionize, which is illegal. If the company goes too far to discourage its employees from joining a union, it will violate the NLRA and may have to account for its actions to the NLRB.
Companies that do not want unions in their workplace often go to great lengths to discourage union activity, hiring “unionbusters,” professional consultants or lawyers who specialize in advising employers on how to thwart union organizing drives or how to decertify unions. Unionbusters usually self-identify as “union avoidance firms,” “management consultants,” or “labor consultants.” Unionbusters help an employer create a sense of dissension and division among employees during an organizing campaign and spread misinformation about the union before workers vote in a union representation election. For more information, see the Jobs with Justice page “Unionbusters 101.”
Generally, if you have a problem at your workplace and you are a member of a union – your first contact is the union representative. Often, many disputes can be resolved with the help of the union. After you speak with the union representative, the representative usually speaks with other union officials. If the officials believe that you have a valid claim, then it will assist you and guide you through a complaint or grievance procedure. If you disagree with the ultimate resolution by the union, you can then appeal that decision.
In addition, whenever management begins to ask you questions that you reasonably believe could result in a disciplinary action, you have the right to refuse to answer questions until a union representative is present and you have had an opportunity to discuss the situation with that representative. You have a right to have the union representative present during questioning, to have that representative advise you, to ask your supervisors for clarifications, and to ask for any additional information after questioning. These are referred to as your Weingarten Rights.
Under the NLRB, a union that is your exclusive representative with your employer owes a duty of fair representation to employees in the bargaining unit, which means that it must treat all bargaining members fairly and equally in representing them before the employer. This duty arises when you have an individual dispute with your employer, such as a disciplinary matter or termination, and may be violated if the exclusive bargaining representative (the union) fails to properly represent you in that dispute.
If the union refuses to get involved to protect your rights as guaranteed by the union contract, you may be able to file a claim against the union for violating your “duty of fair representation,” also known as a “DFR claim.” However, not every situation where you are unhappy with the union’s representation gives rise to a DFR claim. You must prove that the union acted in an arbitrary manner and/or in bad faith – mere negligence or ineptitude does not count. Some factors to be considered are:
- Whether the union can rationally explain its conduct;
- Whether the situation left you with no venue to obtain a hearing/remedy for the underlying dispute; and
- Whether the union followed or deviated from its past practices in the manner in which it processed the dispute and dealt with you personally.
The duty of fair representation does not require your union to file a grievance on your behalf, take your grievance to arbitration, or appeal it every step of the way, if it feels your grievance does not have merit.
If you have a DFR claim, you can either sue the union directly in court, or can file a claim with the NLRB. Either way, you must file your DFR claim within six months of the union activity which you claim violated your duty of fair representation. Check with your local NLRB office, or a private attorney who has expertise in working with labor issues, for more information to help you determine whether you may be able to bring a DFR case.
Yes. Under the NLRA, there are multiple avenues for you to pursue. One way is to petition the NLRB to hold a decertification election, which if successful, means the union no longer represents any of the employees in your bargaining unit. Note, this is different from a deauthorization election which simply removes any forced unionism clauses in your contract. To have a decertification election you must first obtain approval from 30% of the bargaining unit to establish this step – then you must campaign to get the majority of votes needed to get rid of the union.
The other method is to withdraw your membership – in writing. Depending on your state’s laws, you may have to continue paying dues and fees, but will not be officially a member.
The NLRA states that employees have the right
- To self-organization;
- To form, join, or assist labor organizations,
- To bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing; and
- To engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection;
And shall also have the right to refrain from any or all of such activities except to the extent that such right may be affected by an agreement requiring membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment as authorized elsewhere in the law. Your employer is not allowed to try to make you change your decision about joining a union by offering you benefits to change your mind or threatening to penalize you for joining.
Specific examples of the types of rights protected by the NLRA are:
- Forming or attempting to form a union among the employees of a company.
- Joining a union whether the union is recognized by the employer or not.
- Assisting a union to organize the employees of an employer.
- Going out on strike to secure better working conditions.
- Refraining from activity on behalf of a union.
- Attending meetings to discuss joining a union.
- Reading, distributing and discussing union literature (as long as you do this in nonwork areas during nonwork times, such as breaks or lunch hours).
- Wearing union buttons, T-shirts, stickers, hats or other items on the job at most worksites.
- Signing a card asking your employer to recognize and bargain with the union.
- Signing petitions or file grievances related to wages, hours, working conditions and other job issues
- Asking other employees to support the union, to sign union cards or petitions or to file grievances.
- Signing a petition for improved wages, hours, or conditions.
- Talking with coworkers about wages or working conditions.
If you think you have been retaliated against for doing any of these things, see our retaliation for union activity page for additional information.
The NLRA protects both your right to be a union member, and your right to choose not to be a union member. If you feel that you have been threatened for not joining a union, you must first file a charge with your local NLRB office. This is commonly referred to as an Unfair Labor Practice charge. Then the NLRB staff will conduct an investigation to see if your claim has merit – if the investigation leads to the conclusion that something wrong happened, then the NLRB will attempt to reach some sort of agreement to settle or fix the problem. If the NLRB decides that your claim does not have merit, then you may appeal that decision, but you may need the help of an attorney.
If you think you have been retaliated against for not joining a union, see our retaliation for union activity page for additional information
Yes. In August the NLRB in a 3-2 vote made it easier for unions to negotiate on behalf of workers at companies relying on contractors and franchises, including fast-food chains. In its ruling it adopted a more expansive definition of joint employer In doing so, a company hiring a contractor to staff facilities will likely be considered a joint employer even if it does not actively supervise them. This means that a union representing those workers would be legally entitled to bargain with the parent company, not just the contractor. For example, if fast food employees working at a franchise owned company unionized, they would be entitled to negotiate not simply with the owner of the restaurant, but with corporate headquarters as well. However, any agreements in negotiations would only apply to that single franchise, not every employee nationwide.
If your workplace is already organized, the best place to get more information about the union of which you are a member or will be expected to join is from the national or international headquarters of the union. Most unions maintain websites and an active presence on the Internet, which will allow you to obtain most if not all the information you need online. You can also ask your local office or shop steward for information as well.
If you would like to be involved in organizing a union at your workplace, you should contact one of the national federations of unions, so that you can be directed to one or more unions that may be interested in helping you organize your workplace. The two major national federations to which most unions belong are:
The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)
815 16th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20006
How to Join a Union
Change to Win
1900 L Street, NW Suite 900
Washington, DC 20036
Phone: (202) 721-0660
Fax: (202) 721-0661
If you are unhappy with your union and how it conducts its business, you may wish to contact:
Association for Union Democracy (AUD)
104 Montgomery Street
Brooklyn, NY 11225
AUD is a pro-labor, non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the principles and practices of democratic trade unionism in the North American labor movement, and provides organizing, educational, and legal assistance to union members fighting for greater control of their unions.
A group that educates workers on the benefits of union membership and works to make it easier to join unions is:
Jobs With Justice
1616 P Street NW, Suite 150
Washington, DC 20036
Phone: (202) 393-1044
Fax: (202) 822-2168
Jobs With Justice is a non-profit dedicated to promoting positive workplace standards through innovative communications, research, and policy advocacy with grassroots mobilization. It believes in public disclosure of workers’ rights.
Public and private unions each serve a distinct sector of the economy. Private unions are labor organizations that advocate on behalf of workers in industries made up of companies owned by private individuals. Private unions negotiate for things like higher wages, better benefits, and improved working conditions with the employer for whom they work.
Public sector employees, such as teachers, police officers, postal services staff, and other government workers, are represented by public unions. Public unions negotiate wages and employment terms with state and local legislatures and congress as their employment is government funded.