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What is a Union?
Posted On: Sep 22, 2020

What is the Union?

Labor unions have a long and colorful history in the United States. To some people, they conjure up thoughts of organized crime and gangsters like Jimmy Hoffa. To others, labor unions represent solidarity among the working classes, bringing people together across many professions to lobby for better rights, wages, and benefits. As of 2017, 14.8 million people were union members, and although union membership peaked in 1945 when 35 percent of the nonagricultural workforce were union members, unions are still a powerful influence in the United States (and even more powerful in many other countries). They are also an important and fundamental part of the history of United States commerce and the country’s growth into an economic powerhouse.

Labor Union Basics

      A labor union is an organization of workers dedicated to protecting their interests and improving wages, hours and working conditions. Many different types of workers belong to unions: mechanics, teachers, factory workers, actors, police officers, airline pilots, janitors, doctors, writers and so forth. To form a bargaining unit -- a group who will be represented by a union in dealing with their employer -- a group of workers must be voluntarily recognized by their employer, or a majority of workers in a bargaining unit must vote for representation.

      In general, it is legal for employers to try to persuade employees not to unionize. However, it is illegal for a company to attempt to prevent employees from unionizing by promises of violence, threats or other coercive action. It is also illegal for unions to use lies or threats of violence to intimidate employees into joining a union.

      An employer is required by law to bargain in good faith with a union, although an employer is not required to agree to any particular terms. Once an agreement is reached through negotiations, a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is signed. A CBA is a negotiated agreement between a labor union and an employer that sets terms of employment for members of that union and provisions for wages, hours, conditions, vacation, sick days, benefits, etc. After a CBA is signed, an employer can’t change anything detailed in the agreement without the union representative’s approval. The CBA lasts for a set period of time, and the union monitors the employer to make sure the employer abides by the contract. If a union believes an employer has breached the CBA, the union can file a grievance, which may be ultimately resolved through a process known as arbitration.

      Union members pay dues to cover the union’s costs. Most unions have paid, full-time staff that helps to manage its operations. While the staff is paid by union dues, members often volunteer with the union. Some unions also create strikes funds that support workers in the event of a strike. Dues vary but many are around $50 a month.

      A union works somewhat like a democracy. Unions hold elections to determine officers who will make decisions and represent the members. There are many laws governing union elections.

      A locally based group of workers who have a charter from a national or international union is known as a union local. The union local might be made up of workers from the same company or region. They may also be workers from the same business sector, employed by different companies


Contact Info
ATU Local 843
1305 Fraser St D-109
Bellingham, WA 98229

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