Labor Unions 101


If you believe there's strength in numbers, then you probably understand why some 16 million American workers belong to labor unions.

The concept behind labor unions is straightforward: If you're an employee and you want your employer to make some sort of lasting change in your favor -- raising your salary or offering you broader benefits, for example -- you may have a better chance of getting what you want if you convince most or all of your coworkers to join together, or unionize, to ask for the same thing, perhaps even at the same time.

Unionization assumes employers will be more likely to listen to and make concessions in favor of workers who have banded together, because otherwise companies could face labor slowdowns or even strikes.

It's a simple enough idea, but the eventual effect is practically unavoidable: Labor unions and employers are, almost by definition, at odds. It only makes sense that labor unions are glorified by some, despised by others and viewed with bewilderment by many more. How can you decide if union membership is for you?

In Favor

Labor union supporters argue that unions have had a positive impact on American workers and the American economic system as a whole for decades. Proponents say that if it weren't for unions, many American workers wouldn't be able to count on now-commonplace benefits like:

  • The eight-hour workday with time-and-a-half for overtime work.
  • Higher wages. Union workers earn about 25 percent more each year than nonunion workers do, according to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), a federation composed of 65 labor unions in the United States.
  • Fringe benefits like health insurance, company pension and retirement plans, life and disability insurance, and reimbursement for continuing education expenses.
  • A safe work environment.
  • Formal procedures for working out grievances with supervisors or other members of a company's management team.

Perhaps that's why so many Americans belong to labor unions and why union representation has become part of such a wide variety of occupations in both the blue-collar and white-collar worlds. Bus drivers, doctors, teachers, electricians, engineers, postal workers, musicians, construction workers -- all of them and many others are union members.


Labor unions have many vocal critics, too. Some opponents say the organizations are simply too big and inefficient to be of any practical benefit to their members, let alone the country as a whole.

Critics charge that sometimes labor unions' high-level leaders -- whether at the local, state or national level -- work only to carry out their own personal agendas, not to meet the needs of their groups' members. (Indeed, some labor unions have been investigated for corruption, because their leaders allegedly used union funds for their own purposes. And in a few cases, labor unions have been accused of having links with organized crime.)

Get Informed Before You Decide

It's no wonder many American workers are a little less than certain about their level of knowledge and their beliefs when it comes to labor unions. Sound familiar? If so:

Read About Labor Unions and Labor Issues

Learn more about labor unions and the history of the labor movement in America. Be sure to examine the issue from both the employee's and employer's point of view.

Talk to Union Leaders and Employers

Find out how the people leading labor unions in your area define what they do and why they do it. What positive and negative impacts have employers in your area seen as a result of union organization in their companies?

Look for Stories About Union-Management Conflict in the News

In the currently sluggish economy in particular, disagreements and more serious conflicts between unions and corporate management tend to make the news more often. You can also read up on some of these issues in our HR Watch legal briefs.

To learn more about labor unions, try these Web sites as well:

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