A primer on labor issues
You probably think this is a stupid question that you already know the answer to, right? Unions have made a comeback in the news, especially with teachers striking for better wages and small classes, and the air traffic controllers and the flight attendants doing their part to end the federal shutdown.
Unions are not a slumbering giant, slowly awakening in the Trump era. They’ve been here all along, doing what they do. But what do they do? I bet most people have no idea.
I was telling a woman what I do recently (I’m a labor arbitrator, resolving disputes between unions and employers), and she said, “Oh, do you know my friend M? She’s a union organizer.”
To be polite, because I don’t know M, I said, “What union does she work for?”
The woman answered, “Oh, there’s more than one union? I don’t think I knew that.”
This primer is intended to inform the reader about who is in a union, who works for a union and what roles the union plays in the workplace. As a labor arbitrator, I don’t advocate for any particular union, although I do believe collective bargaining (which I’ll talk about in a sec) continues to be a valuable tool for workers and employers.
What’s a Union? A union is a mutual aid organization that provides bargaining and representation services, among other things, to workers in a particular industry, job classification, or employer.
Unions bargain collective bargaining agreements which cover the wages, terms and working conditions of employment for every person in their bargaining unit. It’s an employment contract that covers a lot of people. The employer gets labor in exchange for wages and benefits. Agreements are also called CBAs, Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and Memorandum of Agreement (MOA). They all mean the same thing.
When a union and an employer cannot reach an agreement, they’ve reached impasse. If they reach impasse, the union may strike. A strike is a work stoppage. Employees are no longer offering their labor at the previously negotiated price because the employer has not agreed to new terms and conditions of employment.
Strikes are pretty unusual. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last week that there were just 20 major work stoppages in the 2018. That’s up from 5 in 2009, but there were 721 work stoppages in 1974. In 1952, there were 5,117 work stoppages, according to that 1974 report.
Strikes are a small part of what a union does these days. The bulk of a union’s work is divided into three parts: political action, organizing and representation services. Some unions also do training and development.
The biggest area of work for most unions is representation services, which is bargaining new agreements over wages and working conditions, helping individual members with their problems, answering questions about the CBA, and filing grievances about disciplinary matters and contract disputes. This takes up roughly 80–95% of the union’s time and resources.
Union membership has been on the decline for years. About one-third of American workers were in unions after WWII. Now, about 10% of American workers belong to a union, and most of those are in the public sector. Despite the declines, many unions have turned to organizing new workers (and occasionally peeling off workers from other unions) to grow their strength politically and in their industry.
Union organizers meet with un-unionized workers, and encourage them to sign cards of support or petitions indicating an interest in being represented by a union. Once the union has a majority of the workers in a particular place (it could be one employer, a single location or even one department or job classification), they request recognition from the employer. “Recognition” means that the employer will bargain with them.
It rarely happens that easily. In many cases, the employer mounts a campaign to counter the union while the union is trying to organize. Even if the union gets enough cards or signatures, the employer may demand an election be conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. In that case, fifty percent plus one eligible employee must vote for the union in order for the Board to require the Employer to bargain with the union.
The law, as it is currently applied, is very adverse to unions trying to organize new bargaining units. As a result, many unions put about 5-10% of their resources into political organizing. This is direct and indirect support for politicians and legislation that will positively impact their members. Unions can also have political action campaigns (PACs) that are separately funded by member donations (rather than membership dues).
While Republicans often portray unions as liberal, this isn’t universally true. For example, police unions in California are currently battling to prevent wide application of a police personnel record transparency law that went into effect this year. Unions have occasionally allied with corporations against campaign finance reform because campaign contributions are seen as a valuable way to advance their members’ interests.
Finally, many unions offer some kind of training and development opportunities for their members. The building trade unions, like the carpenters, operating engineers, plumbers and electricians, all offer robust apprenticeship programs that pay people an excellent wage while they learn the trade. Healthcare unions looked to that model to create healthcare training programs and schools for allied health professions. Unions also offer financial literacy, ESL, professional certification and job referral services.
Although support for unions is rising, as is the number of people of people interested in joining a union, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what a union does. Unions don’t “just strike” or “just defend the jerks,” they offer an array of services and support for workers to advance their profession and improve their wages and working conditions. Like every organization, no union is perfect, and some are less perfect than others. And there’s definitely more than one.