Labor unions were formed to help represent workers in various industries. When a union is created, it allows for something known as “collective bargaining.” Collective bargaining is the process of a union representing employees to negotiate contracts with employers. A well-organized labor union is an essential component of a properly protected and represented workforce.

Organization of Labor Unions

Unions across the country are structured in basically the same way, regardless of industry. However, there's no regulation that dictates how they need to be structured. The general labor union structure and union hierarchy typically has a board or decision-making body at the top. These decision-makers are supported by company representatives on a local level and then by the entire membership when it comes to voting and strikes.

Sample Union Organization

The largest union in the United States is an excellent example of how unions work. The National Education Association (NEA) represents education professionals, such as teachers, administration staff and other supporting employees. The NEA has nearly 3 million members, giving it a prominent voice on the national stage. The NEA’s mission is to advocate for the rights of education professionals and promote public education.

Large unions like the NEA have meetups for their members as well. These conferences include speakers about best practices, information from other unions and the fostering of camaraderie between members. These conferences can also be a place where they vote for their representatives. The NEA’s 2019 convention was held in Houston, for example.

The work that the NEA does is on both the local and state educational systems. The union has a goal of negotiating adequate wages for educational employees. Negotiating for wages is something that all unions do, to some degree, but they can also argue for health benefits, improved insurance or safer working conditions.

What Is a Bargaining Unit?

When it comes to bargaining for wages, the NEA begins its negotiations with what's known as a “bargaining unit," an essential part of every union's hierarchy. In labor relations, a unit is a group of employees that have joined interests and have a clear, unified voice. These interests are brought to an employer by a single labor union, which is the first step in the act of collective bargaining. This unit will work with the employer in negotiations to assure that the members' voices are heard.

By law in the United States, employers are required to bargain with the union in good faith. This means that they're obligated to show up to discuss negotiations, knowing that there will be a genuine discussion. If the employer’s representative doesn't show up, there can be federal fines imposed upon them. They're not required to agree to any specific terms, however.

Collective Bargaining Agreements

There are typically multiple rounds of negotiations conducted between the employer and the bargaining party. Once negotiations have been completed, they have a collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The CBA will have outlines on pay scales, benefits, working hours and even vacation and sick leave. Once this CBA is signed, the employer can't legally change the agreement without getting the approval of a union representative.

CBAs don't last indefinitely. They'll eventually expire, and at that time, there'll be another round of collective bargaining. This is an attempt to not lock either party into an agreement that wouldn't benefit them both.

Labor Union Organization Examples

Union contracts can involve any number of things related to working conditions. Unions have helped raise wages, gain benefits, adjust hours, obtain paid leave and ensure safety measures. Collective bargaining is a safe way to bring a complaint to an employer due to the strength in numbers that a union represents. Depending on the union, there may be a different organizational structure, and members may or may not receive votes to become representatives or appointed positions.

Unions represent the people in specific trades, industries or sectors. Some examples include pipefitter's union, nurse's union or teacher's union. Membership has dwindled in unions for many reasons over time, the primary one being that we now have national laws that dictate safe conditions, prohibit child labor and regulate maximum working hours. Since labor unions need funds from their members to operate, having fewer members tends to mean that dues are higher.

History of Labor Unions

Unions aren’t a new concept. The idea of a labor union goes all the way back to guilds and other trading groups. When craftspeople like bakers, blacksmiths or masons worked together, it gave them the protection of numbers, assurance of price regulation and a unified voice that was louder than any individual could be.

Benefits of the early “craft unions” were multifold. Members all played an important role in determining the following:

  • Assurance of working times and days: When there are agreed-upon hours, one person doesn't have an advantage over the other. If a baker opened up its doors outside of those times under a union agreement, it would be a considerable offense to not only the guild but also to the public at large. 

  • Price regulations: When the guilds met to set up price regulations, it wasn’t a simple discussion. As a group, they worked together to set base prices for hours, against materials and for costs in their area. From there, the guild set the prices that could be charged in their area. 

  • Quality control: Guilds had reputations to uphold. By setting up quality regulations, they ensured that the public would trust them. Respected guild members got more business because of their association with their guild’s excellent craftsmanship. 

Modern Craft Unions

It’s easier for people to gather now than it was throughout history, and today’s jobs are much more varied. Modern craft unions depend on one’s occupation, all the same. Some of today’s craft unions include United Auto Workers and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades.

In these unions, typically local branches are joined by skilled workers. A representative from each of these local unions may report quarterly or annually to a joint council or advisory committee to voice the concerns of the local union. During times of collective bargaining, these representatives may work on behalf of local union members to achieve collective goals.

Modern Industrial Unions

Technology has brought to light many jobs that don’t quite fit into the traditional craftsmen guild model but that still needed to have some form of collective bargaining. Industrial unions are formed by industries. These may be some of the largest types of unions that are active in the United States.

One of the largest examples of an industrial union is the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. When it was founded, this union represented people that worked in long-haul trucking. Today, the teamster's union is comprised of trucking, construction and warehouse workers, among other industrial jobs.

Modern industrial unions nearly always have a local branch that represents members in their area. Representatives from those local branches report to large conventions and bring the concerns of local unions to light. That said, in unions like the teamster's, for instance, every one of the over 200,000 members gets a vote on important issues. In the recent past, votes like this have included contracts with large shipping companies like UPS.

Modern Public Sector Unions

Public sector unions are similar to industrial unions in that they represent workers regardless of what they do but based on the industries they work in. The “sector” that these unions cover is governmental agencies. The reason that this is an entire type of labor union is that it covers all federally employed people.

A few examples of public sectors covered by these unions are postal workers, teachers, firefighters, police and general governmental employees. In these unions, everyone votes on union leadership, but generally don't bring their concerns to larger divisional sectors themselves. Union representatives in each location act as the carriers of the concerns of local union members. This makes the decision of who to elect quite critical.

Membership in public sector unions is higher than the other types of unions. This could be due to the perceived need for collective bargaining to deal with governmental offices and the fact that membership is commonly required of all employees. Because these unions are so large, they can push back against unfair regulations. They're also able to have one voice on the political stage.

Politics of Labor Unions 

Few workplace topics are as divisive as labor unions. Certain sectors argue that these groups extort both businesses and employees. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth for most unions. Typically, any corruption within unions has to do with the individuals who make up the union.

When unions are formed, they're made up of interconnected employees. While there are union networks that oversee entire industries, such as the American Postal Workers Union, the people who are engaged in the unions are the people that make decisions.

Do Unions Really Help Employees?

Unions do really benefit employees. One of the reasons that we have specific labor laws in the United States is thanks to labor unions. There's a simple reason why unions work — the power of numbers.

When one employee has a problem, they can be easily ignored, and in extremely toxic workplaces, they could even be forced out of their job altogether. When the employee can speak at a union meeting, she can talk with her peers to see if other people have the same problem. If, as a group, the union members feel it's a big enough problem, the union itself will speak to the employer. This provides individual employees safety because they're an anonymous part of the larger group.

Unions Are One Voice

Unions provide a way for employees to act as a larger entity. For example, a union could call a strike for unsafe working conditions, and that would make a much more significant impact upon the business.

Unions are also able to pool money for employee emergencies. For example, if a postal worker falls on the job and breaks his arm, the union could provide financial assistance to his family while he recovers.

Initially, these funds were used to help support employees who strike by giving them some income while they strike. Now that strikes are needed less frequently than they used to be, these dues and fees are saved to help employees when they have hardships.

Unions Add Legitimacy

Unions also help add legitimacy to trade professions. When a skilled laborer, such as a plumber or electrician, goes into business, they need to have a license. In many states, they also need to be bonded before a license can be issued. When a skilled laborer is bonded, it means that they have purchased a bond that's available to help cover any damages to a property they're working on.

Private contractors who are self-employed don't have set hours. This means that they don’t get money unless they're working. In addition, many people can't afford to manage something as complicated as a lawsuit while they're working. Without any help, this could cost them more money to fight the suit than it would to just pay it.

Contractors of all kinds balance different clients, projects and, at times, employees. If they're fraudulently sued, they may not know how to get help on their own. The union will then step in to provide legal support during the lawsuit, allowing the contractor to continue his business. In the end, unions are only as good as their members, so it's important to be active in unions you qualify for.