Trade unions represent a form of collective bargaining representation in the workplace. They have a long history in labor, dating back to the early 20th century when workers in specific trades began to organize for better working conditions. Today, the influence and function of a trade union is far different than they were during the union heydays of the 1950s and 1960s. The work world has changed, many employers have eliminated union shops in their workplaces, and remaining unions are under attack. As a result, their role is a critical juncture historically.
Trade Unions Defined
Trade unions, otherwise known as labor unions, provide workplace representation of workers to their companies' management. Trade unions enjoy federal law protection and state protection for their existence. This is because employers tried to violently push them out of existence in their early years. Today, unions are well known as both representatives of rank-and-file workers and as political contributors to politicians who support their interests. In this respect, trade unions play a dual role of being a worker advocate to management as well as taking a special interest in government politics, both at the local, state, and federal level.
As mentioned above, the most direct influence trade unions have involves their large numbers and ability to leverage funds for political contributions as well as a significant voting block of members. These two elements are issues that savvy politicians cannot ignore, especially when campaigning. However, in modern times, this strength has ebbed as many new employers have done away with collective bargaining elements. As old union shop companies have faded away, so have union numbers, reducing their political strength in industries
Labor Union Role
Clearly, trade union influence with employers has fallen onto hard times. According to Slate, in 2010 union membership only represented 12 percent of workers in the U.S. (versus 16 percent in 1994, per Bloomberg Businessweek). This level of representation hasn’t been seen since the 1930s. A significant portion of union workers exist in government, auto production and construction. To offset this decline, trade unions have lobbied heavily for new statutory methods of allowing workers to vote for unionization without the blessing of the employers they work for.
In their efforts to encourage more support for union workers, many trade unions support or produce studies to help educate the public on various occupations and working conditions. Some of these efforts are basic marketing but others team with university professors and staff to produce valid research and information. In this respect, unions help pay for educational materials and research that otherwise would never occur at the higher education level.
- Dartmouth University; The Role and Influence of Trade Unions in the OECD; David Blanchflower; August 1996
- Bloomberg Businessweek; Why America Needs Unions but not the Kind It Has Now”; Aaron Bernstein; May 1994
- Spartacus: USA History –-Trade Unions
- Investopedia; Unions –- Do They Help or Hurt Workers?; Brent Radcliffe
- Bill Pugliano/Getty Images News/Getty Images