What Is a Union?

A union is an organized group of employees who have joined together to protect their rights to certain employment terms and conditions. Union workers negotiate wages, benefits, workplace health and safety standards, and other issues. The right to unionize is protected by US law, and unions themselves are governed by rules that help ensure they fairly represent their members.

Types of Labor Unions

Unions form around workers with common interests, goals, skills, and professions, and they come in all sizes, from less than a hundred members to millions of workers. For instance, large national unions can have several local chapters. Most labor unions fall into specific categories:

In 2023, unions represented 14.4 million US workers.

How Do Unions Work?

Unions are democratic organizations run by elected leaders who will fairly and responsibly advocate on behalf of all members. Union leadership positions often include a president, secretary, treasurer, and others. Members are typically responsible for paying union dues, which are regulated by federal and state laws and court rulings.

Unions are governed under laws like the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA), also known as the "Landrum-Griffin Act," and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). While many jobs can be unionized, they're prevalent in certain sectors. Examples of US labor unions include:

Collective bargaining agreements negotiated by a union protect all workers, even if they're not members. Several states have right-to-work (RTW) laws, which allow employees to work for an employer without joining a union and becoming responsible for participating and paying dues.

What Is Collective Bargaining?

Collective bargaining is the process unions and employers use to negotiate workplace issues. The resolution they come to is called a collective bargaining agreement (CBA). This agreement is a legally binding contract between the union and an employer. Organizations like the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) are available to help facilitate this process.

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How to Start a Union

Employees, including immigrant workers, can unionize in one of two ways: through voluntary recognition or through a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election. Under each method, workers must prove there's enough interest at their company and the NLRB must certify the union.

As an employer, you must recognize your workers' rights and protection from retaliation under the law. For instance, you cannot take—or even threaten to take—the following actions:

Unionizing Through Voluntary Recognition

Employers can agree to recognize their union upon their workers' request. Here are the steps for establishing a union via voluntary recognition:

If the employer refuses to accept the union, workers can file a petition to host an election with the NLRB.

Unionizing Through NLRB Election

Employees can form a union through the NLRB election process. Here are the steps for unionizing via election:

Benefits and Drawbacks of Labor Union Jobs

A union job is a workplace that collectively agrees on company policies, and a non-union job is a workplace where the employer sets the company policies. Each workplace has its fair share of pros and cons to consider.

Benefits of union jobs:

Drawbacks of union jobs:

For more information, consult your local union chapter, the US Department of Labor (DOL), or state government.

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