Why do labor unions need to exist? What do they accomplish? These are questions one might ask when considering the definition and use of a labor union.

Defining “Labor Union”

To understand the history and current functions of labor unions, it is important to first understand what exactly a labor union is. According to Investopedia, “A labor union is an organization intended to represent the collective interests of workers in negotiations with employers over wages, hours, benefits and working conditions. Labor unions are often industry-specific and tend to be more common in manufacturing, mining, construction, transportation and the public sector.” This basic definition of labor unions leads to further inquiry, regarding the history and creation of labor unions. Herein, one can find the brief history of labor unions in the United States and an explanation of how they operate.

A Brief History

There is quite a lengthy history of organized labor across the world; but, here is a short synopsis of how organized labor formed in the United States. The first strike to occur in America, regarding anything to do with working conditions, was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1786. These people protested low wages and were successful in obtaining higher wages as a result. These strikes began to increase in number of protestors and occurrences. Fast forward to the mid-1800’s, labor unions began forming for the first time in the United States to protect the American worker in a variety of ways. Triumphant organizations, such as the National Labor Union and the American Federation of Labor, were founded. In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was enacted. According to the National Labor Relations Board, the NLRA was formed, “to protect the rights of employees and employers,… encourage collective bargaining, and… curtail certain private sector labor and management practices, which can harm the general welfare of workers, businesses and the U.S. economy.” With this foundation, labor unions began to grow and develop sound practices. Since 1935, numerous other laws protecting workers have been enforced and strikes have been marched, as well as an increasing amount of peace for workers has been found.

How it Works

Unions are formed by employees and become certified bargaining representatives by either an employer’s recognition or through a secret ballot election, conducted by the NLRB (or other independent third parties). The NLRB certifies the bargaining unit (employees who share common interests and working conditions). Once a bargaining unit is certified or recognized, the employer must bargain in good faith (that does not mean an agreement must be reached, only that there was a good faith effort to reach one). Once formed, employees represented by the union must pay dues and/or fees to the union. These dues and/or fees must be reasonable. The union becomes the official spokesperson for the represented employees and bargains for wages, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment including day-to-day grievances. Thousands of employers have great working relationships with the unions that represent their employees. In fact, there is a very low percentage of strikes called by unions.