What Is a Labor Union?
Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed April 25, 2017
Whether you work in a small company or a large corporation, or you own your own business, you’ve probably heard of labor unions. Or perhaps you’re a dues-paying union member yourself. But what exactly are labor unions, and how are they created? In addition to providing a basic labor union definition, the article below offers an overview of the rights unions help protect, a brief history of their existence, and steps you can take to form your own union at work.
Labor Union Definition
A labor union is an organization made up of workers who usually belong to the same trade. They vary in size, from less than one hundred members to millions. Regardless of size, though, the organization uses collective bargaining to negotiate with employers and further its members’ interests, which can include improvements to wages, employee benefits, and working conditions.
Many unions also engage in lobbying and participate in local and national elections. The idea is that the members of a union can have more influence and achieve better results if they act together rather than individually. Members pay dues to the union to help cover the costs of these services and benefits.
History of Labor Unions
There are reports of unions, such as the Journeymen Cordwainers (shoemakers) Society of Philadelphia, forming as early as 1794. However, the labor movement really began to take hold in the mid 19th century. These early unions fought for better working conditions in factories, higher wages, shorter work days, and an end to child labor. Labor unions also grew during the New Deal era and World War II with membership peaking in the mid 20th century. After 1970, union membership began and continues to decline, except in the public sector.
Examples of Labor Unions and Rights of Members
Labor unions represent many different types of groups, from firefighters and teachers to actors and hockey players. Many unions are also affiliated with larger, more powerful umbrella organizations like the American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). Regardless of the type or size of the union, the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) protects the rights of union members and outlines the responsibilities of union officers. These rights include freedom of speech, a say in the rates of dues and fees, and the right to nominate and remove elected officers and representatives.
How to Form a Labor Union
Given the benefits of collective bargaining, you may be interested in starting your own union at work. While public sector unions are governed by various federal and state laws, private sector unions are governed by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which is enforced by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB protects most private sector employees and provides a process by which workers can form their own union, decertify an existing union, or report unfair labor practices committed by their employers.
To begin the process of forming a union, you should talk to your coworkers to gauge their interest and commitment to the idea. You’ll need to provide the NLRB with a showing of support in order to hold an election, and you’ll eventually need a majority of your coworkers’ votes to actually form the union. You will also need to file a petition with the NLRB regional office who will assess whether or not to hold an election. Alternatively, you could look to see if there’s an existing union that you and your coworkers could join in order to improve your working conditions.
Get Help Forming a Union or Resolving a Labor Dispute
Although there are many laws designed to protect workers and streamline the labor dispute resolution process, it can be difficult to know which laws apply to you, and what your specific rights and responsibilities are. Whether you’re an employer dealing with a labor dispute, an employee alleging a violation of labor laws, or a worker seeking to join or form a labor union, an experienced lawyer can guide you through the process. Contact a local labor attorney today to protect your rights.
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