Frequently Asked Questions About Unions
by Fred Glass, California Federation of Teachers
Why do workers need labor unions?
To deal with the power of business owners, workers united in an organization can negotiate collectively and take other collective action to achieve their goals. As Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist and woman’s rights advocate one put it, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Power concedes [gives] nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Do union workers really earn more with a union contract than without one?
Yes, union workers earn approximately 25% more than their non-union counterparts in the same jobs, with the biggest increases for workers in the lowest paid occupations. In addition to wages, unions include a variety of benefit plans in the contracts they negotiate with employers, depending on their bargaining power. For example, these could range from medical benefits that are fully paid for by the employer to union-run benefit plans that employees contribute to on a monthly basis.
What is a union contract?
When a union bargains a contract with the employer, both sides sit down to negotiate a legally binding agreement that sets up the rules that govern worker-management relations at the job site. Besides wages, other issues typically negotiated in union contracts include health care, pensions, promotion policies, vacations and holidays, work schedules, etc. A crucial part of all union contracts is the grievance procedure, which is a step-by-step conflict resolution process workers can follow if they feel management has violated the contract. In addition, union workers have the right to be represented by a shop steward, a worker elected by the other workers as their on-site union representative, in any grievance proceeding with management.
Do unions already have too much power?
Union membership was highest in the early 1950s, when unions represented about 35% of all workers. Today union membership has declined to about 12% with both private business and public sector employment combined. Just 8% of all private business and industry in the U.S. is unionized.
Is it true that unions can charge members whatever they want for dues and do anything they want with the money? Aren’t unions really corrupt?
No. Membership dues, as well as restrictions on their use, are regulated by federal law. Typically, dues are no more than two hours of a worker’s pay per month. Unions are democratic organizations created to improve the lives of working people, and as such, members participate at all levels of decision-making. No only do they elect shop stewards and union officers to run the day to day operations of the union, but they must also approve any contract that is negotiated by their union bargaining team with the management. Unions are no more corrupt than any other institution, and in fact, are held to a higher standard of democratic participation than business because of federal laws that specifically define union activity.
Don’t unions force workers into strikes?
The fact is that fewer than 1% of contract disputes involve strikes. The vast majority of unions require a vote (often by a majority of two thirds or more) to authorize a strike. Unions and workers view strikes as a last resort. Generally, they only strike when the boss is extremely unreasonable – after all, workers give up their paychecks when they go on strike together! And the strike is one of the original tools of non-violent resistance. Strike violence is rare – and rarely unprovoked. It is also important to realize that workers in this country lack an effective right to strike, because in the U.S., employers can permanently replace striking workers.