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Working In These Times

Thursday, Jul 30, 2009, 12:04 pm

Union 101: Why Unions Matter and How They Work

BY Lindsay Beyerstein

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A member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters proudly displays his affiliation on a tattoo.   (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The entire labor movement is based on one simple idea. It’s so simple that maybe we don’t spell it out as often as we should: With a union, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. When workers organize, the group has more power than each member would have their own.

An employer will always have much more power than a lone worker. If Sandy the widget-press operator asks her boss for a raise, the boss can easily turn her down. What’s she going to do? Quit? Threatening to quit won’t give Sandy the leverage she needs to get a good deal.

Look at it from the boss’s perspective: It costs him something to say yes, and almost nothing to say no. Chances are, he’ll say no, not because he’s a bad person but because Sandy hasn’t given him a reason to say yes.

But if everyone at the Ace Widget Factory asks for a raise, and threatens to stop working until they get it, the workers suddenly have some leverage over the boss. Suddenly, saying no will cost him. So, he has an incentive to cut a deal.

How does the boss know that his entire staff will walk out if he doesn’t give them a raise? Does every single person have to stop by his office and tell him?

No. That’s where the union comes in. If the workers at Ace Widget Factory have a union, that means that they have chosen to let that union speak for them at the bargaining table. The workers are the members, also known as the “rank and file.”

The primary purpose of a union is to negotiate a contract. The most key features of a contract are wages, hours and working conditions. When negotiating a contract, both sides usually have to make concessions in order to reach a deal. The threat of a strike is an important negotiating tool, but the vast majority of contracts are reached without a strike.

If the two sides reach a deal, the bargaining agent takes the contract back to the membership for a vote. A majority of workers in the “bargaining unit” must vote to accept the contract.

Let’s say the Ace workforce comprises Local 101 of the Thingamabob, Doohickey, and Whatzit Fabricators Union (TDWFU). The local is the smallest organizational unit of a union. There are different ways of dividing up a union’s workers into locals: a local might be all the workers at one plant, or all the TDWFU members in town. (A local can include one or more bargaining units.)

All unions are (in theory, at least) democratic organizations, although their internal governance structures can vary. But all unions work roughly like this: The members of Local 101 elect officers to run the local. Each local collects dues from its members. Union members typically pay about 1 percent of their income in dues.

The local keeps some of the money and passes the rest along to the national union. The dues cover operating expenses, strike insurance, organizing new workers, and political activities. The members elect delegates to represent them at the union’s national convention.

TDWFU’s national convention takes place every four years. At the convention, delegates from all over the country come together—or from all over the world if TDWFU is an international union—to elect the union president and other key officers and to vote on key union policies.

The highest level of organization is the federation of labor. A federation of labor is an umbrella group, a union of unions. Most American unions belong to either the AFL-CIO or Change to Win. (Some, like the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) are unaffiliated with either federation.)

Unions work together through the federation to advance projects of interest to all, such as lobbying for pro-union legislation.

That’s why unions matter and how they work, in a nutshell. It’s no accident that union workers enjoy better wages and benefits than non-union workers. By organizing, workers can gain a powerful voice at work.

We’ll talk more about the specifics of unionization and union bargaining in future installments of Union 101.

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Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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