The Origin of Unions


In 1881, The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions was formed and five years later, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was founded. Over the course of time, Congress became more sensitive toward the issues found lacking in the labor force.  This prompted the creation of the Department of Labor.

Labor unions have existed in one form or another in the United States since the birth of the country. They were designed to equalize power between labor and ownership. Without this accountability of power and ownership, management has the increased possibility of the influence of control by lowering wages, increasing work hours, or forcing workers to work in unsafe environments. Despite the erosion in their power and influence, these groups are still proving their importance. They have been woven into the political, economic and cultural fabric of America, and their influence has played a colorful role in its development.

There are a number of different reasons employees may unionize. Trade union members are more likely to stay in their jobs longer than non-unionized workers. Unions provide a collective and powerful voice to communicate any frustration and/or dissatisfaction from workers. The force behind the desire to form a union is often nothing more than seeking to improve compensation received for work that is often undervalued. The lack of advancement opportunities, discrimination, nepotism and poor job security are frequent causes of employee unrest and interest in unionization.

The process of organizing employees in the workforce usually happens when workers believe they are being mistreated by their employer and want to unionize in an effort to gain greater influence over working conditions, benefits and wages. These employees may then either start a new labor union or join forces to create a local affiliate of one that is already established.

Today, unions are more important than in times past.  It has been documented that in a global economy, employers often resist unions due to the nature of work changing. Research continues to reveal that a greater number of workers would join unions if campaigns to fight them were not so common. Often, intimidation and incorrect information, as well as firing employees who support the unionized concept, are regular responses when employees attempt to form unions.

More than just benefits and job security, there are many advantages to joining a union. Where there is unity there is strength. They represent the collective voice. More often than not, employees are less powerful when acting alone, however, when they join together in an organized fashion they can cause real change. Unions use their power to ensure that employee’s rights under the law are protected.Unions

In addition to ensuring fairness in the workplace, many employers recognize that there are real advantages to offering employees better benefits and wages. Companies concerned about long-term profitability want to minimize turnover and maintain a consistent supply of skilled labor. Employers have found that the number of dissatisfied employees who leave is minimized when they have the benefit of the union that speaks for them.  Another valuable function of an organized workforce is heightened productivity by allowing workers to contribute their experience and knowledge.

Joining a union gives members legal rights they do not have as an individual. Once workers have formed a union, their employer must negotiate with the union when it relates to working conditions, hours, benefits and wages.

Not everyone agrees with the positive theories. Some believe that unions benefit their members while generally hurting consumers. They also have the power to impact the economy by decreasing the number of available jobs. There are definite benefits, however, union coalitions hinder economic growth and delay recovery when considering legislation that would force workers to join unions.

Overall, union workers tend to earn higher wages and greater benefits than workers who do not have the unified voice as those in a union. While the support of unions varies, there is a proven relationship between the level of union membership and the size of the American middle class. The original purpose of these reinforcement units is to act as an intermediary between its members and the business that employs them.

By Cherese Jackson (Virginia)


Utility Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO (UWUA): What are the Benefits of Being a Union Worker?
Heritage Foundation: What Unions Do: How Labor Unions Affect Jobs and the Economy
Union Plus: A Brief History of Unions

Image Credits:

Top Image Courtesy of A. Michael Simms’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Inline Image Courtesy of Fibonacci Blue’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Featured Image Courtesy of AFGE’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

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