Editor’s note: This article is part of Labor, Democracy & the Common Good, our series on workers’ rights and unions. It’s born, in part, out of our Democracy SOS fellowship, where we are one of 21 newsrooms across the country reimagining how media reports on critical issues facing our democracy.
At a time of displeasure with the two-party political system, the Great Resignation, debates, about the future of work, and the reality that the American Dream is out of reach for too many of us and the next generation, it’s clear labor organizing is a topic worth reporting.
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Unions give workers the collective bargaining power that they lack as individuals, which can be crucial leverage for negotiating better pay, benefits and working conditions. These are spelled out in a formal contract with management, known as a collective bargaining agreement. Ideally, unions are a way for workers to gain more of a voice in their workplace, since the terms of a union contract must be voted on and ratified by workers before it goes into effect.
“When you have a union contract, it says it right there in black and white, so there’s no argument. If it’s in the contract and we’ve agreed to it, you will follow it and so will the plant,” said Sandra Williams, the deputy political director of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union.
Better pay is the most obvious reason for why workers unionize, but Williams and other labor experts said many join unions in a bid to get fair and equal treatment from management.
“More often than not, the issues have to do more with how people are treated on the job. … If you take a worker’s dignity from them, what do they have but to seek assistance?” said Williams, who has worked as an HR director for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and several corporations.
Unions can fight for workers’ freedom to take bathroom or medication breaks whenever they need to–a common complaint for Amazon warehouse workers trying to unionize. They can also seek an agreement from management not to communicate by text for things like requesting workers come in for unscheduled shifts, Williams said.
Equal treatment, including freedom from discrimination, is another value many unions promote. Some unions include an anti-discrimination clause when negotiating contracts with management, according to workplace expert Jack Fiorito, a managment professor at Florida State University.
Unions also offer job protections, since most non-unionized workers in the U.S. have few protections against being fired. Beyond workers’ dignity, management can take away their actual jobs.
That’s why almost all union contracts have a provision called ‘just cause,’ one labor relations expert told Atlanta Civic Circle. “If you’re going to be disciplined, it has to be for just cause. It can’t be an arbitrary type of thing,” explained Bob Bussel, the emeritus director of the University of Oregon’s Labor Education & Research Center.
Why employees balk at unions
If you ask a union representative, they’ll tell you that unions can be good for companies. Happy employees can improve workplace efficiency, and union-won benefits can help attract new talent.
But management generally opposes unions because they can interfere with how it wants to run things, Fiorito said. What’s more, pay raises and improved benefits can have a big impact on the bottom line, and smaller profits place executives at a disadvantage with their own bosses, the shareholders.
When a group of employees starts organizing to hold a union election, employers often try to block them by persuading rank-and-file workers that a union will cause more problems than benefits. These tactics include hiring consultants or lawyers to discourage organizing efforts, exposing employees to anti-union propaganda, and promising workers higher pay or other benefits if they don’t unionize.
While unions can improve working conditions, pay and job security, they can also cause conflict in workplaces. A frequent talking point for management–as well as some workers–opposed to unionizing is that a union will create an adversarial relationship between employees and management.
Some workers may be leery of joining a union because they associate them with corruption. Jimmy Hoffa, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ legendary president, was notoriously convicted in 1964 of fraud and conspiracy over illicit use of the union pension fund.
Corruption still exists. The former manager for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters’ New York/New Jersey benefit funds, George Laufenberg, is currently in plea negotiations with federal prosecutors over $1.5 million in fraud charges.
Employees may also worry that unionizing will make a company less competitive, which Fiorito said is one reason union participation has steadily decreased over the past 40 years or more. This is something that management often tells employees who are considering unionizing, he added.
“If you make your employer less competitive, you’re going to suffer in terms of job losses–and for a while unions did things that did impose costs and didn’t really seem to worry about it,” Fiorito explained. “These days, with more intense competition–from abroad in particular–but also from other producers who may not have a union, unions have to be careful not to push up costs in terms of things like requiring unnecessary work.”
While some workers fear a union will drive their company out of business, others don’t want to pay union dues.
“Unions aren’t charitable organizations. They have to have revenue in order to continue functioning and hiring staff,” Fiorito said. “Workers feel like they may be worse off in terms of the financials–even if they get a raise–because they have to pay union dues.”
Some states like Georgia have “right to work” laws that allow workers to reap the benefits of a unionized workplace without having to join the union and pay dues. That acts as a disincentive to joining the company’s union. Workers may also resist unionization because they’re unfamiliar with them or have had a bad union experience in the past.
“There could be a range of reasons why, but I think fear often ranks highest among those, particularly when people are trying to organize,” Bussel said. Management can use that fear of the unknown to discourage unionization, he added. “Management promotes fear. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You might have to go on strike. You got to pay dues. [Managers] cast a lot of doubt.”
WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT HOW UNIONS WORK?
- Here are FAQs from Starbucks Workers United on how a union affects workers, what a union contract is, and why employees at many U.S. Starbucks stores are unionizing.
- These “non-interference and fair elections principles” from Starbucks Workers United explain the organizing process for holding a union election and workers’ legal rights.
- Find out about union organizing efforts in Atlanta from these ACC stories on the Howell Mill and Ansley Mall Starbucks stores’ successful union elections this summer.
- Read this Teen Vogue article to learn about the strategies employers use to oppose unionization.
- These USAFacts infographics chart the change in union membership over the last 40 years, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
- This Bureau of Labor Statistics report breaks down union membership in 2021 by state, industry, and various demographics.
This story has been updated to add Sandra Williams’ current job title as deputy political director of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.