Employee Relations. Unions in the United States

Introduction- what are unions

Unions constitute a group of people with a common unifying relationship. A union may also be an umbrella organization of a number of unions. In such an umbrella union, the member unions are not necessarily from the same profession.

Unions or rather labor unions function as legally recognized representatives of employees in a common profession or with common interest. They consist of workers who want to collectively voice their interests against their employers. Each serves to consolidate and protect the rights of their members. The earlier forms of trade unions came around with the emergence of capitalists. With the setting free of slaves, it was so easy to lead them back into slavery as they were not aware of their rights.

Being unskilled and with no other means of livelihood, the capitalist abused the former slaves who were mostly blacks by exposing them to very inhuman working conditions and the most minimal wages possible. To counter the excessiveness of their employers, they consulted among themselves and found the need for a central voice to air their complaints and thus the idea of a union was born.

Functions of a union

All Unions are formed with the noble idea of improving their members’ conditions in relation to their places of work and their employers. Of utmost importance being to facilitate collective bargaining, to bring unity in case of industrial actions, offer exclusive benefits to members and for political activity. In their book introduction to collective bargaining and industrial relations, Charles Katz and Kochan (1999) define collective bargaining as the coming together of workers to negotiate their employment. However, in national labor and employment law context it takes on a more legal meaning. A collective agreement pertaining to labor means a contract between a union and the employer.

The whole process entails a lot of negotiations where each of the partners seeks to obtain the best deal. In carrying out the negotiations, the union is bent on pressuring the employers to increase and improve workers benefits such as medical insurance cover. It is also the obligation of the union to call for salary increment for their members. One of the unions that have been very active in pursuing for better working conditions for their workers is the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

In the recent past, this union has overseen the signing of a five year agreement that calls for a 20% pay rise for all workers across the board over the life of that agreement. On top of that, the union managed to convince their employers to preserve full health care benefits to retirees and revise a cap which denied such benefits to retirees who sought other forms of employment.

Other unions may be formed for political involvement. Unions that have their members centrally located in one place make it their business to endorse politicians or even to sponsor one of their own. Two labor unions, Service Employees International Union and Union and United Food and Commercial, have already endorsed Obama for US presidency.

Advantages of unions

Higher wages than other non-union workers, according to a 2006 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on union members, the weekly wages of union members stood at $833 compared to those of non-union members which stood at $ 642. However this variation can also be partly attributed to differences in occupation, industry and geography.

Through collective bargaining, union members have better job security and receive employment assistance such as further training in members’ profession. In his book Why Unions Matter, Michael (2001) lets us know that members have legal representation. He talks of a case where a young man working in a motor assembling factory did not have the finances to sue the company after wrongful dismissal but his union intervened and he got his job back.

Unions provide a social network and camaraderie among members which in turn improves the individual output and enhances the overall performance of the employer organization.

Some unions take it upon themselves to offer help to members who are undergoing difficult times such as mourning a beloved one or is suffering ill health.

Unions can initiate talks and agreements on job protection in order to reduce discrimination and wrongful dismissal. They can also call for a forum or an established way of forwarding complaints or awarding of promotions.


Unions are expensive to sustain as they require members contributions meaning that they have no means of sustaining themselves. Unions that operate under an umbrella union are the most susceptible as members have to pay for the operation of their union and that of the mother union.

Through the unions’ effort to collectively bargain for increased wages and better terms of work for their members, they make their employer to incur extra costs of labor and thus increased costs of production making the company to be less competitive. In the long run the company may lose its place in the market and be forced to close down thereby rendering their employees jobless.

Some unions have been accused of serving narrow interests that only serve the few that hold senior positions in the labor unions.

Corruption and poor leadership – This does not only apply to unions but to the many organizations where a few individuals are entrusted with financial trust of members. Such leaders may fore go the demands of members and collaborate with the employers on promises of lets say, a promotion.

How unions serve members

Unions act as a forum where members can highlight their problems regarding their profession or employer so as they can be forwarded to the intended authority for consideration. With the growth of unions there has emerged a new breed of unions that solely deal in offering financial services to their members hence called credit unions. Their presence in the financial services business has benefited a lot of members. A 2007 survey by Wood Stock Institute on behalf of the NCUA, (National Credit Unions Agency) indicated that these union offered low-cost services with 80% of them offering checking, ATMs and bill payment services for free. One of the best examples is Service One Credit Union that operates Service One Members Banking, functioning like any ordinary bank.


Katz H., Charles & Thomas A., Kochan (1999). Introduction to collective bargaining and industrial relations. New York: McGraw Hill.

Michael D., Yates (2001) Why Unions Matter. Washington DC: Prentice Hall.

Woodstock Institute. Web.

Politics on Hudson. Web.