Labor Unions in the US

Imagine you are working for a company and they suddenly decide to cut your wage. What are some of the actions you can take to oppose the wage cut? What can you do if your employer asks you to work 12 hours a day? How do workers ensure and bargain for better working conditions? Keep reading to learn more about the objectives of Labor Unions, its history, and more.

Labor Unions in the US Labor Unions in the US

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Table of contents

    Labor Unions in the U.S. History

    Prior to diving into the history of labor unions in the U.S., let's consider what labor unions are. Labor unions are institutional organizations in place across the country that ensure that the workplace you join provides you with the right salary and working conditions.

    Labor unions refer to workers' associations that aim to protect and advance workers' rights. If there is labor discrimination or any kind of worker's right violation, labor unions step in to take care of the worker's interest.

    Labor unions negotiate terms and agreements on behalf of their workers with employers through collective bargaining. Labor unions negotiate the worker's contracts, benefits, and rules pertaining to workplace health and safety.

    As a result of this collective bargaining, labor unions have enabled the worker to have a better work environment and conditions such as good working hours, higher salaries, health benefits, etc.

    In the absence of unions, workers' salaries and work hours would be more harmful to workers. Preventing the use of child labor across the world and in the United States is one of the main contributions of labor unions.

    Many labor movements and protests aimed to improve work conditions across the country. One of the earliest labor movements was recorded in 1768 in New York City. During that time, there was a salary cut for journeymen tailors, which caused them to protest the cut.1

    The other record of a labor union movement was in 1794 when shoemakers in Philadelphia came together to organize a union that would later be known as the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers. This event is considered to be the beginning of sustained trade union formation in the United States.2

    From that time on, several local craft and trade unions began to sprout up in the main cities of the United States. It was a time that coincided with a rise in industrialization, which meant that many workers were working in manufacturing, where the labor conditions were quite harsh for workers. Working hard labor for extensive hours pushed many workers to further protest throughout that period. These conditions made it ideal for the development of labor unions.

    Think about it: there were large factories housing a significant number of workers under one roof. This enables them to quickly come together and form a labor union through which they could bargain their working conditions.

    Labor Unions in the US, American Employer Demanding from the government, StudySmarterAmerican Employer Demanding from the Government, Wikimedia Commons

    Above is a picture of American Employer protesting on behalf of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). There are three main types of labor unions you should be aware of: local unions, national unions, and federations. Local unions serve a specific area, whereas national unions are involved in the legislative process that concerns the labor market of a state. Federations are made of local unions that deal with labor conditions on a federal level.

    Largest Labor Unions in the U.S.

    There are many labor unions in the U.S., some of which significantly influence the labor market. Largest labor unions in the U.S. include labor unions with a significant number of members and a large pool of funds. This makes it easier for these labor unions to negotiate and fix the conditions of workers across the country.

    National Education Association

    Established in 1857, the National Education Association of the United States is one of the largest union organizations in the nation. This labor union has more than 3 million members, 3 allowing them to be much more influential during the negotiation process.

    This labor union represents educators working in public schools, higher education faculty members, education support workers, administrators, retired educators, and even students working toward careers in education. The national education association effectively gathers funds to improve public education and teachers' working conditions.

    Service Employees International Union

    With more than 2 million members, Service Employees International Union represents workers in more than 100 occupations in the United States and Canada.4 This union mainly focuses on three industries:

    • Hospitals, home care, and nursing home workers are included and served in health care
    • Government employees, in which law enforcement is also included
    • Property services where you have security guards and food services, workers

    This labor union was founded in 1921 in Chicago 4 as the Building Services Employees International Union. The first members of this union were elevator operators, wind washers, and janitors.

    American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees

    Representing the largest number of public workers across the United States, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees were founded with the purpose of serving public workers in the country. This union represents over 1.3 million workers.5 The types of workers this union brings together and serves include: firefighters, sanitation workers, childcare providers, police officers, and health care workers. This union was founded in 1932 in Wisconsin. 5

    The International Brotherhood of Teamsters

    Also known as the Teamsters union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters was founded in 1903.6 It is argued to have been one of the most influential labor unions in the United States. This union aims to serve and protect a diverse number of blue-collar and professional workers in the public and private sectors. The union has 1.3 million workers. 6

    United Food and Commercial Workers

    United Food and Commerical Workers are also one of the largest unions in the United States. Some of the industries protected by this union include retail, grocery, distillery, cannabis, packing, process, and chemical workers.

    List of labor unions in the U.S.

    Below is a list of 25 largest labor unions in the U.S.

    1. National Education Association of the United States (NEA)
    2. Service Employees International Union
    3. American Federation of Teachers (AFT)
    4. International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT)
    5. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)
    6. United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW)
    7. International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)
    8. Communications Workers of America (CWA)
    9. United Steelworkers (USW)
    10. International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM)
    11. United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (UBC)
    12. United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America International Union (UAW)
    13. International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE)
    14. United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada (U.A.)
    15. Fraternal Order of Police (FOP)
    16. American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE)
    17. International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF)
    18. UNITE HERE
    19. National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC)
    20. Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA)
    21. American Postal Workers Union (APWU)
    22. International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART)
    23. Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU)
    24. American Nurses Association (ANA)
    25. International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE)

    Objectives of Labor Unions in the U.S.

    Labor Unions were mainly created during the rise of the industrial revolution. As such, the main objectives and goals of labor unions in the U.S. are to improve workers' conditions and ensure that they get the salary they deserve and are not exploited.

    Collective bargaining

    The collective bargaining process is goal-oriented and tries to meet the aims of labor unions. It requires labor union representatives and an employer to sit together and negotiate to set employment terms. The National Labor Relations Act - the primary regulatory body at the federal level, and state rules define and regulate the method used for bargaining. Typical objectives of collective bargaining include:

    • The establishment of wage scales.
    • The establishment of working hours and policies regarding overtime work.
    • The determination of training opportunities and requirements.
    • The establishment of health and safety standards.
    • The formalization of grievance procedures.

    Lobbying

    Lobbying involves having an influence over the political decisions on a federal level. One of the main examples of lobbying is pushing Congress to increase the minimum wage to a level that enables workers to enjoy a comfortable life while having the ability to cover basic expenses.

    There is currently a significant rise in the price level, and everything is becoming expensive in the United States. This means that the monthly income received shrinks every month, as you can buy less stuff due to inflation. The duty of labor unions is to lobby for higher minimum wages, so workers across different sectors can see their income rise to tackle the rise in the price level.

    Roles and Responsibility of the Members of the Labor Unions

    Some of the roles and responsibilities of the members of the labor unions are to ensure that the obligation of fair representation is fulfilled. Members and workers of the labor unions should promote the union's ideals, values, and goals. They should explain and be transparent about legislative and political action plans.

    That means that every plan to carry out a change in the working conditions should be explained to the members. In addition, they should maintain open communication with members on union activities, policy, and proposed changes. They should keep the members aware of employer initiatives and stances on proposed changes.

    Often unions of the members have to go through complicated processes to change the working conditions. Some conditions might be tough to be changed, and the union should inform the workers so they can seek other alternatives.

    There are some cases in which prejudice and discrimination might be institutionalized, and labor union workers should prevent this at any cost. They should ensure that there are various channels they can communicate with members of the union, such as face-to-face interaction, polls, meetings, and the newsletter, to keep track of new developments.

    Labor Unions in the US - Key takeaways

    • Labor unions refer to workers' associations that aim to protect and advance workers' rights.
    • Collective bargaining is the process through which unions negotiate with the companies for which their members work.
    • The National Education Association of the United States is one of the largest union organizations in the nation.
    • Some of the roles and responsibilities of labor unions are to ensure that the obligation of fair representation is fulfilled.

    References

    1. history.com, https://www.history.com/topics/19th-century/labor
    2. Philadelphia Encyclopedia, https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/essays/cordwainers-trial-of-1806/
    3. National Education Association, https://www.nea.org/about-nea
    4. SEIU, https://www.seiu.org/about
    5. AFSCME, https://www.afscme.org/about/history
    6. Teamster, https://teamster.org/about/teamster-history/
    Frequently Asked Questions about Labor Unions in the US

    What are the 3 types of labor unions?

    There are three main types of labor unions you should be aware of: local unions, national unions, and federations.

    When did unions start to form in the US?

    One of the earliest labor movements was recorded in 1768 in New York City. During that time, there was a salary cut for journeymen tailors, which caused them to protest the cut.

    What is the biggest labor union in the US?

    The National Education Association of the United States is one of the largest union organizations in the nation.

    What are the key issues facing labor unions today?

    Rising price levels and wages is one of the key issues facing labor unions today.

    What are the main objectives of labor unions in the US?

    Labor Unions were mainly created during the rise of the industrial revolution. As such, their main objectives and goals are to improve workers' working conditions and ensure that they get the salary they deserve and are not exploited. 

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