What is a Labor Union?
A labor union, or trade union, is an organized association of workers in a particular industry. Unions were formed to collectively represent the interests and rights of their members to ensure:
- fair wages
- competitive benefits
- safe employment conditions
- retirement plans
- reasonable work hours
- protection from unfair treatment or discrimination
Labor unions originally formed in the 1800s. The first local union was the National Labor Union which advocated for workers’ rights. While it disbanded in the 1870s, the NLU paved the way for future labor reforms and other unions.
Unions gained power after Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. The NLRA is a federal law that governs labor relations and protects the rights of private-sector employees to engage in collective bargaining. The NLRA is enforced by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB is a independent federal agency in the US that enforces and interprets the provision of the NLRA.
Unions work on behalf of workers to establish collective bargaining agreements or labor contracts. These agreements set the terms and conditions of employment. They also engage in other activities to protect the rights of workers. They might provide legal representation in the case of workplace disputes or offer education and training programs.
Unions typically use a hierarchical structure with elected leaders who oversee their operations. Union membership is not free. Members pay union dues to support the activities and the services the union provides.
How is a Union Created?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 14 million worders are union members in the US. Another 1.7 million workers have jobs covered by a union contract. The decision to unionize is not one that is taken lightly. Creating a union requires several steps that we will cover below.
Identify the Need: Workers need to identify why they need collective representation. These concerns may be about a variety of things, from wages to working conditions.
Build Support: Workers need to build support with others who share the same concerns and goals. They may discuss the benefits of unionization and address any questions or concerns about the process.
Choose a Union: There are many different unions out there. If there is existing union in the industry or sector, workers may choose to pursue a relationship there. An example includes the Service Employees International Union for Workers that represents workers in healthcare, the public sector and property services or the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Workers may also choose to form a new union specific to their workplace or industry.
Contact a Union or Organizing Committee: Workers may seek information from an established union or an organizing committee affiliated with a union.
Petition for Representation: Workers file a petition for representation with the appropriate labor relations or labor board. This petition outlines their intent to form a union and requests an election to see if workers want a union to represent their interests.
Election Process: Once the petition is filed and reviewed, employees vote to determine whether they want to be represented by the union. Employees may vote by secret ballot or another method depending on regulations. If the majority votes in favor of the union, the union and the employer begin the process of collective bargaining.
Unions and HR
Labor unions and human resources work together during negotiations and when implementing the terms of a final agreement. Labor unions generally represent the employee and HR represents the company, but this does not mean that they are necessarily at odds any more than employees and employers are. Instead, each is working to get the best outcome possible for the people or entity that they represent. We highlight some of the most common situations that allow unions and HR to work together.
Collective Bargaining Agreement
Bargaining happens as labor unions and companies try to reach an agreement on:
- employee pay
- vacation time
- health insurance
- other benefits
Traditionally, this is an adversarial negotiation, but HR can play a role in changing this. Interest-based bargaining involves each party working to understand the position of the other and trying to find mutually beneficial solutions. In the case of employees and employers, each needs the other and each is in a better situation if the other is happy with the final outcome. Unions and HR can work together to help ensure that this continues to be the case. For example, employees who have a good work-life balance may be more productive. This means that both parties would benefit from a policy that limits overtime. Good health care benefits may actually lead to lower absenteeism, which benefits companies, since employees will be more likely to get treatment for conditions before they become serious.
Related Resource: 20 Companies With the Best Benefits
Dealing With Grievances
The agreement that labor unions and employees make is the basis for the relationship between the two. However, once the agreement is implemented, in practice, there will be grievances along the way. This is where HR has the opportunity to step in and deal with labor relations in a way that will benefit both the employee and the company. As an article in the HR Daily Advisor suggests, the first step for HR in managing grievances is to offer training opportunities for both stewards and supervisors. This can provide many of the tools and the knowledge needed to avoid some grievances altogether. When grievances do arise, HR can work with the union representative to find a mutually advantageous solution that takes the needs of both parties into account.
Communication is key to effective labor relations, and this is one of the most important functions HR can provide when labor unions and human resources work together. HR can work to facilitate better cooperation and communication between labor and management. Conflicts between the two are not necessarily rooted in management wishing to withhold rewards or benefits from employees. For example, management might be concerned about policies that prevent them from rewarding individual employees with merit-based raises. HR can play a key role in ensuring there is good communication between management and labor about the concerns on both sides and how this might be resolved. HR can also organize regular meetings between management and union representatives and can offer guidance to both sides.
Identifying common goals is one key in successful cooperation between labor unions and HR. Ultimately, it benefits both sides when employees and employers are successful. When labor unions and human resources work together, they can achieve successes that neither would be as likely to do on their own.