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What Are the Types of Labor Unions?

May 10, 2023

Labor organizations have been an essential part of the American workforce for decades. But what is the main function of a union? Unions represent workers in various fields and vocations to promote their shared rights and interests. A primary function of labor unions is to negotiate with employers to improve wages, benefits, and the work environments for their members.

This post examines the different types of labor unions, their unique characteristics, and the advantages they offer to American employees. Whether you’re a labor union member, employer, or just someone curious to learn more about unions, understanding how different labor unions operate can give you a meaningful appreciation of the American labor movement and the predicaments and prospects workers face.

The Evolution of American Labor Unions

Unions have existed in the United States for more than two centuries. In the beginning, the idea of organizing workers was very contentious. Those advocating for unions often faced opposition from employers and government authorities. Union organizers were afforded limited protections and often found themselves faced with angry objectors and in dangerous situations.

In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act granted individuals the right to establish unions. Organizing into unions became more widespread in certain industries after John F. Kennedy signed a presidential decree in 1962 that gave unions collective bargaining rights.

Industries and Professions That Have Labor Unions

The following are a few of the professions where unions are routinely present to safeguard the interests of their members:

  • Trades: Craftspeople such as laborers, mechanics, electricians, plumbers, pipefitters, carpenters, and bricklayers fall into this category.
  • Construction workers: Jobs in this industry include painters, ironworkers, and sheet metal workers.
  • Manufacturing: Manufacturing jobs include machine operators, engineers, industrial managers, and technicians.
  • Healthcare: The healthcare sector includes doctors, care representatives, nurses, technicians, and attendants.
  • Government: Government jobs consist of officers, administrators, analysts, agents, and others in local, state, and federal positions.
  • Public sectors: Jobs in this field include police officers, firefighters, social workers, etc.
  • Education: Those who work in education include guidance counselors, teachers, special education teachers, and assistant teachers.
  • Transportation: Jobs in this industry include drivers, conductors, engineers, and machine operators.

Main Functions of a Labor Union

Workers form labor unions to represent their combined interests and rights in the workplace. These unions are crucial in advocating for improving working conditions, wages, and benefits for their members. Here are the three functions of a union:

Collective Bargaining

One of the crucial duties of labor unions is collective bargaining, which entails the union negotiating with the employer to establish the terms and conditions of employment for its members. This includes issues such as pay, benefits, and working conditions.

Representing Members

Labor unions act as advocates for their members, representing their interests and safeguarding their rights. They can offer legal representation to members during conflicts with employers and push for equitable treatment, better working conditions, and job stability.

Advocacy

Labor unions also function as advocates for workers on a larger scale, particularly within political and social spheres. They advocate for policies—such as regulations for workplace safety, minimum wage laws, and employee protections—that are advantageous to workers.

Structures of Unions

Let’s take a look at a few of the categories that unions fall into:

Craft Union

A craft union refers to workers who have similar trade-related careers or skill sets. These unions can be industry-specific or based on the shared expertise of their members. In the United States, craft unions grew in popularity during the Industrial Revolution to safeguard workers who often had to work in unsafe conditions.

Through unions, members could secure fair compensation and benefits, which was instrumental in preventing long-term unemployment. Unions created apprenticeship programs and restricted job access to union members to achieve these goals.

Industrial Union

Industrial unions are groups of individuals working in the same industry or similar service sectors. They typically pertain to a single sector of the economy and encompass all workers in that industry. Industrial unions often engage in sectional bargaining, negotiating contracts across multiple employers in that field.

Industrial unions possess significant bargaining power owing to their extensive membership. Their influence led to the transformation of whole industries and enhanced health and safety standards in the workplace.

Federations

A federation is a structured grouping of one or more unions. These associations offer various services and assistance to affiliated unions and supplementary advantages and protections for their members.

Moving Forward

Labor unions serve a vital function by promoting the welfare of workers. Through joint bargaining, representation, and advocacy, unions have amassed credibility in many businesses and organizations. 

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