Labor Union

The term “labor union,” also known as “trade union,” is a group of workers who form an alliance for the purpose of protecting the workers’ rights and interests. For example, a labor union works to ensure that the higher-ups treat all workers at the company fairly. Labor unions ensure workers receive what they deserve while on the job: a higher rate of pay, proper benefits, and a voice against injustice. To explore this concept, consider the following labor union definition.

Definition of Labor Union


  1. A group of workers who organize within a company for the purpose of protecting their own rights and interests, as well as those of their fellow employees.



What is a Labor Union?

A labor union is a group of workers who organize to make life better for themselves and for all the workers at their company. Specifically, a labor union’s chief concerns are improving working conditions, wages, and hours by negotiating, called “collective bargaining,” with management. The union receives funding for their activities via “union dues,” which are either fixed-rate or a percentage of each member’s salary.

Labor unions have been fighting for workers’ rights since the 19th century. Over the years they have become a force to reckon with insofar as politics are concerned.

History of the Labor Union

The history of the labor union goes back to the mid-19th century, when they formed in response to the impacts the Industrial Revolution was having on society and the economy. One of the first labor unions was the Knights of Labor, which formed in the 1880s. However, that union eventually disbanded for several reasons, including a lack of proper leadership, and strong opposition from both employers and the government.

Another union, the American Federation of Labor, rose up in 1886 and was a far stronger force. Samuel Gompers lead the group until his death in 1924. Under Gompers’ direction, the union worked with workers to organize strikes and advocate for them. The union also became a respectable player in the world of politics, typically siding with the Democrats – a political position that still typically remains true today.

How Do Labor Unions Work?

All kinds of workers belong to labor unions, from teachers and police officers, to actors and doctors. Bargaining units are groups of people whom the union represents when it comes time to negotiate with the employer. Forming a bargaining unit happens in one of two ways. An employer can voluntarily recognize a group of individuals and encourage them to form a bargaining unit, or the bargaining unit must vote for representation, with the majority vote in favor of its formation.

Once a union forms, the law requires an employer to bargain with the union in good faith. However, the law does not require the employer to agree to any terms with which it does not agree. Further, if an employer threatens or otherwise intimidates employees to try to dissuade them from forming a union, this is a criminal offense. By the same token, it is also illegal for unions to threaten or intimidate other employees to join the union.

Once the employer and union agree to terms, they draft up and sign a contract, called a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). Within the CBA, the union and the employer agree to terms on such things as pay, benefits, vacation, and sick time, to name a few. Once they sign the CBA, the employer cannot change anything within it without receiving approval from the union representative.

What is Collective Bargaining?

The term “collective bargaining” refers to the contracts labor unions make with management to negotiate better hours, rates of pay, and benefits for all employees at the company. Employers and labor unions rely on collective bargaining to resolve issues in the workplace.

However, from time to time, an employer may walk back on a contract and renege on the negotiations they made with their union. When this happens, labor unions typically strike, or refuse to work until their employer meets the demands they had originally promised to meet. Ultimately the collective bargaining agreement is a legal contract.

Benefits of Being a Union Worker

There are several benefits of being a union worker. For one thing, those who belong to a union enjoy a higher rate of pay than those who are non-union members. Typically, union workers receive 20 percent more pay than the average non-union worker. Union workers tend to receive those annual raises that all workers should receive due to the negotiations that occur between the union and their employer.

Another of the benefits of being a union worker is better benefits. This extends to more than just health insurance, often including such things as retirement accounts and sick leave as well. For example, labor union workers are more likely to have pensions than non-union workers.

Still another of the benefits of being a union worker is that they have their own personal representatives. In other words, if an employee has an issue with someone in management, he can have his representative accompany him to the meeting. For an employee who is not a union member, he may feel as if his boss and the HR department are ganging up on him. He may then feel too intimidated to pursue his claim, and the company may unfairly prevail.

Decline of the Labor Union

There are many reasons for the decline of the labor union in recent years. For one thing, improved technology means fewer people are working in factory settings, which means there is less of a need for unions. The decline of the labor union really took off in the 1970s, but experts pinpoint its origin to around thirty years prior with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act.

The Taft-Hartley Act passed in 1947, and its purpose was to place more restrictions on labor unions. Some of these restrictions persist today. For one thing, the Act limited the kinds of strikes workers can engage in. It also prevented employers from hiring only union employees.

The passing of the Taft-Hartley Act could not have come at a worse time. Unions were in the process of organizing “Operation Dixie,” the purpose of which being to organize the non-unionized employees working in textile mills in the South. Thanks to Taft-Hartley, “Operation Dixie” failed, the South remained un-unionized, and the growth of labor unions faced what would ultimately be a permanent slowing down.

Labor Union Example Involving

An example of a labor union case that came before the U.S. Supreme Court is Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31. The origin of this case lies with the moment Illinois governor Bruce Rauner took office in 2015. Rauner was against labor unions, and once he was in office, he issued an order suspending the collection of fees from non-union members. These members had entered into a contract with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), an organization that represented employees within the public sector.


Another of Rauner’s first actions in office was to file a lawsuit against the AFSCME in the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. The purpose of his suit was to challenge these union contracts as violations of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Rauner’s argument was that employees who disapproved of the union felt compelled by the statute to contribute money to it.

The court dismissed his complaint, saying that Rauner did not have the right to sue because he did not stand to suffer personally from the law. However, two public employees intervened and asked the court to overturn prior caselaw that required non-union employees to pay dues to a union they weren’t part of. (The justification for this was the employees still benefited from the union’s negotiations, whether they were members or not.) The district court dismissed this claim as well.

Appeal and the U.S. Supreme Court

Rauner brought his case to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. However, the Court ultimately affirmed the lower court’s dismissal for the same reasons. Rauner petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Court agreed to hear the case. The question then became whether the Court should overturn prior caselaw so that unions could not require non-union public employees to pay fees to a union to which they did not belong.

Ultimately, the Court sided in a 5 – 4 decision with Rauner, agreeing that forcing nonconsenting, non-union employees to pay union dues was indeed a violation of the First Amendment. Specifically, the Court wrote:

“…States and public-sector unions may no longer extract agency fees from nonconsenting employees. Under Illinois law, if a public-sector collective bargaining agreement includes an agency-fee provision and the union certifies to the employer the amount of the fee, that amount is automatically deducted from the nonmember’s wages. §315/6(e). No form of employee consent is required.

This procedure violates the First Amendment and cannot continue. Neither an agency fee nor any other payment to the union may be deducted from a nonmember’s wages, nor may any other attempt be made to collect such a payment, unless the employee affirmatively consents to pay. By agreeing to pay, nonmembers are waiving their First Amendment rights, and such a waiver cannot be presumed. (Citations omitted.) Rather, to be effective, the waiver must be freely given and shown by “clear and compelling” evidence. (Citations omitted.) Unless employees clearly and affirmatively consent before any money is taken from them, this standard cannot be met.

Abood was wrongly decided and is now overruled. The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Appellate Court – A court having jurisdiction to review decisions of a trial-level or other lower court.
  • Breach of Contract – A violation of contract through failure to perform, or through interference with the performance of the contractual obligations.
  • Contract – An agreement between two or more parties in which they make a promise to do or provide something in return for a valuable benefit.
  • Labor Strike – A collective, organized cessation of work by employees seeking better working conditions, or higher wages.
  • Labor Union – An organized association of workers formed to protect and further the rights and interests of its members.