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Labor Unions

Labor Unions

Author: James Howard

This lesson explains the history and role of unions as well as how they interact with management.

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Hello and welcome to this tutorial on labor unions. Now as always with these tutorials, please feel free to fast forward, pause or rewind as many times as you need in order to get the most out of the time you'll spend here.

So let me ask you a question. What is it that labor unions do? When you hear the term labor union, what's the immediate think that springs into your head? Well, during this lesson, what we're going to be looking at are the development of labor unions, the role of labor unions, some union tactics that they used to negotiate with management, and the future of unions.

The key terms for this lesson are going to be labor unions and collective bargaining.

So let's start off with the development or history, if you will, of labor unions. Well, labor unions started off during the industrial revolution. What they found was with these new jobs that the industrial revolution brought, there were new dangers to workers from those factory jobs that were created.

Things like long work hours, like 16, 18, 20-hour days. Unsafe conditions and job security was also a big issue. Also the age of workers, because people would work who were very, very young, 8, 9 10 years old, and very, very old that created a very dangerous spot for that worker to be in. And the unions rose as a way to protect the workers from these conditions.

Now some examples of these dangers-- for instance, we already mentioned one, a long, long workday, but can you imagine working a 72-hour work week as a common practice? Unlivable wages, something like $1 a day in 1786, which is the very first minimum wage. So actually they were getting paid much, much less than that by their employers.

Now, a labor union is an organization that formally organizes and represents workers. And what they do is something called collective bargaining. And collective bargaining is a process of employees negotiating with employers to establish the terms and conditions of employment.

Now the role of unions in the workplace is that they give workers a collective voice through that collective bargaining that we defined earlier. What we see is there's two major areas for this type of communication-- collective bargaining and also settling management disputes.

Now, the management dispute process, or the way these things can be settled is through processes like a grievance, which is a formal complaint regarding a violation of the collective bargaining agreement. It could be a single member that brings up this grievance, or it could be an entire group. The bottom line is, the employer broke the agreement that the union and the employer had, so now the employees are going to file a grievance.

We also have mediation, and this is a voluntary process that uses an impartial third party to help resolve the management dispute. And here, the third party facilitates clearer communication. So the union and management aren't talking at each other, they're talking with each other in order to resolve these disputes. And you'll see this when management disputes get very, very contentious and we want to make sure that we're solving the problem instead of simply yelling across the table.

Another one is arbitration. Now this could be voluntary or mandatory, depending on the union contract that the union has with the employer. Now often, items go to arbitration if it can't be resolved through mediation. And here a third party acts as the judge and makes a legally binding ruling based on the agreement that the management team and the union has in place. Now these things can be binding or non-binding, but typically they're going to be binding if you go to arbitration, which means that whatever that third party judge comes up with, both parties have to abide by it.

So what are some tactics that unions use if they simply can't resolve their grievances or disputes with a company or management? Well the first one is to strike. Now a strike is generally considered the most effective. And workers basically temporarily stop working until their demands are met. So this puts the company in a real bind because no work is getting done. All the workers are off the job until that particular item is fixed.

They also can picket. And here union members and their supporters will stage a public protest outside the business to bring awareness of the problems in the grievances that the union members have with the business.

The next one is to boycott. And here, union members and their supporters organize to keep the public from purchasing certain products or using certain services. So when you stage a boycott, what you're trying to do is affect the bottom line of the business by having people be aware of this problem you're having with the company, and then convincing your supporters and the general public to not buy that product or not use the service that the company provides.

The last one is a lockout. And here this is a management option for dealing with management disputes. So what happens with a lockout is management could respond to this dispute by temporarily stopping employees from working until the demands are met and possibly higher strike breakers.

Now as an example, for about 20 months, employees of the Crystal Sugar Company were locked out by management. So they started off with a dispute and went on strike. But eventually what happened was that the employees were simply locked out of the business altogether. So now the employees can't earn money. They can't work, and they can't support their families. And this is a way for management to, in effect, strike against the employees. What happens is they'll hirer strike breakers to come in and work in the striking workers places.

So what are the future of unions? Well this is actually an interesting question because currently they're in decline. Some of the reasons that they're in decline is we see increased practices and worker safety, both on the part of the government and on the part of organizations. Organizations more and more understand that when you have an employee injured or you have unsafe working conditions, you affect your bottom line, because then you don't have that employee available to work.

There's also been individual cases of unions acting for their own personal gain. For instance, union officials misusing their power or skimming money from the union bank accounts that are filled by the dues from union employees. And you can see how this really would be bad for a particular union.

Also, companies are off-shoring more and more production. And there's a public view that unions just really aren't that effective anymore. Now it's unlikely that unions are going to disappear any time soon, but the simple fact is when it comes to the future of unions, we just don't know what that future is going to hold.

So what did we talk about today? Well, we looked at the development of unions back during the industrial revolution. We also looked at the role of unions. What is it that unions do? And we looked at some union tactics that they use in case they have other management disputes that they just can't settle. And lastly, we looked at the future of unions and how they face a really uncertain future, at least here in the US.

Now as always, I want to thank you for spending some time with me today and you folks have a great day.

Terms to Know
Collective Bargaining

A process of employees negotiating with employers to establish the terms and conditions of employment.

Labor union

An organization that formally organizes and represents workers.