A Quick Study of How Unions Help Workers Win a Voice on the Job

What is a union?

A union is a group of workers who form an organization to gain:

  • Respect on the job,
  • Better wages and benefits,
  • More flexibility for work and family needs,
  • A counterbalance to the unchecked power of employers, and
  • A voice in improving the quality of their products and services.

How do people form a union?

When workers decide they want to come together to improve their jobs, they work with a union to help them form their own local chapter. Once a majority of workers shows they want a union, sometimes employers honor the workers’ choice. Often, the workers must ask the government to hold an election. If the workers win their union, they negotiate a contract with the employer that spells out each party’s rights and responsibilities in the workplace.

Does the law protect workers joining unions?

It’s supposed to—but too often it doesn’t. Under the law, employers are not allowed to discriminate against or fire workers for choosing to join a union. For example, it’s illegal for employers to threaten to shut down their businesses or to fire employees or take away benefits if workers form a union. However, employers routinely violate these laws, and the penalties are weak or nonexistent.

What kinds of workers are forming unions today?

A wider range of people than ever before, including many women and immigrants, is joining unions—doctors and nurses, poultry workers and graduate employees, home health care aides and wireless communications workers, auto parts workers and engineers, to name a few.

How do unions help working families today?

Through unions, workers win better wages, benefits and a voice on the job—and good union jobs mean stronger communities. Union workers earn 30 percent more than nonunion workers and are more likely to receive health care and pension benefits than those without a union. In 2007, median weekly earnings for full-time union wage and salary workers were $863, compared with $663 for their nonunion counterparts. Unions lead the fight today for better lives for working people, such as through expanded family and medical leave, improved safety and health protections and fair-trade agreements that lift the standard of living for workers all over the world.

What have unions accomplished for all workers?

Unions have made life better for all working Americans by helping to pass laws ending child labor, establishing the eight-hour day, protecting workers’ safety and health and helping create Social Security, unemployment insurance and the minimum wage, for example. Unions are continuing the fight today to improve life for all working families in America.

What challenges do workers face today when they want to form unions?

Today, thousands of workers want to join unions. The wisest employers understand that when workers form unions, their companies also benefit. But most employers fight workers’ efforts to come together by intimidating, harassing and threatening them. In response, workers are reaching out to their communities for help exercising their freedom to improve their lives.

Questions & Answers About a Union

Question: What would we accomplish by having a union?

Answer: A union would be your voice. Right now, management gets to call all the shots. With a union they have a legal obligation to negotiate with representatives that you choose. You will negotiate based on priorities that you decide for yourselves. CWA represented employees usually have a contract that provides a positive work environment and a good standard of living. These things are guaranteed in a contract that cannot be changed except by mutual agreement. Having a union does not mean that we will accomplish everything that we want. However, everywhere that CWA has organized there have been improvements.

In today’s political and economic climate, now more than ever workers need to join together. A union can help create a more level playing field with your employer. Instead of one person telling management that wages should be fair, health and safety regulations should be followed and employees deserve good health care benefits, a union helps you speak together, in one voice. And that chorus of voices has more power than one lone voice. A union is the vehicle workers can use to help bring the chorus together.

Question: How would we get started?

Answer: To get a union started, the first thing you need to do is talk to your co-workers. Do they share the same concerns you have? Or, do they have other issues? Is there a common theme to these concerns such as lack of respect and dignity; lack of a voice in the workplace; unfair treatment; and/or wages and benefits lower than other people working in the same industry?

Our experience tells us that it’s best when workers organize themselves if they are to create a viable organization in their workplace. CWA organizers and staff can help. But it’s the workers who must join together and build their organization. After talking with your co-workers to find out their issues, you can contact CWA to talk with a union organizer. He or she will set up a meeting with you and some of your co-workers. Together, you will create a plan for a organizing a union in your workplace.

Question: What would a typical organizing campaign be like?

Answer : The campaign will consist of talking with co-workers about the union, asking them to sign a petition of support. When there is a strong majority of support (65% of employees have signed the petition of support), the union will file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Usually, the NLRB will then meet with the union and the employer to establish the criteria for employees who will be eligible to vote in the union election. The NLRB sets a date for a secret ballot election.

CWA’s goal is not simply to win elections Winning elections assures the union and employees of their legal right to enter into negotiations with the employer. That’s all. CWA’s organizing goal is to build a strong organization to better enable employees to negotiate good contracts and increase their standard of living and quality of life.

Question: Do we have any legal rights to organize a union?

Answer: Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) you have the legal right to form a union in your workplace. The NLRA says:

Section 7: “Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representation of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining . . . .”

Section 8(a): “It shall be an unfair labor practice for an employer . . . to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in section 7. . . .”

Under Section 7 of the NLRA, you have the legal right to:

1. Attend meetings to discuss joining a union.

2. Read, distribute, and discuss union literature (as long as you do this in non-work areas during non-work times, such as during breaks or lunch hours).

3. Wear union buttons, t-shirts, stickers, hats, or other items on the job.

4. Sign a card asking your employer to recognize and bargain with the union.

5. Sign petitions or file grievances related to wages, hours, working conditions, and other job issues.

6. Ask other employees to support the union, to sign union cards or petitions, or to file grievances.

Question: Who will be included in the union if we organize?

Answer: The law permits nearly all employees that are not supervisors, managers with broad authority to be in the union. There are various possible situations about where the lines are drawn in any given group. A CWA organizer can help figure out what would be possible in your workplace.