Since the middle of the 19th century, when the industrial revolution first made significant impacts on social and economic life in the United States, labor unions have been respected and efficacious models of worker unification. That being said, the industrial revolution is old news. The digital revolution, also known as the third industrial revolution, has taken hold of modern lives. Jobs have become more specific and machines have replaced human workers in certain unskilled positions.

So what role does the union play in today’s economy? To understand, it is necessary to know how unions have always worked.

Unions have, since their inception, been organizations of workers dedicated to maintaining and, if need be, improving working conditions. They run a bit like mini-democracies: elected officials make decisions on behalf of the workers who elect them. Also like most democracies, workers pay for membership. They do this with tax-esque, regular payments, much of which go to those of the union’s staff members who aren’t volunteers.

The goals of unions are simple: to better working conditions. This mission can take many shapes, including pushing for increases in minimum wage and in worker productivity (often done by administering training programs), as well as trade restrictions, such as government-imposed tariffs and quotas. Tariffs are special taxes on imported or exported goods. Quotas are limits on the amount of a certain good that can be imported or exported.

Although there are basic goals common amongst most, if not all, unions, there are several varieties. These organizations represent, after all, different quantities and qualities of professional workers. As a small sampling, unions represent mechanics, teachers, factory workers, office workers, actors, musicians, police officers, construction workers, janitors, writers, doctors, engineers, plumbers and pharmacists, as well as countless others.

Local unions are comprised of local workers, usually bound by sector and region, not employer. They typically receive a charter from a national or international union before forming. There are over 60 national and international unions across the United States and Canada, representing millions of professionals.

Of these local and broad coalitions, there are slightly more specific trade and industrial unions. Trade unions represent workers who work a specific trade, such as those represented by The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. Industrial unions, alternatively, represent workers who work a specific industry, including those represented by The United Auto Workers.

During the first industrial revolution, unions began to form alongside companies operating within steel mills, textile factories, mines and other heavily regulated environments. Because of this, unions are often associated with the “old economy,” but the new economy is, of course, where unions must work today.

As small and medium sized businesses outside of manufacturing become more prevalent, unions become increasingly general and must represent a much wider range of employees. This makes collective bargaining, a technique unions employ to facilitate negotiations between employers and employees, a more difficult task than it used to be. Naturally, since there are more managers with whom to negotiate and more potential hangups to avoid, the process may be elongated. Settlements may become compromised as unions juggle an array of workers.

These effects, however, are mostly speculative. In general, the union has been and continues to be, at least for today, an effective and empowering tool workers use and need.

– Adam Kaminski

Sources: Investopedia, Union Plus
Photo: The Century Foundation