Labor unions are an important topic for anyone in the job market to understand. While union membership is at an all-time low in the United States, a portion of the employment force is still unionized. Furthermore, depending upon the state laws, employees may organize a labor union in a number of ways. This paper will discuss the various issues associated with labor unions, and offer a brief overview of how they function in the job marketplace.
Labor unions began to develop in the late Nineteenth Century in the United States. They were a response to the horrific labor conditions from which many individuals suffered. At this time, the industrialists, or “robber barons” were becoming increasingly wealthy at the expense of the laboring class. Leaders of the workers called for unionization, arguing that there was power in numbers. The premise behind a labor union was that they could negotiate for better terms if they stood together. If they were not treated fairly, either individually or as a group, they could strike, costing the management money. Officially, a labor union is the representative of a group of workers and has legal standing. However, they started out as controversial groups of individuals coming together (National Labor Relations Board [NLRB], 2016).
With regards to labor unions, it is important to understand what “employment at will” means. Employment at will indicates that the person can be terminated without any reason. The company does not need to offer a valid reason for firing the person. The person is there “at the will” of the employer. However, a unionized employee cannot be fired for no reason; rather, they are not “at the will” of the employer. They have a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), or contract, that defines why and how they can be fired. Collective bargaining is a type of negotiation. This negotiation occurs between the organized group of employees, referred to as labor, and the management. Labor and management come to the table with their demands as respective entities. Over the course of negotiation, called bargaining, they agree on the terms of employment for the collective group of employees. Both labor and management must agree to the collective bargaining agreement, or labor contract. While many often consider that this is only in the favor of the labor entity, it also provides safeguards for the management. The management can adjust their budget to account for the demands of the labor entity. Employees cannot merely walk into the office of the human resources manager and demand a raise. Rather, there is an agreement between the two groups regarding what each side can demand. It may include things such as mandatory overtime, which ensures that the shifts are covered for the management (NLRB, 2016).

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It is important that both sides leave the bargaining table happy. While neither side will get everything that they want, both sides should leave with a satisfactory answer for their demands. The employees must feel that their needs are met by the management. They must believe that they have fair salaries and benefits, a recognized process to file a grievance if the employee believes that he or she has been treated unfairly, and a safe working environment. Also, an important concept is “just cause.” Unlike “at-will employees,” employees protected by a labor contract can only be disciplined or discharged for “just cause.” The reasons for discipline and discharge are normally stated in the contract. Management must also feel as if they have been treated fairly. The goal of management is to ensure that they have adequate means of production, or employees to do the work. This is the reason why mandatory overtime may be required in some jobs, such as nursing and firefighting. They must have the people to cover the shifts. However, other situations, such as manufacturing goods, also require enough people to ensure that their orders are met. The contract must provide for the company to be able to meet their needs (NLRB, 2016).

A union contract is a legally binding agreement. If the company breaks any part of it, the union may file a grievance. A grievance is a formal complaint filed by an employee. For instance, if the employee believes that he or she was unfairly disciplined, the employee may file a grievance. The company must respond to the grievance. While the employee may offer an informal grievance, which is handled informally, a formal grievance requires a meeting where options to handle it are discussed. Grievances are the normal result of arbitrary discipline on the part of a manager (NLRB, 2016).

Normally, an employee takes all concerns to a union steward, or delegate. The union steward is a person who is well-versed in the concepts of labor unions, management, and the particular union contract. This person is an official union representative. The person often mediates between the employee and the management. The person may also be present for any discussions between the labor and the management. Sometimes, these issues are handled in arbitration. Arbitration uses a neutral third party to facilitate discussions. Arbitration occurs when they cannot reach and middle ground. Various states have varying degrees of laws that protect the concerted activities of employees. For instance, some states do not allow people to be fired when they go on strike. Other states mandate that certain employees, such as firefighters and nurses, cannot go on strike since it would put the public at risk. These states often consider “mass call-ins” as a form of strike. This is when people all call in sick to work on the same day. This is a strike (NLRB, 2016).

  • National Labor Relations Board. (2016). Frequently asked questions. Retrieved from: