ENG: A trade union (British English) or labor union (American English and Canadian English) is an organization of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals such as better working conditions. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members (rank and file members) and negotiates labour contracts (collective bargaining) with employers. This may include the negotiation of wages, work rules, complaint procedures, rules governing hiring, firing and promotion of workers, benefits, workplace safety and policies. The agreements negotiated by the union leaders are binding on the rank and file members and the employer and in some cases on other non-member workers.
Originating in Europe, trade unions became popular in many countries during the Industrial Revolution, when the lack of skill necessary to perform most jobs shifted employment bargaining power almost completely to the employers' side, causing many workers to be mistreated and underpaid. Trade union organizations may be composed of individual workers, professionals, past workers, or the unemployed. The most common, but by no means only, purpose of these organizations is "maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment".
Over the last three hundred years, trade unions have developed into a number of forms.
Activities vary, but may include:
- Provision of benefits to members: Early trade unions, like Friendly Societies, often provided a range of benefits to insure members against unemployment, ill health, old age and funeral expenses. In many developed countries, these functions have been assumed by the state; however, the provision of professional training, legal advice and representation for members is still an important benefit of trade union membership.
- Collective bargaining: Where trade unions are able to operate openly and are recognized by employers, they may negotiate with employers over wages and working conditions.
- Industrial action: Trade unions may enforce strikes or resistance to lockouts in furtherance of particular goals.
- Political activity: Trade unions may promote legislation favourable to the interests of their members or workers as a whole. To this end they may pursue campaigns, undertake lobbying, or financially support individual candidates or parties (such as the Labour Party in Britain) for public office.
Labor unions in the United States
Labor unions in the United States are legally recognized as representatives of workers in many industries. The most prominent unions are among public sector employees such as teachers and police. Activity by labor unions in the United States today centers on collective bargaining over wages, benefits, and working conditions for their membership and on representing their members if management attempts to violate contract provisions.
Although much smaller compared to their peak membership in the 1950s, American unions also remain an important political factor, both through mobilization of their own memberships and through coalitions with like-minded activist organizations around issues such as immigrant rights, trade policy, health care, and living wage campaigns.
Today most unions are aligned with one of two larger umbrella organizations: the AFL-CIO created in 1955 and the Change to Win Federation, which split from the AFL-CIO in 2005. Both advocate policies and legislation on behalf of workers in the United States and Canada, and take an active role in politics. The AFL-CIO is especially concerned with global trade issues.
In 2010, total labor union density (the percentage of workers—both public and private—belonging to a labor union) was 11.4% in the United States. For comparison, it was 18.6% in Germany, 27.5% in Canada, and 70% in Finland. Union membership in the private sector has in recent years fallen under 9% — levels not seen since 1932. Unions allege that employer-incited opposition has contributed to this decline in membership.
Unions are currently advocating new federal legislation that would allow workers to elect union representation by simply signing a support card.
The current process established by federal law requires at least 30% of employees to sign cards for the union, then wait 45 to 90 days for a federal official to conduct a secret ballot election in which a simple majority of the employees must vote for the union in order to obligate the employer to bargain. Unions report that, under the present system, many employers use the 45 to 90 day period to conduct anti-union campaigns. Some opponents of this legislation fear that removing secret balloting from the process will lead to the intimidation and coercion of workers on behalf of the unions. During the 2008 elections, the Employee Free Choice Act had widespread support of many legislators in the House and Senate, and of the President. Since then, support for the "card check" provisions of the EFCA subsided substantially.