${ company.text }

Be the first to rate this company   Not rated   ${ company.score } stars     ${ company.industry}     ${ company.headquarters}


${ getArticleTitle(article) }


${ tag.display_name }


${ getCommunityPostText(community_post) }


${ contributor.full_name }

${ contributor.short_bio }

Jobs For Employers

Join InHerSight's growing community of professional women and get matched to great jobs and more!

Sign up now

Already have an account? Log in ›

  1. Blog
  2. Workplace Rights
  3. May 28, 2024

What Is a Labor Union? The Definition, Pros & Whether You Should Join

A tradition dating back to 1866

Food delivery worker considering joining a union
Photo courtesy of Mart Production

Labor unions and collective action have been a focal point in the past years’ news, featuring prominent strikes that have halted the production of some of your favorite TV shows and even affected the availability of your free holiday beverage cup at Starbucks.

But the roots of union organizing and action date back to 1866 with the establishment of the National Labor Union, which advocated for eight-hour workdays and 40-hour workweeks—a radical idea at that time. Despite the dissolution of the National Labor Union in 1873, its efforts paved the way for ongoing labor reform.

Sara Steffens, interim director of the Worker Power Coalition, has been a vocal advocate for unions, having turned to unionization years ago when her employer was taken over by a company known for poor working conditions. Her decision to get involved was influenced by the positive experiences a friend shared about union support, which offered not just job security, but also a better work-life balance as a mom. 

Steffens notes a significant gap in understanding among workers about their rights—a contributing factor to why United States unionization has dropped to less than 10 percent, its lowest point in recent years. 

“I find that there’s a lot of people who don’t really understand the legal aspects of the process, how it works, and even what their rights are at work,” she adds.

This lack of awareness often keeps workers from engaging in union activities or starting their own until high-profile events like Amazon’s labor strikes highlight the potential impacts on services we take for granted (like our next-day deliveries).

Unions and the concept of worker power should be part of a broader, and much more frequent, conversation. A conversation that impacts all of us and deserves more attention. 

Read more: What Is a Right-to-Work Law? Arguments For & Against the Legislation

What labor unions do

In 2023, thousands of Starbucks employees went on strike, demanding a starting wage of $20 per hour, affordable health insurance, at least 37 guaranteed work hours per week, and schedules set months in advance. While these demands might seem like bare minimum requirements, they put the spotlight on the significant issue many industries face—especially in service and manual labor, where organizations often require a lot from employees while offering very little in return. 

“First and foremost, a union is a democratic organization. And one of the most important functions of any union is collective bargaining that negotiates a contract to establish hours, wages, and working conditions,” Steffens says.

You’re probably wondering why these negotiations are necessary—shouldn’t these standards be expected in the workforce? 

The tough reality is that many organizational practices prioritize business needs over employee welfare. Which is why workers continue to fight for fair compensation amid rising inflation, why many parents struggle to balance work and family life, and why women and people of color are still vastly underpaid in comparison to male counterparts.

This is where unions come into play.

“Unions do the work to uplift the voices of its members, both at work and generally in our country and in the world,” Steffans says.

“Another function of unions is fighting for broad workplace rights. Paid leave, equal pay, workplace health, health and safety. Any place where the voices of workers can be lifted to help create law or policy or change that’s needed in the workplace.”

Unions also work to negotiate contracts that focus on job security, respectful workplace conditions, flexible schedules, job training, and wages that align with increases in cost of living. 

As democratic entities, union membership is made up of teams of individuals within an organization who collaborate to advocate for workplace benefits by negotiating and enforcing contracts with leadership that address the most pressing needs of employees. 

This collective approach comes from an understanding that together workers can achieve more than one person could do alone.

Read more: Navigating the Exit: Your Guide to Resigning from a Toxic Work Environment

The benefits of establishing a union

Workers in unions typically earn about $200 more per week than their non-union counterparts and are more likely to receive employer-provided pensions and health insurance. They’re also more likely to have better overall work environments, where they can voice concerns without fear of retaliation.

Steffens notes the practical advantages of unionized workplaces, highlighting that in her experience “unions at the workplace makes for less turnover and more productivity given that there are mechanisms in place to take care of problems that may be cropping up.” Union members also often have more flexibility to manage personal obligations like caring for a family member, a new baby, or recovering from their own illnesses or injuries.

She points out that unions are the only place where the wage gap is closing, citing some significant recent pay raises negotiated through unions: a 150 percent raise for Ford staff due to contract negotiations, a 25 percent wage increase for United Auto Workers (UAW) employees last fall, and a substantial contract for Southwest Airlines flight attendants who secured an immediate 22.3 percent pay raise with retroactive pay that added up to an additional $364 million across the company.

“I could give you countless examples of people’s jobs who were reinstated because they were unfairly fired, or unions that were able to create special pools to build toward more equal pay in the workplace. But really, the bottom line is that pay and benefits is what most union members associate with being lucky enough to work in a place with representation and a union contract,” Steffans says.

While it might seem that labor unions and Human Resource departments serve similar roles, there’s a stark difference. HR is designed to protect the interests of the company, following company policies in the businesses’ handbook. Labor unions advocate for the employees and proactively address collective needs.

One fundamental principle in every union contract, according to Steffens, is ‘just cause’, meaning that you can’t be fired unless the employer can demonstrate a legitimate reason for termination. There could still be layoffs for financial reasons, but they can’t target individuals unfairly. 

“I think a lot of people don’t realize that,” Steffens notes, “In the vast majority of American workplaces, there is no just cause. They cannot fire you for a reason that’s discriminatory under a protected category of federal law, but they can fire you for absolutely no reason at all.”

Having a union means that can’t happen to you. It means you’ll have job security.

“Just the fact that it’s there changes the relationship between employee and management. It’s really a great thing,” she adds.

Read more: Are You Being Discriminated Against at Work? 10 Signs to Look Out For

How to get involved in a union

Getting started with a union, whether organizing or participating, may seem a bit complicated. But it’s actually more straightforward than you think. 

Steffens explains that the first step is quite simple: Start having conversations with your coworkers about workplace conditions.

“[A union] always needs to be led by employees and workers themselves,” she says. And, assuming the initial conversations are productive, these discussions can naturally progress to regular organizing meetings if there’s enough interest.

It’s often beneficial to consult with an experienced union organizer early on, as they have a deep understanding of the process, are familiar with potential challenges, and know the legal landscape necessary to protect workers during the organizing phase.

Once you’ve rallied a group of coworkers interested in forming a union, and have the guidance of a professional organizer, the next step involves formally gauging support for the union. This is typically done by circulating union cards, gathering signatures, and demonstrating that a majority of the employees are in favor of union representation.

With that support, Steffens outlines the next step: “Then you can go to the company and say a majority of us want a union—will you recognize us? The company can say yes and then you can move right into bargaining. Or, they can ask for a more formal election process in which you would move quickly to a union vote.”

Overcoming the challenges to union organizing

“The biggest challenge [in union organizing] is that it’s hard for people to maintain the courage to stand together and speak up when the person that signs their paycheck is telling them to stop,” Steffens says.

Fear and a lack of understanding are tall barriers for workers interested in organizing. And it’s a legitimate concern, rooted in real experiences.

Steffens was faced with such opposition when she first organized a workplace union, encountering what she describes as being met with “every anti-union, union-busting thing you could think of,” by her employer—including being fired for being one of the lead organizers.

“I was surprised and am honestly still surprised and outraged that companies are allowed to push the line so hard and in other cases violate the law with little to no repercussions,” she says.

Unfortunately, this situation is not unique. A similar story made national news last year about a former Home Depot employee who was terminated after attempting to organize the company’s first union.

“The landscape isn’t great for workers, and it’s hard to get first contracts as well.” In response, Steffens and the Worker Power Coalition are advocating to pass a piece of legislation called the ProAct that would make it easier for workers to organize, get first contracts, and protect their rights.

Yet, despite these challenges, Steffens encourages potential organizers not to be deterred by fears of what could go wrong, and instead set their focus on what could go right. “There could be retaliation, but the benefits outweigh the risks,” she asserts. The positive impact on hundreds of people often outweighs the few, if any, cases of retaliation.

Reflecting on her own experiences, Steffens says, “The best thing I ever did in my life, honestly, was helping to organize a union at my workplace. Even though I didn’t end up being able to continue to work there, I’m still extremely proud of it. Everybody that’s still there is in a much better situation than they would have if we hadn’t organized.” 

Read more: Perspective: In the COVID Era, Let’s Remember Why We Work

Should you join or start a union? Here’s your call to action

Union organizing is experiencing a resurgence with growing participation at the highest rate it’s been in decades, according to Steffens. 

“The National Labor Relations Board, which runs elections in the private sector, said that the number of people filing or requesting an election is up 35 percent so far this fiscal year. Over the past two years, it had already risen 58 percent.” 

For those already in a unionized workplace, the benefits are clear: higher wages, notable benefits, and stronger rights than many average, non-union workers have the privilege of experiencing. 

With that in mind, Steffens emphasizes the importance of active participation: “Just remember that the union is only as strong as the members. So if you haven’t yet signed up, you should absolutely join,” she says.

For employees whose workplaces are not yet unionized, Steffens believes that now is the opportune time to organize.

“Don’t be so afraid of what might happen that you don’t stand up.”

Union power grows from collective courage and action. As more workers choose to stand up and organize, the momentum will continue to build, and more shifts in worker rights and conditions will happen.

Sharing one of her favorite sayings in the labor movement, Steffens leaves us with this empowering call to action:

“When we lose our fear, they lose their power.”

About our expert${ getPlural(experts) }

About our author${ getPlural(authors) }

Share this article

Don't Miss Out

Create a free account to get unlimited access to our articles and to join millions of women growing with the InHerSight community

Looks like you already have an account!
Click here to login ›

Invalid email. Please try again!

Sign up with a social account or...

If you already have an account, click here to log in. By signing up, you agree to InHerSight's Terms and Privacy Policy


You now have access to all of our awesome content

Looking for a New Job?

InHerSight matches job seekers and companies based on millions of workplace ratings from women. Find a job at a place that supports the kinds of things you're looking for.