Whether you’re joining a union or creating one from the ground up, there are different union types you should weigh that may be more suitable given your industry, the number of workers you’re trying to organize, the general demands you’re seeking, and more.

Enter, independent unions, national unions and union federations. These three major forms of labor organizations have their advantages and disadvantages, and below, we’ve outlined which path might best suit your union needs.

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What’s a local independent union?

A local independent union is simply that — a union free of outside influence (companies or larger labor affiliates) that represents the interests of workers within a company. Because affiliated unions make up a majority of labor unions, independent unions are few and far between.

The benefits of an independent union especially favor those looking to have more autonomy and independence in their union matters. For instance, local independent unions are free from jurisdiction from a national union. There is no larger operating charter that binds an independent union to specific rules and regulations, allowing these kinds of unions to build an ideological platform that’s truly representative of their workers and bargain for rights that affect them on a local level.

Also, because independent unions do not report to a national union or union federation, they will often have lower dues.

The downside of this? This sense of independence comes with a lot of work, as the resources of being in an affiliated union — financial and political backing, to name a few — aren’t accessible. You’ll be on your own in the negotiation phase with your employer and the well-being of your employees will be on you to maintain, though you can still bring in advisors, lawyers, and labor experts to help with this.

What is a national union?

Workplaces may choose to affiliate with larger unions that represent many workplaces across the United States.

Moe’s Books, a Berkeley, Calif.-based bookshop, organized in March 2021 and joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). By joining the IWW, Moe’s Books’ union became voting members in a national union much larger than their individual workplace.

Why didn’t Moe’s stay an independent union? Workers at Moe’s, while organizing as an independent union, were “often ignored and even retaliated against,” the IWW wrote. So, by joining the IWW, they receive the benefits of being in an affiliated union — including financial backing, political clout and a proven track record — which will allow them to “get fair and equal input on the formation and enforcement of safety protocols, without fear of dismissal or retaliation.”

IWW is an example of a national union. Some examples of some major national unions:

  • Allied Pilots Association
  • Fraternal Order of Police
  • Industrial Workers of the World
  • International Longshore and Warehouse Union
  • National Education Association
  • National Treasury Employees Union
  • United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America
  • United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America
  • United Independent Technology Technicians Of America

The national unions above are not federated into labor coalitions, like the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) or the Change to Win Federation (CtW). More on federated unions in the following section.

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Also, there are union federations, too?

So we’ve covered independent unions and national unions of all stripes. Now, let’s dive into union federations.

Let’s focus, for a moment, on Chicago’s Cresco Labs Sunnyside Dispensary. Workers at this dispensary are part of a local chapter (Local 881) of a larger union body, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). In other words, Local 881 is a local union, but not independent.

Now, the UFCW is a national union affiliated with the AFL-CIO. The AFL-CIO is a union federation.  

(So, as a budtender at Chicago’s Cresco Labs Sunnyside Dispensary, you’re not only a member of a local union but also that of a national union and union federation.)

More on union federations: The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, the United Farm Workers of America and the Communication Workers of America (CWA) are also national unions, but they are affiliated with the CtW. CWA is also affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

There are several benefits to being a member of a union federation. In the case of the AFL-CIO, it takes financial responsibility for the local union, files financial disclosure forms, and provides bargaining support. Fifty-six unions, which include 12.5 million working people, are affiliated with the AFL-­CIO.

Additionally, in the case of the AFL-CIO, there are also state federations and central labor councils that work with state and local unions to conduct campaigns that lobby in favor of certain union issues.

One of those AFL-CIO-affiliated unions is the American Postal Workers Union, which lauds its relationship with the federation:

“Affiliating with the AFL-CIO state federations and AFL-CIO Central Labor Councils isn’t just the right thing to do — it is essential in our fight to save the United States Postal Service and to protect our jobs. Affiliation gives local leaders and members an opportunity to meet and interact with labor allies.”

But, let’s consider the bureaucratic red tape associated with national unions and federations. With some of these large unions, voices can get lost in the shuffle, and for all of their functions that mirror a representative democracy, can be less democratic.

Some unions rely on a leadership council to make decisions, while others rely on a union-wide vote to come to a consensus. Additionally, if a local union joins a national union that has different issues or political views, they may find themselves a minority when voting within the organization

What union is right for me?

It depends.

As illustrated above, national unions have more financial and organizing resources and connections than an independent union might have. That being said, if you want complete autonomy over your union — from the way you organize it to the ideological basis you build it on — forming an independent union might be the path for you.