While there certainly are benefits to forming an independent union, you don’t have to go it alone.
Joining an affiliated union can bring myriad benefits to you and your coworkers. From advisory groups and councils that help drive support for your union’s issues, all the way down to discounts on your mortgage and insurance, affiliate unions’ impact can be wide-ranging.
Below, we’ve laid out some benefits of affiliating your union with a larger labor organization.
How affiliating could help your day-to-day
Running an independent union could be deemed a full-time job, hence why there are so few of these unions compared to affiliated unions.
Besides the time-saving measures, there are several other benefits that affiliated unions can provide you.
Backing your financial and legal obligations
Annually, the Office of Labor-Management Standards (OLMS) requires unions to fill out two forms: an annual financial report, and a report on the inner workings of a union, which includes information on how unions identify and how unions select their officers (more on that here). Affiliated unions can rely on the support of their parent union to complete these forms, helping to cut down on a process that’s often tedious and complicated.
From a legal perspective, many affiliated unions have a network of lawyers on hand in case members need representation. For example, attorneys for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) recently filed an objection to a vote on behalf of Amazon workers in Bessemer, Ala. who lost a certification election to the company.
Additionally, some unions offer liability insurance, a financial benefit that can help to pay for legal obligations. The National Education Associate, for instance, provides liability insurance to eligible members in case they are ever sued.
Providing expertise and driving national attention to your local issues
Perhaps the most important benefit of affiliating is expertise. By helping to manage local unions across the country, affiliates have a pulse on how to properly support a local union.
And the wherewithal to do so. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), for example, has a framework of “strategy, media, community support, infrastructure building and bargaining,” knowledge that they use to help support their local unions.
If your union decides to go on strike, for example, your parent union could have the resources to organize strikes elsewhere, bringing attention to your issue. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) provided financial backing to the Fight for $15 campaign, and though the efforts are not supporting a union directly, the campaign could have demonstrative effects on the lives of thousands of workers in the fast-food industry.
Training and educating your union members
Continuous education and training helps ensure professionals stay sharp and in the know on current industry best practices. And, since some industries are entirely union-based, it’s important affiliates provide ample opportunities for their members to upskill.
For the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, they need to give new members the ability to learn the tools of the skilled trade. As a result, the affiliate provides their members regional training centers, as well as the Carpenters International Training Center.
The National Education Association (NEA) provides professional learning, leadership development, and conferences and events for its members, a majority of which are educators. And the Communication Workers of America relies on CWA/NETT Academy, which provides training courses, a college program, scholarship opportunities, and more.
Perks and benefits
If affiliate unions are large enough, they may be able to negotiate with retailers and brokers to receive discounts on anything from rental cars to medical prescriptions. In some cases, unions have created their own internal programs.
One of the largest consumer benefits organizations, Union Privilege, which was founded by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), provides its union affiliates financial products, home and auto programs, insurance products, health plans, education, shopping discounts, travel benefits, and hardship help. The NEA provides a similar program.
Depending on your affiliate union, you may be opted-in to these benefits when you first join.
How affiliating can affect your broader union agenda
Where an affiliate union might be able to have the biggest impact is work that often takes time and several bureaucracies’ efforts. That is, influencing the public discourse on your union’s issues and helping to drive legislative change that can benefit your rights as a worker.
The AFL-CIO has state federation and labor councils — and trade, allied and constituency groups, and community allies — that each serve the interests of its union membership. For example, the Union Label and Service Trades Department creates labels for union-made consumer products (promoting the products made by unions), while the Union Lawyers Alliance brings together lawyers to support pro-worker laws.
Union Plus, mentioned in a previous section, is an example of an allied group of the AFL-CIO.
On a slightly smaller scale, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) has various departments, divisions, offices and councils that serve a similar purpose. The RWDSU (the organizing body that protested the Amazon vote) is a council under the UFCW and helps to organize across the U.S., including on the political front through campaigning and get-out-the-vote events.
On a larger scale, many affiliated unions also have political action committees (PACs) that directly contribute to political campaigns. In the 2020 election cycle, the largest public sector trade union, The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), led all unions in contributions with more than $2.5 million, made mostly to Democratic House and Senate candidates.
These PACs provide union leaders a seat at the table with those in Washington to discuss relevant political issues that could have a bearing on the benefits you receive as a union member.
Is affiliating right for me?
On the fence? Whether you choose to affiliate or go independent, the best advice we can give is to research to see what’s best for your situation. Some Unit articles that may help: