Enormous inflatable rats. Dangerous picket lines. Jimmy Hoffa.

How we view unions today could do with a little less drama.

As union membership has declined in recent years, misconceptions around collective bargaining have grown. Maybe we’re biased, but just because unions aren’t as intense as they’re portrayed on TV doesn’t mean the work they do is any less exciting.

So what exactly is a labor union?

"Three women hold signs at the Merchandise Mart in Atlanta, Georgia, urging people not to buy Judy Bond blouses, March 1, 1962." Care of: Kheel Center, Cornell University Library, licensed under CC BY 2.0

At its core, a labor union is a group of workers who team up to advocate for better pay, benefits, safety and perks. They function as democratic bodies where every member gets a vote in deciding which issues the group tackles. As a unified bloc representing the majority of employees, unions can affect real change in ways leadership can’t ignore — like, legally.

Unions aren’t confined to one single workplace, either. Some heavyweight groups, like United Steelworkers, represent workers at multiple companies to push for industry-wide results.

If a union is certified by the National Labor Relations Board (we can help with that), employers must recognize the union and work with it to negotiate a contract that works for both parties. This process is known as collective bargaining — and it’s an effective, beautiful thing.

Sounds cool, but what can a union actually accomplish?

There’s nothing better than that Friday-afternoon feeling. But if it weren’t for labor groups, that feeling might not exist. In fact, early unions fought for many of the basic standards we enjoy today, like weekends and not having our workplaces look like a scene from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

The sausage department, Armour's great packing house, Chicago, U.S.A. Creators: Strohmeyer & Wyman, New York, NY, c. 1893. Care of: Library of Congress.

But assuming companies are adhering to modern labor laws, what good is a union to a 21st-century worker?

Let’s look at the numbers. According to the US Board of Labor Statistics, people in unions make more money — about 20 percent more. They’re also more likely to have pensions and health benefits than people who aren’t in a union.

The cool thing about unionizing is that it doesn’t just have to be about money, although most people deserve to be paid more.

Maybe workers at a company feel that the parental leave policy is lacking, or there should be more transparency around diversity and inclusion initiatives or why certain people see promotions and others don’t. Unions push for transparency and better policies that make your company a more fulfilling place to work.

Whether fighting for a big change in workplace safety or a nice-to-have education stipend, unions help workers access the support they need to excel in their field and gain stability in their personal lives. If that seems open-ended, it is. That’s why we’re here to help you navigate it.

A union can fight for:

  • Healthcare benefits
  • Increased wages to meet the cost of living
  • Improved workplace policies
  • New safety standards
  • More paid time off
  • How workplace issues are handled
  • Diversity and inclusion policies
  • Pay and promotion transparency
  • Management accountability

Protecting your dream job

Your company has good pay, management is receptive to feedback and your team is awesome. Sure, there are a few issues you’d like to see changed, but you’re generally happy.

What’s the point of unionizing?

Consider it this way: forming a union can keep your company a place where you and that talented team of yours want to stay. Unionizing is one tool that can reduce turnover, increase job satisfaction and give workers increased ownership over their professional lives.

Unions have been on the decline since the 1970s, but they’re starting to see a resurgence in industries like manufacturing, tech and digital media. The reason for that is pretty simple: People are hungry for more input in their professional development and personal growth. There are some exceptions as to who is able to unionize, but most full-time workers are able to organize and find a seat at the table.

Union members take pride in their work, care about their peers, and want to celebrate company wins. That might already be how you feel about your workplace — a union is the best way to ensure you feel like that for the long haul.