Labor unions, or trade unions in England, are an important part of the history of the American workforce. They originated in Europe, but became increasingly popular and necessary during the Industrial Revolution, when many workers were underpaid and gravely mistreated. Now, many professions, even non-industrial professions like teachers, have unions that help them bargain for employee rights such as pay, work conditions, and much more.
What are Labor Unions?
A labor union is a band of employees with similar jobs that have banded together to fight for their rights and common goals. These goals might include better benefits, increased wages, more desirable working conditions, negotiating contracts, workplace safety, and other hiring, firing, and complaint policies for the employees. Union representatives usually work with employers to negotiate these important issues. This is called collective bargaining. When the right to bargain collectively is taken away, it means that employers can dictate all things that the labor unions work to bargain for. This can mean worsened working conditions, less benefits, and lower pay.
Why are Labor Unions Important?
Labor unions are important because, without them, the employers have all the power. If there is no trust and mutual respect between the employers and workers, it can lead to terrible working conditions and wages that do not match the work that has been done. Unions are a valuable check and balance point for many jobs. While many people believe that unions cost the taxpayers and consumers a lot of money - since people have to pay more for work that requires a higher wage and benefits - unions also serve to ensure that worker's rights are taken into account in every decision a company makes. When the worker's rights are taken into account, the workers are not only happier, but are safer and treated well too. This means a better product and a more ethical product. It is also good for the economy; when workers are paid a living wage, they can put that money back into the economy rather than spend it solely on basic needs.
History of Labor Unions
Labor unions actually started as far back as medieval Europe. At that time, guilds were put in place to protect workers from apprenticeship to craftsman to journeyman and to grand master. Unions, as we know them, started in England in the mid-14th century, when the Ordinance of Labourers was enacted. Soon after, all union activity was made illegal until the mid-19th century. In the United States, the Trade Union Movement emerged in the 19th century. These unions were primarily formed to strike for worker's rights.
Criticism of Labor Unions
Unions have often been criticized for protecting those with extremely secure jobs. This is the argument that teachers hear most often. Because they have a tenure, or job security, and they have a union, teachers and other workers with secure jobs are often thought to hide behind their unions and seek protection when it is not needed. Unions have also been criticized for driving prices up because wages are that much higher when unions are present. In the same vein, unions have also been blamed for driving labor out of the United States because labor costs are much cheaper in other countries. Finally, unions can be very political, and will endorse political candidates who have or promise to meet their group's needs. This can make or break a politician's career, because, when a whole union of workers vote for one person, that constitutes a huge part of the political constituency.
Regardless of how you feel about labor unions, they are an incredibly important part of our history as an industrialized country.