Labor unions are organizations that deal with employers on behalf of a group of employees. Their best-known role is negotiating group employment contracts for members that spell out workplace essentials such as mandatory procedures for discipline and firing. But unions also often perform other workplace chores such as lobbying for legislation that benefits their members and sponsoring skill training programs.

Today, about 12.3% of all American workers are union members—a slight increase in the last couple years, but far below the tally for 1983, when union membership was first accurately tracked and nearly double current figures.

If you belong to a union, the specifics of your work relationship are probably covered in a collective bargaining agreement. That means nearly everything—work schedules, wages and hours, time off, discipline, safety rules, retirement plans—is spelled out in that contract. If you have a workplace problem, the process available to resolve it is spelled out in your collective bargaining contract, too.

Usually, you are required to discuss your problem first with a designated union representative, who will then take it up with union officials. If your complaint is found to be a reasonable one, the union reps will guide you through a complaint or grievance procedure. If you disagree with the union’s assessment of your situation, you can follow the steps provided for appealing the decision.

Some labor unions also operate benefit programs, such as vacation plans, health care insurance, pensions, and programs that provide members with discounts on various types of personal needs, such as eyeglasses and prescription drugs.

Most unions are operated by a paid staff of professional organizers, negotiators, and administrators, with some help from members who volunteer their time. In general, the money to pay unions’ staffs and expenses comes from dues paid by their members—which typically total about $50 per member per month. There is no law that specifically regulates the amount of money that unions can charge their members—but it may not be excessive. Courts have provided little guidance in defining this but have held that a union initiation fee equal to one month’s salary would likely be considered excessive.

The laws and court decisions governing labor unions and their relationships with employers are so complex and separate from the rest of workplace law that this chapter can give you only an overview.

If you are already a member of a labor union and want to continue as one, the information provided here can help you double-check on the performance of your union’s leaders.

If you are not represented by a union and would like to be, or if you are a member of a union and want out, this chapter will help you become familiar with the basic laws labor unions must follow and alert you to your rights in dealing with unions.

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