Basic question about american unions.

When a US company is unionized, is the existence of only one union in the company rather the rule or rather the exception?

My perception is that generally there will be only one union in a company (and belonging to it might be essentially mandatory), but maybe it’s only true for some large companies in specific sectors (these companies being proeminent creating a wrong perception for a foreign observer) while there are normally several competing unions in smaller companies/businesses.

I’m not sure that there’s a general answer to this question.

Most American unions were originally formed around particular crafts. Only later, as industries changed over to assembly line work that was semi-skilled or at least not specialized, did unions work to organize entire industries. And today major unions are trying to build membership by admitting any workers.

So a supermarket may have separate unions for butchers and bakers, and a movie will make use of a number of separate craft guilds.

However, the United Auto Workers will represent all the workers in a auto plant no matter what type of work they do. (With some possible exceptions for very specialized crafts that have traditionally had their own unions.)

Whether a worker must join a union to work at a unionized site also varies tremendously according to type of union and state laws.

Right-to-work laws are at the state, not the federal level.

A requirement that a union be joined before one can be hire is called a closed shop and is now illegal in the U.S.

But apparently, in both cases, you can’t choose your union. In the first case, it depends on your job, and in the second one, there’s only one anyway.

My question was rather about competing unions, as in : there are several unions in the same company and the worker choose one on the basis of the union’s goals and policies, efficiency, actions, political leanings, etc…

Aren’t these two statements contradictory? :confused:

Generally, you can’t choose your union, because there is only one for your company or occupation. Right-to-work laws mean you can’t be forced to join a union after you are hired. Closed shop laws mean you can’t get hired at all if you aren’t a union member already.

In my field, for example, I am a member of three unions. YCEA is my local educator’s union. It, in turn, is part of CTA, the state union, which is affiliated with the NEA nationally. I pay dues to all three organizations (with gritted teeth.)

In colleges, there can be a CSEA for the classified employees and any of the following for faculty (which includes librarians, counselors, coaches, lab supervisors and sometimes others): AFT, CTA, CWA, or Independent.

Some campuses have part time faculty in an AFT unit and full timers in a CTA unit.

For the most part, you wouldn’t have an option on which union to join if there was more than one union operating within your company.

For example, there are a number of unions at Disney World in Orlando. But if you get hired as a maintenance person, there is only one union that represents people in your line of work. In airlines, pilots will often have one union, attendants another, while there may be a third union that represents the ticket takers and baggage handlers.

Unions negotiate collective bargaining agreements to set work hours, wages, conditions of employment/termination, etc. for all their members, and often for anyone performing that work for an employer REGARDLESS of the membership in the union. My own union (IATSE) local does that here in Vegas.

The difference between a union shop and a closed shop is the point when you join the union. In the case of a union shop, you join the union after you’re employed with the company. Some unions have what they call “fair share”, which means that you still pay something toward the union, even though you’re technically declining to join. A closed shop meant that you had to be a union member before you could get work. This led to catch-22 situations where you couldn’t get work because you weren’t a union member, but you couldn’t join the union because you weren’t employed. Closed shops were outlawed in 1947, as part of the Taft-Hartley Act because they were deemed unfair labor practices.


Ok, I got the difference between “right to work”, “union shop” and “closed shop”, I think.
Now, let’s assume I’m employed at Disney at the maintenance and I’m unsatisfied with the current union. I decide to create another one and ask other workers to join it. Is there any way to prevent me from doing so? Do right to work or union shop laws make a difference (in the latter case, we still belong to an union. Just not the previous one).

Generally, forming your own separate and competing union would be counter productive because you would no longer have the leverage to carry out effective bargaining.

However, unions do compete against each other (in the shrinking U.S. labor market) and the local at a particular company may ask that their current union be decertified for that shop while petitioning to join a different large union.

I have never seen or heard of an instance of multiple unions attempting to represent the same group of employees. This would effectively eliminate the power of collective bargaining, if the employer is negotiating with two separate but overlapping uinons.

There have been cases (rarely) where the employees at a certain company have been dissatisfied with their union and have voted to “decertify” the union and elected to be represented by another union.

There may also be cases where a specific sub-group of employees has chosen to leave one union and join another. As a hypothetical example, suppose that all workers in an automobile factory are represented by the United Auto Workers Union (UAW), but the cafeteria workers in the plant feel that they can be better represented by the Amalgamated Food Service Employees Union (I just made this one up, so don’t tell me I picked the wrong union).

Well, it probably wouldn’t since it’s the norm here (There are 6 unions in my company, only one representing a particular category : managers. And many unionized managers belong to other unions, anyway) and they somehow still manage to negociate and bargain.
At first glance, the idea of having only one union (let alone an union you’re obligated to join) seems very undemocratic to me. A little like a one party “republic”. So, how democratic are these unions internally , and what could workers do in practice when they’re in disagreement with the stance of their union but still in the minority? Say, the union is negociating for a pay raise while we want more vacation time instead, to take a caricatural example.

That’s indeed a possible solution. But not really, once gain, if you’re in the minority.

tomndebb and FatBaldGuy are correct in their analysis. But legally, no, nothing can be done to prevent anyone from trying to organize a labor union.

A union is only as democratic as it’s members. In the situation you describe, I presume you mean that the local chapter of the union which you belong to is negotiating. In that case, why would a Business Representative be negotiating for something that the people who elected him don’t want? If the minority don’t want it, well, you would need to talk to the BR. If he still negotiates for a point you don’t want, you usually have a chance to discuss the particular contract addendum before a vote by the General Membership to ratify the contract. If the contract is ratified with the offending clause, your recourse is generally to quit the union or suck it up and live with it. Usually, living with it is what’s going to happen because the good points in the contract will outweigh the few, if any, bad points (in my own experience).

IANAL but I am a proud union member for almost 10 years now.

My CTA Executive Board sends out communications regularly to full members regarding negotiations, what’s on the table, what the members desire, etc. We take the replies very seriously, and we’re fortunate to have a very large membership (over 90% of the faculty are full members), lots of active people, plenty of people on both the rep. council and exec. board, delegates for conferences, committee members volunteering to handle grievances and so forth. Members are constantly encouraged to call or email regarding any questions or concerns they have.
Not that we don’t have problems, but we had no trouble ratifying our latest contract. I’m very lucky to be in this situation; I left behind a deteriorating campus last year, with administration and faculty and classified fighting tooth and nail over everything, with impasses, mediators, unfair practices filings, non-ratifications, bad faith and plenty of bad feelings all around.

*Point of clarification: “Full members” are people who actually filled out a membership application. They have voting rights, can serve as officers, and receive a lot more mailings. As MsRobyn mentioned, those who are unit members pay an agency (fair share) fee but are not full members, although they are still covered under the contract. There may or may not be a difference in the amount of dues paid; it depends on the campus or other workplace.

Those teaching on multiple campuses pay dues at each one, although they should not have to pay the national dues more than once if the campuses in question have the same type of union. Local dues are another matter.

Here’s the deal. There are really two issues:

  1. What is the bargaining unit represented. A union is recognized as a representative for a bargaining unit. Different bargaining units can be represented by different unions, even though they work for he same employer.
  2. Once the bargaining unit is determined, if a union is recognized, its representation of the unit is exclusive:

That means that no employee can choose between two unions, but different unions might represent the employees of a given employer. Does that make sense?

“Fair Share” members are generally covered under the collective bargaining agreement (which, IIRC, is why you still have to pay even if you decline to join the union; the money goes for the expense of negotiating the new contract), but are not entitled to other union benefits, like representation at disciplinary proceedings, etc.

If you are a full union member, you do get those benefits. I’ve been a union member exactly once, and I don’t think the dues were vastly higher than “fair share”. I got spiffy discounts and I did need representation for a disciplinary issue.


clairobscur, this is one of the differences between labour law in North America and in Europe. The U.S. Wagner Act (which was the inspiration for most of the labour relations laws in Canada as well) relied on the concept of a bargaining unit. A union that wants to organise a group of employees at an employer signs them up, and then applies to a government board (at the federal level in the U.S., the National Labour Relations Board, if I remember correctly) to have the work unit of the employer certified as a bargaining agent. The employer has a right to make representations about the appropriate bargaining agent.

The idea was that certification of a bargaining unit would increase the rationality of the union system, by putting all the employees who are doing similar jobs in the same bargaining unit within the employer. So for example, if an airline is unionised, all the pilots for that airline will likely be in the same bargaining unit. For a smaller employer, that means that there may only be one or two bargaining units; for a large, national employer it may mean that there are a variety of bargaining units.

Normally, if the Board certifies the bargaining unit as proposed by a union, the Board also certifies that union as the bargaining agent for that bargaining unit, but that recognition is not in perpetuity. The labour relations laws normally recognise an open season (usually every three years or so), in which another union can apply to be recognised as the bargaining agent for a particular bargaining unit, if it can show that it has majority support among the employees. Alternatively, if the employees are dissatisfied with their union, they can apply to the board to have their union decertified, without necessarily proposing a new union to represent them - i.e. - they can vote to de-unionise.

There are also laws regulating the relationship between the union and its members - one of the most important is the duty of fair representation. If an employee believes he/she has a grievance against the employer (unfair allocation of overtime, etc.) under the collective agreement, the union has a duty to represent that employee by raising the issue with the employer under the dispute resolution mechanism of the collective agreement. Since the union has been certified as the bargaining agent for all the employees in the bargaining unit, it has a corresponding legal duty to represent them all fairly in matters within the scope of the collective agreement.

Lots of qualifications on this sketch - it’s been several years since I studied the issue, and am certainly open to correction if I’ve got anything wrong.

Even as an agency fee payer, you’re still entitled to everything that’s in the contract. You can’t run for union positions, and you can’t vote, because those are things not covered by the contract but by the union bylaws/ Heck, I’m speaking about the UAW; it’s not impossible that agency payers be prohibited from voting, but I don’t see it happening.

The agency fee is supposedly for paying for your collective bargaining. You can legally ask to see the records if you believe that that may not be the case. Google the Beck decision, and you should be able to learn all you want about agency fees.

Decertification can only occur after one year of bargaining without an initial contract, or at contract expiration. De-authorization can occur at any time (this means you vote not to have to pay dues at all).

Not legal advice – just stuff I’ve learned trying to deal with our current union invasion/freedom (pick your own perspective; this is GQ).

Here is more than you ever wanted to know about union recognition and withdrawal of recognition.

The way I understand it, after 3 years of working with an American company that had unionized and non-unionized factories:

In a unionized factory, the union is only one but it doesn’t cover every employee. It works as a subcontractor would in Europe. They can change who you get from one day to the next, without any warning. Of course, this means that management are reluctant to train union workers, give them access to confidential data, etc. Non-union workers are referred to as “salaried” (even though some of them may be paid by the hour), and they actually belong to the company.

I realize this doesn’t cover all the details, but it sure does a lot to explain why Americans freak out so much when they come to visit a EU factory and get introduced to the “comité de empresa”, aka “union representatives” or “workers representatives”. Spanish “sindicatos” and American “unions” are more in different planets than in different countries.

The “closed shop” may be illegal in the U.S. (I’ll accept that for the moment since I have no contradicting evidence), but they can still accomplish basically the same thing. The first college I taught for provided me with union membership paperwork along with all of my other “first day of work” paperwork. I chose not to join.

My first paycheck still had a deduction entitled “union dues.” I went to complain and was informed that being a member was optional. Paying the dues wasn’t. The union agreement with the college said that the union could collect dues from all teachers.

Up until then, I thought only governments could take my money without my permission.