The history of labor unions has been a rollercoaster of alternating growth and decline. Commencing with reactions to the pre-union "Dark Ages" of Industrialization, unionization has enjoyed periods of enormous growth and suffered periods of devastating counteractions, marked by notable movements, strikes, and legislation. Currently undergoing a period of weakened influence, unions are now forced to face the challenges of a global economy, retaining current strengths and regaining vitality by addressing competing non-union and foreign influences in order to provide them with future success.
The basic point of a union is to ensure fair treatment for its members when it comes to their workplace conditions (Bell, 1999; Cook, 1992). Even though that is one of their more noble goals, unions have been literally plagued with all types of problems during their history, since not every person agrees with how they help members or what kinds of agendas they have. Some allegations that have been made against unions in the past involve backroom deals and coercion (Jacobs, 2006; Lichtenstein, 2002). Union members have, allegedly, threatened employers as well as non-union workers, because the union wanted things done a particular way. People who failed to do things the way the union wanted could find themselves in serious trouble. There are even rumors of connections to the mafia with unions throughout the United States, and difficult times were in store for people who decided to stand up to the unions and go against what those unions wanted (Bell, 1999; Jacobs, 2006; Zieger, 1994).
Fortunately for union and non-union individuals alike, those kinds of concerns - if they were ever legitimate concerns at all - are in the past. There are new challenges being faced by unions today, and these include the fact that unions are slowly disappearing (Sherk & Kersey, 2007). Even though some studies and other informational sources show that union membership has been climbing in some recent years, unions overall appear to be on the decline (Greenhouse, 2009). The question becomes whether unions are not relevant to society in this day and age, or whether the generations of people in the workforce today really do not understand how valuable unions are and the kinds of things unions provide. Since that question has value and importance, it will be the main, overarching question answered here. In addition, there are several compelling issues that have to be addressed, because unions have been through many changes and will likely go through many more in the future.
The one issue that is certain is that there are changes being seen where unions are concerned. Unions do not do things quite the same way they used to, and because of that the protections that they are offered are also not quite the same as they were in the past (Dine, 2007; Kearney, 2001). That is a very important concern for anyone who is part of a union or who is considering becoming part of a union. Unions were often joined in the past because people wanted protection. They were worried about labor practices that were unfair or even dangerous and illegal, and they felt that paying the dues for a union was well worth the protection they would be receiving for that money (Baldwin, 1983; Chan, 2011). Their wages and their jobs would be safe, and that level of security was a great reason to join a union.
It was worth the "price of admission" in the form of the union's dues. In the present day, union dues are still paid, but fewer people are agreeing with the agendas that are being created by some of these unions. People who do not agree with union agendas sometimes leave those unions, but they do not always have the choice. If the company is union, leaving the union may require leaving the company (Baldwin, 1983; Sherk & Kersey, 2007). Not everyone agrees with that, either, because it seems unfair to anyone who wants to be part of a particular company that he or she must also belong to a union.
Union Membership and Support: Changes Coming
When people choose to join reasons, they should do so for good reasons, about which they can feel good. When they are not proud to belong to a union, or to that specific union, they may want to reconsider whether they would prefer to join a different union. They may even want to avoid joining any union at all. It is not always a good idea to belong to something just to belong, and that sense of belonging that comes with union membership can quickly be damaged by finding that one does not like the people who belong to that union or the principles for which that union stands. Instead of joining a union that is not enjoyable or valuable to them, these people would be better off focusing their interest and energy on something else about which they can feel good.
People who support the unions to which they belong are highly focused on those unions, and they work to pay proper dues on time and try to bring new members into the union (Dubofsky, 1993; Kimeldorf, 1999; Tillman & Cummings, 1999). Union members like that are part of a company, but they also belong to other organizations and to the community at large. When they remember what unions can do for them and why they are a part of their selected union, they can spread that union's message and also help to continue the value of the union. Unions do need help from their members, because it is those members who spread the word as to what the union has done for them and what else it can do in the future. In order to preserve the future of the union, the people who work for that union must be aware of the value of what they are getting for the dues they pay.
Traditionally, employers and unions have not gotten along well with one another (Tillman & Cummings, 1999; Zieger, 1994). Often, that is due to the fact that they have been getting into disagreements with one another about issues like vacation time and fair wages for years. Employees need perks, and they should certainly get fair wages for the work they perform. There are some employers and unions that get along just fine, but that is not as common as employers and unions being at odds with one another. That has happened so much that the problem is considered by many to be very common (Bell, 1999; Kimeldorf, 1999). Unfortunately, people seem to make the automatic assumption that unions and employers do not get along, and will not get along in the future. That assumption is not going to go away, even though the power of unions seems to be waning and employers are wielding more power over unions than they were able to do in the past.
Additionally, some employees are failing to see the value of unions, and that is stopping the unions from having bargaining power and leverage against the employers (International, 2005; Lichtenstein, 2002; Sherk & Kersey, 2007). At one point in time, though, unions were quite big in many communities around the country (Filippelli, 1984; Haskins, 1976). People talked about these unions, and they also supported them strongly. Union areas or union towns throughout the country were referred to that way because the majority of the people in those places were deeply committed to the union - whether they were members or not (Bell, 1999; Cook, 1992; Zieger, 1994). Now things are quite different, and there are fewer unions. Asking people to name a union to which they belong or with which they are familiar meets with a large number of blank looks, because there are so few people who are active in unions or who live in towns or areas where unions are active. The community support for unions has waned right along with the individual support, and most communities do not support unions or even acknowledge them anymore.
It almost seems as though unions are becoming underground movements today, and in some areas their disapproval rating is rising. Some unions, therefore, just do not make much of an appearance in their communities today. Still, for communities where unions are popular, there are many benefits. When communities remember that, they can work with unions and see a high number of benefits to having a good relationship. Working together means unions and communities get things they would not be able to get when they work alone. The events in the community can be made more significant, and many unions donate talent and time to the community for events that are happening within that community at some point in time. Unions did more for their communities in the past than they do right now, but much of that had to do with how much unions were welcomed during that time…