Union 101: What is a union?


What is a union? Is it an insurance policy — pay your dues and hope you’ll never need it (but be mighty glad to have it if you ever face employer discipline)? Is it a fraternal order, fostering community feeling among those who share an employer or a trade? Is it a lobby fund, promoting an agenda for legislators and executives to enact? Is it a battallion of workers in a historic movement for justice, forced to contend generation after generation with powerful adversaries? Maybe a union is all those things and more.

At its most basic, a union is just a group of workers that takes action together to promote their common interests. Unions can be as small as a group of workers at a used clothing store across from Powell’s in downtown Portland, or as big as a 383,000 member national union with an $825 million strike fund. If a group of taxi drivers in New York City — or farmworkers on tulip farms in Whatcom County, Washington — call themselves a union, who’s to say they’re not? A union is as a union does. There’s no monopoly on the concept. Whether the law will recognize it and protect it is a completely separate question.

Though a union can be as simple as a group of workers who declare themselves as such, most unions we think of as unions today are creatures of the law, with a formal legal existence, postal addresses, and bank accounts. Under the law, America’s unions are organized as 501(c)5 non-profit corporations. That’s the section of the tax code for “mutual benefit” non-profits. It means they’re exempt from corporate income tax, and they operate for the mutual benefit of their members.

It’s worth remembering that rights don’t come from the law, they come from the people. At least that’s the political theory expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Working people have the right to associate, to assemble, to form groups of their choosing, to act together to promote their interests, and even to strike — not because a law gives them that right, but because human rights are their birthright as human beings. The law can recognize and protect those rights, or it can restrict and trample them, but the rights themselves are eternal.

So, what is a union? That’s something every generation of union members will get to decide.



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