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Americans have always joined together—whether in parent teacher associations or local community organizations—to solve problems and make changes that improve their lives and their communities. Through unions, people join together to strive for improvements at the place where they spend a large portion of their waking hours: work.

The freedom of workers to join together in unions and negotiate with employers (in a process known as collective bargaining) is widely recognized as a fundamental human right across the globe. In the United States, this right is protected by the U.S. Constitution and U.S. law and is supported by a majority of Americans.

Over 16 million working women and men in the United States are exercising this right—these 16 million workers are represented by unions. Overall, more than one in nine U.S. workers are represented by unions. This representation makes organized labour one of the largest institutions in America.

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By providing data on union coverage, activities, and impacts, this report helps explain how unions fit into the economy today; how they affect workers, communities, occupations and industries, and the country at large; and why collective bargaining is essential for a fair and prosperous economy and a vibrant democracy. It also describes how decades of anti-union campaigns and policies have made it much harder for working people to use their collective voice to sustain their standard of living.

‘Collective bargaining’ is how working people gain a voice at work and the power to shape their working lives

Almost everyone has at one point felt unheard or powerless as an employee. Joining a union simply means that you and your colleagues have a say because you negotiate important elements of employment conditions together. That could mean securing wage increases, better access to health care, workplace safety enhancements, and more reasonable and predictable hours. Through collective bargaining negotiations, the union also works with management to develop a process for settling disputes that employees and their managers are unable to settle individually.

Once a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is agreed to, union representatives work with employees and with management to make sure the rights and obligations spelled out in the agreement are honored. And they represent workers in high-stakes situations, such as when a safety violation has resulted in injury. By these means, collective bargaining gives workers a say in the terms of their employment, the security of knowing that there are specific processes for handling work-related grievances, and a path to solving problems.

Union workers are diverse

The typical union member is often thought to be a worker on a manufacturing line in the Midwest. Manufacturing has a strong union tradition but people join unions in many industries and occupations. Union members include dental hygienists in Wisconsin, graduate students in Massachusetts, firefighters in Illinois, television writers and scientists in California, security guards in Washington, D.C., digital journalists in New York, and major league baseball players in Georgia and other states.

Unions raise wages for both union and nonunion workers

For typical workers, hourly pay growth has been sluggish for decades, rising 0.3 percent per year or 9.9 percent in all from 1979 to 2015. If pay had risen with productivity during that period, as it did in the decades before 1979, pay would have gone up 63.8 percent. But pay for typical workers is not rising at this clip because ever-larger shares of economic growth are going to the highest wage earners. Income growth for the highest 1 percent of wage earners rose by nearly 190 percent between 1979 and 2015, meaning that the highest-earning 1 percent have claimed a radically disproportionate share of income growth.

Working people in unions use their power in numbers to secure a fairer share of the income they create. Employers who have to bargain with workers collectively cannot pursue a strategy of “divide and conquer” among their workers. Workers who are empowered by forming a union raise wages for union and nonunion workers alike. As an economic sector becomes more unionized, nonunion employers pay more to retain qualified workers and norms of higher pay and better conditions become standard. For example, if a union hospital is across town from a nonunion hospital and the two hospitals are competing for workers, then the nonunion workers will benefit from the presence of the union hospital. By joining together, working people can transform not just their workplaces but sectors and communities.

Economic Policy Institute

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