APU Business Careers Careers & Learning Original

The Dynamics of Union and Employer Relations in the US (Part I)

By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

(Note: This article contains content adapted from lesson material written for APUS classes.)

This is the first article in a 10-part series on union and employer relations in the United States.

All unions appear to have the same ultimate purpose – to promote the interests of the workers they represent and to support the employees that make up the union’s membership. But how they perform these functions varies by nature of the underlying philosophy concerning their existence.

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Unions in our society operate on a model known as corporatism, in which relations between employer and employee are a product of influences from employers, unions, and the government (through regulation). The differences in fundamental union philosophies – or motivations – have been loosely defined into four categories:

  1. Uplift. Unions with an “uplift” mentality are sincerely interested in bettering social conditions such as education and economic status for the workers they represent.
  2. Revolutionary. Unions with a “revolutionary” aim are directly at odds with capitalism. They seek to shift control of the employment environment from employers to employees.
  3. Business. Unions with a “business” mindset are not geared toward disrupting the status quo. They accept the realities of employer control, but focus on fighting for factors of immediate employee interest such as wages, benefits, hours and working conditions.
  4. Predation. “Predatory” unions seek to advance their own agendas regardless of whether those agendas actually provide any material benefits for their members. The human propensity for greed has led to such corrupt unions.

Generally, union representation consists of different tiers of oversight with “locals” overseeing either a single employer or perhaps a group of employer locations, while the national-level union management pursues macro-level political and economic union goals. National unions are typically either craft-based representing employees in a specific tradecraft from a variety of different sectors and employers (e.g., steel workers) or industry-based unions that look after a specific industry and its workers (e.g., auto workers).

Most Unions Operate in a Loosely Democratic Way with Members Electing Local Representation

Most unions operate in a loosely democratic way with local representation elected by members and national-level representation nominated by local elected representatives. A union’s constitution – the document containing the union’s philosophy and guiding principles – and its bargaining contracts with employers will ultimately inform how that union will operate and how it will be structured to support its members.

Employees Can Generally Be Loyal to Both Their Employers and to Their Union

Data from monitored programs such as the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) reflect some trends in union-member participation. To start, data generally show that employees can simultaneously be loyal to both their employers and the unions that operate within those employment environments.

However, there are many factors that ultimately determine how loyal employees will tend to be to one side versus the other in any given situation. For example, if an employee had a strong, positive relationship with an employer before the union came along, then all things being equal that employee might favor the employer.

Also, the alignment of union goals and employer goals might affect employee loyalty. If an employee’s own interests and opinions align more closely with one side than the other, that employee’s loyalty may be accordingly imbalanced.

Statistics show that minorities and females generally embrace union membership at a more or less similar rate to non-minorities and males. However, data also shows that the number of females represented in union leadership is small.

This can be a significant challenge for unions trying to win the requisite level of support for elections. Consequently, just like their employer counterparts, unions can benefit from an affirmative action policy for the appointment of union representatives and leaders.

In new union campaigns, a variety of factors contribute to the ultimate success or failure of the efforts. Such campaigns might be inspired by employees within their employment or through solicitation by an outside union. The typical union campaigning process will involve attempts from both the union and the employer to reach out to employees and share the arguments for and against unionization.

Both sides will do this aggressively. But unions have the greatest likelihood of success when they have employees in the organization who enjoy a high level of respect from their coworkers and who are passionately in favor of the union.

However, employers have a distinct and substantial advantage in this process because they might require their employees to attend meetings to discuss opinions on the union effort. Provided that employees are compensated for their time to attend such mandatory meetings, employers can do this without any restrictions. They will typically hold several such meetings prior to a union election to try to heavily influence the voting employees.

Unions, on the other hand, lack the control to organize such gatherings. If they wish to host mass meetings, they must always be voluntary and on the employees’ personal time. Unsurprisingly, attendance at union campaign meetings is typically lower.

Aside from employer-versus-union tactics, the qualities and characteristics of union leaders can have a tremendous impact on support. Data shows that participation in activities such as membership meetings and voting in elections can be heavily influenced by the efficacy of the union leaders and their supporters.

In the next part of this series, we’ll look at the way trends in employee attitudes can be catalysts for union efforts.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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