A trade union is an organisation created to improve conditions in the workplace. Whether the issue is wages, sick time, or medical benefits, trade unions negotiate with employers on behalf of union members. When employees and employers are unable to reach an agreement, trade union leadership works with employers to negotiate a compromise. Regardless of the outcome, all members of the trade union must follow the agreed upon solution.
The first recognised trade union in the United States was the National Labor Union. Created in 1866, the National Labor Union included a wide selection of workers, but it disbanded after no significant accomplishments. In the 1860s, the Knights of Trade union fought against hard labour for children and for a shortened workday. Since their inception, trade unions have banded together workers from many industries to improve working conditions.
Trade unions work to improve the work environment and salaries of union members. The leaders of the trade union negotiate with employers on behalf of the entire union for wage increases, more vacation time, better working hours and benefits. Any decisions agreed upon by the union leadership and employers are binding on all union members. However, trade unions meet regularly to discuss complaints and concerns, as well as to vote on these decisions prior to negotiations. If negotiations stall, many trade unions reserve the right to strike.
Trade unions usually include workers from a particular industry, such as steel workers, or a particular agency such as state or local government. In addition, many trade unions have minimum requirements all members must meet before official membership is extended. For example, many trade unions require members to have licensure or certification to gain membership, whereas others require members to pay dues. Trade unions include both blue-collar workers as well as business professionals. Because trade unions are so diverse in membership and industry, the features and qualifications vary greatly.
From the earliest days, trade unions have helped workers unite to improve wages and working conditions. By negotiating for a shorter work week and improving the work environment, trade unions have helped improve the health of many factory workers. On the other side, trade unions have also affected employment rates in many industries. The cost of doing business with unions has often been cited as one reason for outsourcing jobs to other countries. Trade union partnerships become costly for corporations, and outsourcing provides cheaper labour and therefore, higher profits.
In addition to working together to improve working conditions, wages, and salaries, trade unions often engage in political activism. When legislation is debated, trade unions send representatives to try and influence an outcome favourable to them. Additionally, trade unions work on behalf of political candidates they view as sympathetic to their causes and interests. Although the ultimate goal of trade unions is to provide members with the best possible working conditions and wages, this goal includes political activity as well.