What is a union, you ask? The answer is as varied as the needs of each different union, with chapters spread across the United States and reaching into nearly every field of study. Unions were initially formed to protect the rights of employees, and to advance their interests in the workplace. This is not all that unions accomplish, however. Union lobbying was instrumental in creating the Department of Labor itself, an entity which sets regulations for workplace environment and living wage in different states and enables employees who have felt wronged to have an organization to back them up; recourse if their employer is not following the rules.

Over the years, unions have been instrumental in fomenting worker strikes, allowing low-pay workers to organize and make their voice heard, and even increasing diversity in the workplace over time, but what are modern unions for, and what are your rights if you are represented by a union?

Firstly, this entirely depends on the State and the field you are in. For example, in New York State, there are unions for the construction industry, which seek, among other things, to increase transportation funding and voice their support for “prevailing wage enforcement.” There are also unions for teachers in New York State, which are self-proclaimed collections of teachers, bus drivers, and school staff which seek to “improve the quality of education and healthcare for the people of New York.” There are even unions for law enforcement officers, which seek to protect the rights of police officers. Some of these local unions have come under fire recently for being “more interested in protecting their members than the public” in situations where a police officer acts outside of their duty or is involved in a fatal encounter. It is important to know what a union should—and should not—do.

Under each of these separate unions, your rights and privileges will be different based upon your geographic location and the nuances of your field. You may not like everything your union does, though. For example, in New York, some unions, including teachers’ unions, will directly negotiate form employment contracts with a school or municipality, which some have argued raises questions of a lack of public input or consent in waiving rights to certain benefits. Unions have power to change the standard of employment in a region and a specific field. There are an immeasurable number of opinions on where the line limiting that power should be drawn. However, it is undeniable that all unions, however different their strategies, goals, or alleged overreaches, do have some across-the-board benefits.

What exactly are those benefits though? The U. S. Department of Labor has released various informational pieces on this question, and legislation exists to, in many ways, organize the organizers, to protect the employees from their protectors. Quite simply, it comes down to two elements: What are the rights of all union members, and what are the responsibilities of all union officers? There are limits set regardless of field, location, or size of the employer.

Initially, union members have the right, among other things, to participate in union activities, to have freedom of speech and assembly, a voice in setting the union dues, and protection of the right to sue, which cannot be impinged upon by the union. Union members also have the right to transparency, meaning they are entitled to access to any and all collective bargaining agreements, by-laws, and annual financial reports. Union members also have the right to a reasonable process for removing an officer who might be guilty of serious misconduct. Lastly, union officials cannot interfere with a union members rights under the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (“LMRDA”), which was enacted into law to enable employees to keep their alleged protectors accountable if they do not live up to the standards of a union. This law, for one thing, disables a union from acting in such a way that disrupts the market in a material way or actually succeeds in lowering wages—instead of arguing for decent wages. The LMRDA is also the basis for the general rights expressed above, and the responsibilities of union officers, as explained below.

So, what are the responsibilities of a union officer? What responsibility do they have to you as a member? At a baseline level, officers are required to use union funds solely for the purpose of the union, which exists to benefit the workers in that particular field. If a union officer is using the union for their own benefit, they can be subject to punishment, even imprisonment. For this reason, union officers are required to be bonded as well. Also, just as union members are entitled to annual financial reports, the officers are required to file them with the Office of Labor Management Standards (“OLMS”) to provide access to the members, as well as direct governmental accountability. These reports must include any and all loans, benefits, or financial interests in any form that come directly from employers whose employees the union represents, in order to prevent employers from essentially bribing the union to work for the employer as opposed to the employee. There are also lengthy rules about elections, who is qualified to act as a union officer, and limitations on loans to officers.

These are general benefits. For more information about what your particular union is all about, look up their local chapter, read their website, or talk to someone at the union headquarters. These baseline benefits will not differ, but you may be entitled to various other benefits depending on the by-laws of the specific union of which you are a member. For more information about the union’s responsibilities to you, or how to pursue recourse if your employer—or your union—are not treating you lawfully, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) and the Department of Labor (“DOL”) may have resources to help guide you in where to look, what forms to file, or who to talk to about your issue.

Unions are a powerful tool that can enable you to have a voice, but they are also limited. It is important to know what your rights are in any situation, especially with something as powerful as a union.

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