Educating Union Members on Unions Relevant in the Workforce

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Despite the allegations that trade unions are gradually facing extinction in most countries, it is imperative to acknowledge that unions play a significant role in representing workers. Education on the relevance of trade unions dates back to the 19th century. The United States and the United Kingdom witnessed organized forms of labor or worker education long before Brookwood and other early labor colleges. Nevertheless, in the past, the majority of trainers, students, and researchers hardly recognized these forms of union-based education (Greene & Kirton, 2002). However, Greene and Kirton (2002) allege that people have gradually come to understand the importance of educating union members on the relevance of unions at workplaces. Today, literature on union education is not new to many scholars or employees (Greene & Kirton, 2002).

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To meet the demands of organizing and building trade unions in the United States and globally, primarily, we must ask what trade unions can offer employees that they will find appealing, and apply that to educate them on the relevance of the union in the work place. Considering that public sector unions cannot bargain wages, we must then ask the question: What do Public Sector employees want from their union? Do employees from private and public sector still want to be represented? Are there other reasons why the number of participants in trade unions in the United States and globally has declined? How exactly do employees benefit from the trade unions? Many will say that trade unions accord them a greater voice collectively as it relates to organizational decisions concerning workers and their interests as it relates to on the job satisfaction. Simply put, if an employee is satisfied on the job due to amenities and benefits bargained for by the union, the union can seize the momentum of its accomplishments and use it as an organizing tool. This paper will analyze the existing literature review that addresses on the relevance of trade unions and how trade unions educate their members on the importance of trade unions. Besides, the paper will conduct a qualitative study to determine how trade unions educate their members on the importance of trade unions.

Literature Review

Hyman posits, “Trade unions are democratic organizations, which are accountable to their members for policies and actions. …they are run by members, for members” (2001, p. 73). Union members are responsible for making decisions on matter affecting the union. They vote democratically and decisions are made on consensus basis. Despite this, many employees still do not understand about the importance of trade unions. Some fear that joining a trade union would land them in troubles with their employers (Hyman, 2001). They do not know that numerous countries have constitutional clauses that legalize the establishment of trade unions. Moreover, majority of the employees do not understand that joining a trade union has fiscal benefit and guarantees them of their job security. Trade unions use a number of ways to help union members to understand the importance of joining the union. Currently, many scholars discuss the importance of trade unions to employees. Moreover, they analyze how union members learn about the importance of the unions. This paper will critically analyze some of the existing literatures that discuss how trade unions educate their members. The paper will further review other literatures that discuss how trade union helps its members to curb inequality problems at workplaces.

One of the ways of educating union members on the relevance of unions in the workforce is through labor education. According to Hyman (2001), labor education offers a good way for unionists to educate union members on the relevance of trade unions in organizations. By labor education, Hayman refers to the education that trade unions extend to their members union skills classes organized at the National Labor College. The extent to which unions offer this education either directly or through agencies varies from one state to another and from one union to another (Greene & Kirton, 2002). The main objective of education is to train and prepare union members to assume active responsibilities in the union. In the process, they understand their role in making sure that these responsibilities are observed, hence they appreciate the importance of a union.

Another objective of labor education is informing the members about the union’s policies, existing and upcoming labor laws, and developments in the union environment. Hyman (2001) posited, “A majority of the union members learn about the union while on the job (often referred to as incidental learning)” (p.19). Members acquire skills when addressing employees’ grievances, during negotiations, or when solving disputes within the organization, which acts as another method of educating union members on the relevance of the union. It equips them with first-hand experience in dealing with employee disputes. Incidental learning is one of the best modes of educating union members on the relevance of the union in workplaces. While working on various challenges that affect the employees and the organization, members learn how their role contributes to the growth and sustenance of the organization. They assist in averting any possible stalemate within the organization by solving disputes between organizations and workers.

Even though few union members go through labor education every year, the education ends up serving a huge number of members. Participants share the knowledge they acquire with other members. The best way to learn about the relevance of trade unions is through partaking in their activities. Union members participate in a number of activities such as solving employee disputes and negotiating for working conditions. This gives them an opportunity to figure out how the working environment would be without the help of trade unions. Consequently, they gain firsthand experience of the importance of trade unions in organizations. Most courses in the labor education are either tool or issue courses. Tool courses equip the union members with skills on shop stewardship, dispute handling, as well as how to observe safety and health within an organization (Munro & Rainbird, 2003). On the other hand, issue courses address matters that deal with racism, sexual harassment, and management policies (Munro & Rainbird, 2003). Moreover, a third group of courses deals with labor studies, which address issues like politics, economics, and labor history. Each of these courses helps union members to acquire skills in dealing with organizational challenges, thus, making them appreciate the importance of trade union.

The success of an organization lies in the ability of union members to address workers’ complaints, organize different activities within the organization, and lead other employees in execution of the daily activities within the organization. Work by Clawson and Clawson (1999) found that upon taking union members through tool courses, the members understand that without trade unions, an organization cannot make significant growth. Union members barely assume all the crucial roles that enable organizational growth. A study by Fantsia and Voss (2004) confirmed that the majority of union members who experience labor education agree that their job security is guaranteed through the assistance of trade unions. During the training, unions educate members on dispute resolution mechanisms coupled with equipping them with bargaining power. Trade unions always insist on collective bargaining, which allows union members to develop the perception that through unions, they have the power to compel their employers to enhance their working conditions, hence enhancing job satisfaction.

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Trade unions, in collaboration with the government fight for increment of employee salary and wages and compel organizations to establish good employment conditions. In institutions, which do not have a trade unions, employees do not enjoy privileges like paid holidays, maternity leave, weekends, paid sick leaves, among others. All the money used to cater for this benefits go into employers’ pockets. Conversely, trade unions fights for these rights, thus making enhancing employee satisfaction. Moreover, they educate union members on their rights, therefore shielding them from exploitation by their employers.

Issue courses highlight matters that affect the relationship between employees and employers and employees and their colleagues within an organization. The courses address issues like racism, technological changes, sexual harassment, and apprenticeship development policy, among others. According to Clawson and Clawson (1999), sexual harassment and racism are among the factors that affect employee performance. In most cases, employers and senior staff discriminate against employees based on their races. In other instances, male employees sexually harass their female counterparts. It becomes hard for the affected employees to give their best in the organizations (Clawson & Clawson, 1999). Educating union members about these challenges and their role in making sure that the challenges do not affect organizational performance allows them to appreciate the presence of trade unions in organizations. The majority of the union members think that unions exist solely to bargain for their employment conditions and salaries. They are not aware that unions also assist in nurturing good relationships amongst workers, coupled with promoting equality at workplaces (Mosher, 2006).

Trade unions unite all employees regardless of their position in the organization through negotiating for their interests (Clawson & Clawson, 1999). They treat all the employees equally, which leads to unity between the employees. Clawson and Clawson (1999) allege that one of the factors that frustrate employees’ intention to fight for their interests is lack of unity. Employees are normally divided based on their employment positions, an issue that makes them have weak bargaining power. Trade unions educate the employees on the importance of working together as a team, therefore, bridging the lift between senior and junior employees. This leads to senior employees changing their perception towards the junior employees. Instead of seeing them as their servants, the senior employees start seeing their juniors as associates and they work together to accomplish mutual goals. Educating workers on their duties helps them to acquire a broader perspective of the trade union (Mosher, 2006).

In places like North America and Australia, trade unions organize for training and vocational education. The main reason they organize for training is that it is critical to the restructuring of work. Besides, it has a significant impact on lives of the workforce. Munro and Rainbird (2003) posited that workplace education is currently entrenched in a number of initiatives and slogans that focus on the need to establish a knowledge-based working environment. In the past, many employees believed that the inability to attain a knowledge-based working environment lay in the workplace or the organization. Nevertheless, scholars like Hyman (2001) have proved that workers are the main problem. With this knowledge, trade unions enlighten their members on the importance of amassing wide skills in different operations of an organization. This move underlines the critical role that trade unions play in equipping their members with skills, thus guaranteeing them job security in time of organizational changes.

Other scholarly literatures touch on the relevance of trade unions to union members. They demonstrate how trade unions help to curb inequality problems at workplaces. For many years, Canadian workers have enjoyed a superior collective bargaining relative to the American workers (Acemoglu, 2002). Besides, Canada has had good wage distribution across the different organizations relative to the United States (Osberg & Smeeding, 2006). The two observations have been due to the differences in unionization between the two countries. According to various studies carried out in the United States, unionization contributes to narrowing down the margin between wages. Consequently, the high level of unionization in Canada is responsible for the equal distribution of wages across the organizations. There are allegations that unions use their influence to champion for increment of wages of their members at the expense of the non-union members. In the process, they lead to wage inequality between union and non-union members. This is not usually the case. Unions use their wage policy to advocate for wage distribution for all employees regardless of whether they are union members or not. They establish standards to follow when setting salaries and wages within the organization. This helps to curb cases of wage or salary inequality within an organization, which may lead to employee disputes.

Even though the majority of the non-union members accuse trade unions of using their “insider influence” to propagate inequality within the organizations, empirical studies prove that unions use their collective bargaining to cut down on wage inequality (Osberg & Smeeding, 2006). Countries with strong collective bargaining enjoy high levels of wage compression. Trade unions use collective bargaining to fight for wage compression for both union and non-union members. This refutes the claim that a disparity in wages of the union and non-union members. Unions make sure that they compress the wages to reflect uniformity and bridge the gap between the employees working in the same departments. A recent study by Richard Freeman argues that trade unions, through their collective bargaining facilitate to enhance income distribution (Freeman, 2007). However, there are claims that unions propagate inequality at workplaces by championing for increment of wages of their members and calling for wage reduction of the non-union members. According to Bjorklund and Freeman (2008), union members promote inequality between workers in the same level at workplaces by increasing wages of the union members and cutting down on wages of the non-union members. Bjorklund and Freeman (2008) posit, “If the workers are not identical, but those organized in unions are more highly skilled, then unions contribute further to inequality by pushing up the skill premium relative to what it would be” (p. 23).

A classic study on the impacts of unionism refutes these allegations. The study shows that the impacts of unions are hypothetically ambiguous. In cases where unions were accused of increasing the wages of their members compared to that of the non-members, it was found that the unions took this step to curb an existing inequality. In unionized organizations, the distribution of income within the organizations was lower compared to that in the non-union organizations. In addition, the unions’ coordinated wage policies led to lower distribution across the organizations. Further, skill premium between white collar and blue-collar employees was lower in unionized organizations. According to Freeman (2007), “because the union wage premium benefited blue-collar workers more than others, the monopoly effect operated in the opposite direction from the one hypothesized: it reduced inequality rather than increase it” (p. 32).

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Munro and Rainbird (2003) claim that, apart from fighting for equality at workplaces, trade unions use their influence to “negotiate favorable deals with diverse campaigns and services such as insurance, travel firms and retail discounts” (p. 224). They ensure that organizations establish stable working environment for both union and non-union members. This implies that employees benefit from the numerous incentives that organizations introduce as they seek to attract and retain their employees. Besides negotiating for favorable deals with numerous companies, trade unions also ensure that organizations observe safety and health measures as stipulated within labor laws. Labor laws demand that employers provide a working environment free from health and safety problems. Trade unions appoint members to cater for health and safety of all employees. They equip these members with requisite skills to help them to identify potential heath and safety risks and alert the employers. This helps employees to cut down on their expenses since they do not incur medical bills.

Today, a decrease in the number of trade unions is leading to an increase in income inequality in different countries. The figure below represents the level of income inequality in United States and Canada.

Graph 1. Source: (Drum, 2013)

Majority of the available literatures allege that union members learn about the importance of trade unions through labor education and workshops. Trade unions equip their members with skills for addressing work-related challenges through labor education. Apart from educating union members, trade unions help in curbing inequalities at workplaces. These activities lead to the members appreciating the relevance of trade unions. The following was a research conducted to determine how union members learn about the relevance of trade unions.


A vast amount of literature that accounts for labor education and effects of educated union member on the level of inequality at workplaces prompted the compilation of this paper to ascertain if employees are actually aware of this information. The paper sought to determine if labor education carried out by trade unions helps the members to understand the relevance of unions in workplaces. With the majority of the available literature asserting that trade unions contribute to equality at workplaces, the research aimed to understand if union members have ideas on the methods used by trade unions to curb cases of inequality at workplaces. The pollster sought permission from the workers union to carry out the research. Due to time constraint, the pollster decided to select 75 participants randomly from a pool of 120 employees. Fifteen of the participants were non-union members. Participants were briefed on the importance of the research as well as the ethical standards and assured of their security for the information that they give.

Data Collection

In a bid to gather information from the selected participants, the researcher organized face-to-face interviews with the participants. The researcher, in collaboration with the organization, set the interview date. In an attempt to make sure that the exercise did not affect the organizational operations, the interviews took place within the organization where each participant took thirty minutes and went back to his or her workplaces to relieve the others. The interview consisted of ten questions that aimed at collecting qualitative data from the participants (see appendix A for the survey questions). All the questions were open-ended to allow the participants to elaborate their responses. Additionally, the researcher opted to conduct face-to-face and telephonic interviews to help in making clarifications on areas that the participants did not understand. The participants were required to respond to how they understood the relevance of trade unions and the dangers of having educated trade union members in the organization.


Forty-seven out of the 75 union members agreed that trade unions were significant in workplaces. They claimed that they have been educated on functions like addressing discrimination, employee disputes, and employment conditions as some of the duties that make the unions relevant. 10 of the non-union members claimed that unions were significant. They claimed that the union aids in the enhancement of employment conditions. The rest did not support or oppose the relevance of unions at workplaces. The members that confirmed that unions are relevant said that they learned it through annual workshops organized by the union. Moreover, they claimed that they participate in addressing disputes within the organization as well as handling other duties of the union. All the union members agreed that the union helps to promote co-existence within the organization while non-union members cited cases of disharmony between union and non-union members.

All the non-union members claimed that the union helps to arbitrate on cases of disharmony within the organization. They claimed that at times, conflict between union and non-union members arise due to conflict of interests. On the other hand, all the participants agreed that trade unions have assisted to curb wage inequality that once dominated the institution and its various departments. 36 of the union members asserted that the union uses a collective bargaining to enhance wage distribution between union and non-union members within the organization. They claimed that currently, there is no wage difference between staff working in the same sector as it was before the formation of the union.

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In addition, 12 of the non-union members agreed that trade union has significantly aided in the reduction of wage difference between the union and the non-union members. Besides, they praised the union for compelling the organization to offer benefits like health insurance, holiday, and sick leave to both union and non-union members.

The tables below represent the outcome of the results.

Table 1. Members that confirmed union to be relevant

Union relevant Union members Non-union members undecided
Participants 47 10 18

Table 2. Members that claimed union curbs inequality

inequality Union members Non-union members undecided
participants 36 12 27
Graph 2. Showing the tabulated results

Discussion and Conclusion

Trade unions are relevant at workplaces. As most of the participants agreed, trade unions educate their members on the importance of joining the union through various methods. One of the methods is through holding training workshops where members learn the duties and benefits of trade unions. Union members that participate in dispute resolution and handle sexual harassment cases get first-hand experience of the relevance of unions at workplaces. The experience allows the union members to envisage a situation where there is no union to arbitrate on disputes and figure out how the matter would turn out to be severe thus costing a majority of the staff their jobs. The majority of scholars laud unions for reducing the level of inequality at workplaces by claiming that trade unions fight for the interests of all staff regardless of whether they are members of the trade union or not. Currently, the level of inequality at workplaces continues to increase with a decrease in the number of trade unions. Scholars identify this aspect as one of the evidences that trade unions promote equality at workplaces.

It is important to note that in spite of the allegations that trade unions champion for the increases in salary and wages of their members only, the reality is that they use their collective bargaining to reduce the wage differential between staff working in the same departments regardless of whether the staff are union members. They fight for the rights of all staff in the organization without considering if they support or oppose the union.


Acemoglu, D. (2002). Technical change, inequality, and the labor market. Journal of Economic Literature, 40, 67-72.

Bjorklund, A. & Freeman, R. (2008). Searching for optimal inequality Incentives. Cambridge, UK: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Clawson, D. & Clawson, M. (1999). What has happened to the US Labor Movement? Union Decline and Renewal. Annual Review of Sociology, 25, 95-119.

Drum, K. (2013). Unions and income inequality: two charts

Fantsia, R. & Voss, K. (2004). Hard work: Remaking the American labor movement. California, CA: University of California Press.

Freeman, R. (2007). Labor market institutions around the world. New York: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Greene, A. & Kirton, G. (2002). Advancing Gender Equality: The Role of Women-Only Trade Union Education. Gender, Work and Organization, 9(1), 39-59.

Hyman, R. (2001). Understanding European Trade Unionism: Between Market, Class and Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Mosher, J. (2006). U.S. Wage Inequality, Technological Change, and Decline in Union Power. Politic & Society, 35(2), 225-264.

Munro, A. & Rainbird, H. (2003). The new unionism and the new bargaining agenda: UNISON-employer partnerships on workplace learning in Britain. British Journal of Industrial Relations, 38(2), 223-240.

Osberg, L. & Smeeding, T. (2006). “Fair Inequality”? Attitudes toward pay differentials: the United States in comparative perspective. American Sociological Review, 71, 450-473.

Appendix A

Survey Questions

  1. What do you perceive to be the role of the trade union in your organization?
  2. How did you learn about the relevance of the trade union at your workplace?
  3. According to your opinion, do unions facilitate in promoting the harmony between employee to employee and between employees and the employers? Elaborate.
  4. How does your organization conduct labor education?
  5. Do union members appreciate the role of union in your organization?
  6. According to your opinion, do unions curb inequality within the organization?
  7. Are you aware of any cases of inequality within this Agency? If yes, who are the main perpetrators?
  8. Which is the main form of inequality witnessed within your organization?
  9. Do you believe that educating members of the union’s capabilities to help address issues of inequality on the worksite are helpful?
  10. What other benefits does the union champion for you within your organization?

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