What is a Union?

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A union is a group of people who come together in order to advance their common interests. A union is a democracy that members create, and broad participation from everyone makes a union most effective.

Legally, the union is a 501-c4 non-profit organization chartered by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) is the statewide affiliate that exists to improve the lives of its members and their families, to give voice to their aspirations, to strengthen the institutions where they work, to improve the quality of services members provide, and to assist and support each other.

Under the law, once a union is certified, you have the right to negotiate over hours of work, wages, and working conditions.

  • At a workplace where a majority of the employees have voted for union representation, a committee elected by the union negotiates a collective agreement with management that applies to all individuals in the workplace also known as a “bargaining unit.”
  • Collective bargaining contrasts with individual bargaining, where management offers each worker whatever it desires. As individuals, most employees have very little power, so management is able to arbitrarily impose its wishes.
  • When employees negotiate collectively as a group, their power is roughly equal to management.
  • Once the union committee and management have agreed on a contract, it is then put to a vote of all union members. If approved, the contract is usually in force for a fixed term of years, and then is renegotiated.
  • During the term of the agreement, disputes often arise concerning interpretation of the agreement:
    • Was an employee disciplined for just cause?
    • Has management fairly assigned awards?
    • Has management fulfilled its obligations under the agreement’s provisions concerning such things as health and safety, compensation for additional work, and assignment of work?
    • Has management followed due process in promotion decisions?
    • Has management followed due process in layoffs?
    • Has management followed approved upon work load guidelines?
  • Under collective bargaining, if such disputes cannot be resolved by the parties through the grievance process, they are submitted to arbitration.
  • Arbitration is similar to an informal court hearing; a neutral, expert arbitrator rules whether the alleged contract breach has occurred, and if it has, orders a remedy to make the aggrieved employees whole.