Union Values and Concepts

Unions are a public good. They advance the welfare of all wage earners. They are based on the idea of justice, progress, and betterment of self and of society. They embody the universal ideal of human rights and the need to aspire to become more complete human beings. By becoming an active participant in the labor movement, members become part of something larger than themselves.

Why do unions exist?

  • To level the playing field between labor and management;
  • To raise levels of fairness and justice in the workplace;
  • To introduce meaningful democracy to the jobsite;
  • To insure that ALL wage earners are treated with dignity and respect;
  • To create a ladder that everyday wage earners can use to climb out of poverty and into the middle class (unions were the nation’s first successful anti-poverty programs);
  • To introduce morality to a “greed-driven” economy;
  • To give those employees who work hard and play by the rules a fair shot at a piece of the American Dream;
  • To provide a set of “checks and balances” in the workplace;
  • To protect and advance the well-being of all wage earners;
  • To reduce levels of fear and insecurity associated with “at will” employment;
  • To insure that the economy works for all of us … the best friends of Main Street merchants are well paid workers;
  • To resist the injustice associated with management’s desire to become “leaner and meaner” and to “do more with less.”

What do unions oppose?

  • Selfishness, prejudice, inequality, exploitation, and cruelty.
  • The idea that “greed is good.”
  • Management’s unilateral right to arbitrarily establish and change, literally at will, wages, hours and terms of employment.
  • The concept that employers are “job creators” and deserve special privileges.
  • Management’s strategy of “divide and conquer.”
  • The idea that the only way jobs will return to the U.S. is when wages and working conditions are lowered to third world standards in what appears to be a “race to the bottom.”
  • Management’s desire to return to the Gilded Age with its “Robber Barons” and “Huddled Masses.”
  • The idea that the “so-called” free market is in any way moral.

What are some union values?

  • Fairness, honesty/integrity, responsibility, compassion/empathy, safety, health, generosity, hard work/responsibility, community, freedom, democracy, binding contracts, equality, opportunity, respect, stability/security, unity, quality work, justice, collective action, dignity/respect, charity/community service, and due process.

You can’t be a good trade unionist and be a racist, sexist, homophobe, xenophobe, or elitist.”

~ Maureen Holder, labor educator IAMAW William W. Winpisinger Education and Technology Center 2004

In the U.S. here are some laws that unions played a critical role in enacting:

It is important to note that each of these laws extend basic rights to all wage earners and their families. This list is particularly useful in rebutting the anti-union stereotype that unions are “narrow special interests.”

  • Public education
  • Worker’s compensation
  • Social Security
  • 40 hour workweek
  • Civil Rights Act
  • Medicare and Medicaid
  • Americans with Disabilities Act
  • Regulation of child labor
  • Unemployment insurance
  • Minimum wage
  • Equal Pay Act
  • Voting Rights Act
  • Occupational Safety and Health Act
  • Family Medical Leave Act

One of the most important labor quotes ever was given by Samuel Gompers, first president of the American Federation of Labor, around 1892. Gompers was asked, “What does labor want?” His reply was not widely read or appreciated. “What do we want? More schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning, less crime; more leisure, less greed; more justice, less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.” 

Gompers’ quote speaks to the hope and aspirations of what we now call the “American Dream.” It explains the “WHY” of organized labor. It speaks to the values that we all hold dear. The media of Gompers’ day, chose to “reframe” this quote in a way that remains with us to this day. What does labor want? “MORE.” The media response chooses to portray union members as greedy. This anti-union “reframing” effectively omits the idea that we live in a greed-driven economy where our largest and most powerful economic actors compete with each other to maximize short-term profits … reminding us that frames are intentionally chosen to evoke emotional responses by intentionally including some information and excluding other information.