What Do You Know About Unions?

John Miller

It changes over time. What is U.S. union membership like now compared to the early 1980s?

In the early '80s, about one-fifth of American workers were part of a union. As society has changed, union membership has dropped to only about 10% of workers.

Show me the money. With regard to pay, how do union workers compare to non-union workers?

Unions are savvy when it comes to negotiating pay. Unionized workers almost always make more money, sometimes with wages 30% more than their non-unionized counterparts.

Fairness was a problem. Unions began forming in response to what?

The Industrial Revolution paved the way for all sorts of new jobs … as well as new hazards and unfair pay. Unions helped to right the ship.

These days, in which arena are you mostly likely to encounter unionized workers?

Unionized work has changed substantially. Now, the public sector (teachers, government jobs) are where you're most likely to see unions fighting for their men and women.

Security matters. These days, in the U.S. public sector unions are often preoccupied with which issue?

In the public sector, organizations are trying to control budgets by slashing pensions for retired workers. Unions do all that they can to stop this practice.

They have enormous power. How do unions sometimes force concessions from employers?

When negotiations stall, union workers sometimes strike, or stop working. Strikes can force companies to negotiation more favorable terms for union members.

It shifts by generation. At what point were private industry unions most popular?

After WWII, soldiers returned home and went back to work. About one-third of all private-industry employees were unionized in that era.

When labor stoppages happen, they're called "strikes." Why?

It comes from across the Atlantic. In the 1700s, English sailors stopped working in protest, starting by "striking"(taking down) their ship sails.

It was after the rift. When did America's first truly national unions begin to form?

The Industrial Revolution was in full swing … and the nation was finally healing. After the Civil War, national unions began to find their stride.

The famous Battle of Blair Mountain involved a work strike in which industry?

In 1921, West Virginia coal miners began a work dispute that turned into the Battle of Blair Mountain. It escalated into one of the most significant (and violent) labor risings in American history.

What happened at the Battle of Blair Mountain?

The Battle of Blair Mountain was a full-on fight, with tens of thousands of men on each side exchanging bullets. About 100 people died.

How did 1947's Taft–Hartley Act affect unions?

By the late 1940s, business gained the upper hand in the Taft–Hartley Act, which created all sorts of new restrictions on labor unions. Union leaders decried it as an infringement on American rights.

Unions give workers which specific power?

Modern unions are all about collective bargaining, in which workers decide which issues to fight for. Issues like higher pay and better benefits are typically keys to collective bargaining.

It's the biggest one. When was the AFL-CIO created?

The AFL-CIO is the biggest national union in the U.S. It was formalized in 1955 and since then has represented its members in all sorts of contentious issues.

What will you note about "craft" unionism?

Craft unionism refers to unions that work for just one specific trade. It may support only coal workers, carpenters, electricians and so on.

It's yin and yang thing. What do labor unions do?

Labor unions are organized groups that represent workers. They often serve as a useful counterbalance to corporate power.

It's also the end of summer. Which holiday celebrates the labor movment in the U.S.?

In the 1880s, various communities began celebrating the labor movement (and unions) with Labor Day. It's now celebrated in the first weekend of September, and marks the "official" end of summertime fun.

What's the purpose of the National Labor Relations Act?

The National Labor Relations Act regulates public sector unions, giving workers the power to band together -- and if necessary -- conduct strikes.

You can probably imagine. How did business leaders respond to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935?

The National Labor Relations Act? Yeah, it didn't go over well. It was derided as un-American … and in some cases, called a tool of socialist manipulators.

In 1902, the Great Anthracite Coal Strike shook America. Who stepped into the fray in hopes of alleviating tensions?

President Theodore Roosevelt saw a terrible problem looming in the Great Anthracite Coal Strike. He tried to smooth things over, but it didn't work. J.P. Morgan, a weathy industrialist, finally helped fashion a bargain.

Unions do help. What percentage of union members have health insurance?

Unions fight for their workers to receive health insurance, and about 80% of them have it. Less than half of non-union workers, on the other hand, receive health benefits.

How do most Americans feel about unions these days?

Unions don't receive universal acclaim in the U.S. anymore. But even so, a solid majority of citizens feel that unions are important and necessary in our capitalist economy.

In 1970, what sparked a major strike in the U.S. Postal Service?

That year members of Congress got 40% pay increases; USPS workers got 4%. All hell broke loose, and after a short strike the workers got a much-needed boost in pay.

Compared to non-union workers, union members are more likely to have what?

In many places, companies are doing away with pensions altogether. Union members are 60% more likely to have penisons footed by their former employers.

In 1894, the Pullman Strike had a major effect on which industry?

The Pullman Strike saw train manufacturing workers walk out on the job. Hundreds of thousands of workers protested, but federal troops were called in to put an end to the unrest.

In the U.S., union membership has never exceeded what percentage of workers?

Unions hit their peak in the '50s. But even then, only about 35% of workers belonged to one.

Oh, the smell. In 1968, a garbage workers strike impacted which major city?

In 1968, garbage workers walked off the job … and refuse began piling up on city streets. After a major power struggle, the workers did manage to get a pay bump.

It's higher elsewhere. In which country would you find the greatest percentage of unionized workers?

In the U.S., union membership is very low. In Iceland, though, nearly 90% of workers belong to a union, in many cases winning better quality of life for these men and women.

The very first documented strike happened in 1158 BC. What was the cause?

When Pharaoh Ramesses III was late paying his skilled artisans, they went on strike. The royal leader immediately caved to their demands … so that they would continue construction on his elaborate tomb.

It was the biggest strike of the 1990s. And it happened in which major company?

In the 1990s, UPS package workers decided to strike. About 185,000 union members picketed for full-time jobs and better benefits … and thanks in part to public support, they won.

In 2011, Wisconsin union members used this slogan: "United we bargain, divided we ____." Can you find this phrase?

The 2011 Wisconsin union strife made headlines for months. "United we bargain, divided we beg" became the union rallying cry.

It's a power problem. Many scholars attribute rising inequality to what factor?

Unions are a counterbalance to the power that employers wield. With dropping union membership rates, scholars see a rising tide of inequality in America.

The Textile Workers Strike of 1934 involved about 400,000 workers. What happened?

Not all strikes succeed. The Textile Workers Strike of 1934 was a terrible mess and won nothing for its workers, who merely returned to the same awful conditions as before.

In which part of the world would you find the highest number of unionized workers?

Nordic countries, like Norway and Sweden, are easily the most heavily unionized nations on the planet. Unions wield immense power in these countries.

The 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain saw miners shooting at soldiers. What was the result of the strike?

The big headlines resulted in a few changes over the years. But given its intensity, the Battle of Blair Mountain actually gave its strikers very few short-term benefits.

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Image: 10'000 Hours/Digital Vision/Getty Images

About This Quiz

Robber barons and tycoons of the 19th century were furious when they realized the implications of workers organizing – that they were slowing losing their power as god-like capitalists. Suddenly, it seems, lowly factory workers and laborers had a say in their lives – and it was all because of unions. Unions have a long and storied past in the United States and around the world – in this quiz, can you answer basic knowledge and history questions about unions?

Before unions came along, textile mill laborers, coal miners, oil drillers and the like really had no way to protest low wages or lack of benefits. They couldn’t even say anything about life-threatening safety issues without fearing for their jobs. But when they banded together in unions and threatened to walk off the job … suddenly, their voices could be heard. Do you remember any of the most profound work stoppages in American history?

The numbers are clear. Union members tend to make more money, have more influence on their work environment and often enjoy better retirements, too. Cast your vote and make your voice heard in this powerful union quiz!

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