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Union Made Label

What Does “Union Made” Mean And How Does It Work?

When it comes to the ethical production of products, there are many different considerations. Are the raw materials used to make the product harvested from sustainable sources? Are they converted into materials and later into products using ethical labor and production methods? Are they shipped using green methods and as minimally as possible?

All of this is valuable, but there’s another way you can work on ensuring the ethical production of products: using union labor and contractors. Unions are one of the most powerful tools for ensuring appropriate and ethical treatment of workers, and help to ensure a valid and sustainable throughline from the most basic raw materials to the finished products you send to customers.

What does “union made” mean, specifically? Does it have a fixed and standardized definition the way something like Fair Trade does? Is there an enforcement agency? Is there a sign you can look for or put on your products to indicate the use of union labor in the creation of your products? These are all important questions to answer, so let’s talk about them.

What Does Union Made Mean?

In simple terms, the phrase “union made” simply means that the products you’re purchasing are made using union labor.

This labor doesn’t need to be the entire manufacturing process from raw materials to finished product. In fact, most of the time, it’s not. In some cases, it can be and may even pass through the hands of several different unions throughout the manufacturing process.

Consider the process used to create something simple, like a t-shirt. You have farms somewhere in the world that grow a raw material like cotton. This raw material is farmed according to the needs of the plants and the land and uses the resources of the people growing it. This can vary quite a bit between cotton grown in Georgia and cotton grown in Vietnam or India, though your goal would be to find a farm that uses sustainable methods and ethical farming practices.

The cotton, once harvested, is sent to a company that turns it from raw cotton into processed thread or yarn. This process, known as ginning the cotton, separates the seeds from the cotton itself and pulls it into something resembling the thread used to create a fabric. The cotton is processed into bales and sent to another facility, often run by another company, that turns baled cotton into fabric sheets.

A Woman Harvesting Cotton

Cotton sheets are then processed in various ways, such as dying or printing patterns on them and cutting them into smaller bolts of fabric to be sold as-is or further processed into something like a shirt. Another company will take the fabric and transform it into something like a t-shirt by cutting and sewing it into shape.

Finally – in the case of our shirts – another company takes the raw material shirts and prints your design on them.

So where do unions fit into this process? It depends, and it can be anywhere and everywhere. There are farm unions, and garment producer unions, local unions and foreign unions, and many different organizations that touch the process somewhere along the way.

Union Made simply means that, for some critical part of the process – usually the process of converting fabric into garments ready for sale – the labor to perform the task is handled by workers who belong to a labor union. Farm unions are not necessarily required but are, of course, encouraged for ethically-produced garments.

There are some common misconceptions about a product being union-made. Some people believe that union-made products are inherently higher quality. This isn’t necessarily true, though it often is, simply because cheaper methods often cut corners. Others believe that union-made products are made in the USA. Again, this is often the case, but there are international and foreign unions as well. There are also some people who believe union-made products are made on Union-brand sewing machines, but that doesn’t actually have anything to do with the label. No, union-made products are simply products made in whole or in part using unionized laborers.

What is the History of Union Made?

The fact that products are made using union labor is not, as some people believe, an indicator of a particular level of quality. While union-made garments may appear to be of higher quality than their non-union counterparts, it’s not necessarily a direct result. Non-union labor can still be a labor of love, and small-scale producers working on bespoke or couture garments can be extremely high quality. On the other hand, union labor doesn’t necessarily imply quality itself, though unions often hold their workers to a high standard.

No, unions are not about the finished product; they’re about the workers. The laborers who produce your products should, in a civilized society, be treated fairly and ethically. Unions are about protecting workers who work with dangerous machines, preventing workers from being forced to work 12 or 14-hour shifts every day, and ensuring that those workers are given pay and benefits commensurate with the rates they deserve.

Making Products Using Union Labor

Unions used to be powerhouses in American labor. In the 60s, participation in labor unions was as high as 35% of the American workforce. Today, it’s much lower, as companies avoid using union labor (which is more expensive) and ship jobs overseas.

Of course, in avoiding labor unions, these companies often also avoid treating their workers ethically. It’s cheaper, so who cares how it’s done as long as the product comes out the other end?

This is what led to the mass production of virtually everyone being handled in China and various third-world nations throughout Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. Images of sweatshops using child labor to produce a thousand shirts a minute, all to be thrown into shipping containers and ferried across the ocean to oblivious customers in America, are part of public consciousness by now.

Is this good? Of course not. Outsourcing labor isn’t unethical, but outsourcing suffering certainly is.

We don’t have the space to dig into a full discussion of the rise, fall, and current resurgence of labor unions, both locally and internationally. Suffice it to say that it’s a long and tricky history full of conflict between companies seeking more efficient ways to make money at the expense of pretty much everyone, and workers banding together to avoid being exploited by those companies.

Are Unions Regulated like Fair Trade?

Fair Trade, more appropriately known as Fairtrade, is an international organization that focuses on the farming side of production. While they consider union labor, ethical treatment of workers, ethical processes, and even social factors like gender equality, all of it is centered around the production of raw materials and fighting damaging issues like slavery and child labor.

Fairtrade is not a union, but they support unions. They are not mutually exclusive, and in fact tend to work together. Products can be fairtrade and ethically produced without the participation of unions; similarly, products can be union-made without the inclusion of fairtrade organizations and are not explicitly considered unethical.

There is no central organization like Fairtrade International to govern unions. Each individual union has its own organization and leadership, their own standards, and their own concerns. Some unions are as small as the workforce of a single company; others encompass the whole of an industry.

A Fairtrade-Certified Cotton Farm

In decades past, clothing was made almost entirely using union labor through either the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union or the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. In the 90s, these two unions merged to form the Unions of Needletrades, industrial and Textile Employees, which itself later merged with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union to create the merged UNITE-HERE union. Other large examples of unions include groups like the Teamsters’ Union or the United Auto Workers Union.

While we said that there’s no central organization to govern unions, there really is, in a way. Just as employees join together to form unions and, on a larger scale, unions join together to form even larger union groups, union groups can join together to form groups like the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations – the AFL-CIO – which helps to represent the unions in their group against the interests of the government or of the companies that would leverage their power to suppress the union. A huge company can easily suppress a small union, but a group of industrial unions can resist and force negotiations.

So, there’s no one central organization for unions, but there are large groups like the AFL-CIO and the Strategic Organizing Center.

What Can You Look for to Validate Union-Made Items?

Seeking out products made using union labor isn’t always easy. Sometimes, you can buy from companies that you know are unionized. Sometimes, you need to look at the larger unions and find lists of their membership and work with those companies.

Union-Made Products in the USA

One of the more common ways to identify union-made products is to look for something called the Union Bug. A Union Bug is just a label added to or printed onto a product, on a lapel or a collar or elsewhere on a label, or somewhere like the bottom of a mug. It doesn’t entirely matter where it’s printed, and it doesn’t have to be printed at all, but it’s often considered a sign of ethical production.

Does a Union Bug cost more on a product?

Not at all!

There’s an argument to be made that buying union-made products is more expensive than buying non-union products. The price per unit might be lower when buying non-union products, but when you factor in human rights, transportation, and the cost of human dignity – the unfortunately intangible elements of commerce – the costs balance out.

Purchasing Union-Made Products

If you’re buying union-made products, the choice to include a union bug or not is entirely up to you. It won’t be any different cost-wise either way; it’s just a simple additional element of printing added to the manufacturing process. If you’re not buying union-made products, getting a union bug isn’t possible.

Is it important to buy union-made products?

We think so! Unions represent the best interests of the average person working for a company. While there’s always an ongoing debate over how valuable they are, the alternative – with corporations abusing people around the world in search of a few cents more per product – is decidedly devastating for human rights, entire countries, and the environment.

Shopping For Union-Made Products

Buying union-made products shows not just that you care about human rights but that you support the unions that fight for them. It shows solidarity. It’s an ethical and moral stance you can take in your products, for your company, or for your personal perspective, and it supports the laborers who make the world go round.

Are there alternatives to union-made products?

Certainly. Here at Ethix, we strive to have the best possible products with ethical, green, and sustainable production in mind.

Ethix Merch

Not everything is union-made, but we have several options:

  • Union Made, which means the product was made using most or all of the labor throughout the process coming from union production facilities.
  • USA Made, which means the product was produced using materials grown from USA farms and using production facilities based in the United States.
  • Eco-Friendly, which means the materials and processes used in the production of the products are as green and sustainable as possible.

You can see different examples of this throughout our site. For example, these tees are made in the United States using eco-friendly materials, and they are grown and produced locally. These jackets are made in the USA using union labor and processes. They don’t have an eco-friendly badge, not because they aren’t eco-friendly, but just that we can’t verify for sure one way or the other.

Across the board, we do everything we can to promote eco-friendly production methods and sustainable processes from the production of raw materials up to the finished product. We do everything we can to minimize international shipping, work with local producers, promote ethical and sustainable processes, and more. We’re also more than happy to discuss every detail with you; all you need to do is ask.