The history of labor unions is deeply enmeshed with the history of the United States.
When the revolutionary war was won, there wasn’t really an economy. People worked by themselves, on their own terms. Then the industrial revolution happened. Once people started working in factories, workers recognized an imbalance of power between people on the shop floor and those who controlled the labor.
Eventually, this led to labor movements where workers organized and leveraged their collective bargaining power to advance working conditions and rights.
Now, you didn’t come here for history lessons. But a union bug — a small label that indicates merchandise is union-made — can’t be separated from the labor history in the U.S.
Today, the union landscape looks much different than it did in the 1800s and 1900s. In the mid-to-late 1900s, corporations started branding and advertising to achieve greater market share and build loyal followings. To survive in a consumer-focused world, unions began branding themselves with an imprint about the size of a fly. That’s why it’s called a bug. So why is this so important?
What Exactly is a Union Bug
A union bug is a tiny label that union printers place on products. They aren’t just a logo or a brand. Union bugs contain identifiable information that can be tracked down to the shop where the item carrying the bug was made.
Union bugs help people identify merchandise that adheres to the union’s standards, indicating, at a minimum, fair wages and good working conditions. But many people don’t know to look for this insignia. And if they do, sometimes they don’t know what they are looking for.
This is important because there are fake union bugs intended to fool people with good intentions. Merchandise can carry a scam union bug that can’t be traced back to any legitimate organization. For instance, a union bug on something like a stainless steel water bottle is immediately suspect. This is because stainless steel water bottles are largely manufactured in China, and don’t adhere to the specific U.S. labor standards required to carry a union bug.
The standards alone are confusing to navigate. And merchandise with a union bug is hard enough on its own to find. Adding scam union labels into the mix makes doing the right thing for your organization even more difficult.
Why Union Bugs Matter to Political Campaigns and Nonprofits
Your organization is mission-focused and dedicated to forward progress. Whether it’s campaigning for a senate seat or leading fundraising efforts for environmental nonprofits, you’re striving for a brighter, more equitable future.
The merchandise you stock in your web store or send out to supporters is an outward reflection of your organization’s mission and ethics. When your merch has a union bug, it shows your audience in the simplest terms that you show solidarity with the labor movement.
Anything that includes graphics and logos is an opportunity to walk the walk and support the highest standards of ethical manufacturing. If that’s the case, why do so many excellent, left-leaning, forward-thinking organizations and campaigns overlook union bugs?
The Complex Web Union Bugs Weave
The union landscape in the United States is varied. And to be honest, it’s confusing.
There are 135 labor unions in the United States, and each has its own guidelines for labeling and trademark usage.
Consider this example: a campaign prints a t-shirt to stock in their web store. A t-shirt seems simple enough, but in reality, there’s a supply chain attached to everything. Where did the fabric come from? Where was the shirt itself made? And finally, who printed the logo? There are three separate touchpoints for this single shirt. A union bug on the final product indicates the shirt met the print shop’s standard.
Typically the standards mean, at the bare minimum, it’s made in the USA and manufactured ethically. Even better would be made in the USA by union labor.
But the standards aren’t always easy to interpret, and many times you’ll find yourself making inferences. When merch is a direct reflection of your organization, the stakes are high.
How F.I.I. Helps Clients With Union Bugs
Sourcing merch is already a complex task. Sourcing union-made merch is even trickier.
It’s not uncommon for organizations to ask about removing union bugs before they know what it signifies. So, our first piece of advice is to tell your designers about union bugs. That’s the easy part.
Finding legitimate, union-made goods that fit your budget is a more challenging task. Print shops that say they can do it all are generally overpromising.
Realistically, the only way to ensure you are truly sourcing goods with an ethical supply chain through union print shops is to build long-term relationships. These relationships have a multitude of benefits:
- You can trust your merchandise supports living wages and good working conditions
- Domestic supply chains have a reduced environmental impact
- Local supply chains are more resistant to logistical disruptions
- Long-term relationships and working through a merchandise partner provide economies of scale, making ethical merch more accessibly priced.
It’s true that USA-made, union-printed merchandise often comes at a higher cost. But that cost shows you support the people who make the merch possible.
F.I.I. tracks all individual unions, the standards and guidelines they adhere to, and the manufacturers and brands that use them. All this information is indexed in our catalog, so when your task is to find union-printed merchandise that adheres to your nonprofit or campaign’s ethical standards, it’s not a wild goose chase.
Union-Printed Goods are Worth the Additional Effort
Your merchandise serves two important goals: driving awareness and funds to your mission. It’s important for your merch to align with your cause.
Merch that carries a union label signifies that you have high standards. It shows that you know your supply chain impacts people, and you choose to go out of your way to do the right thing.
The right partner makes sourcing USA-made, union-printed goods easy. You might still be searching for a needle in a haystack, but now you’ve got a metal detector and a map.