This may sound like a less than intelligent question, but I bet there are a lot of people on this site who have little idea about what a union really is, or what they do. I know when I got into the workplace 20 years ago, I had little understanding of what a union was, what it could do for me and my coworkers, and what it could do for the economy and our country as a whole.
Most of what I knew came from television, which, much to my surprise, was not the best source of educational content. I can honestly say that unions were never discussed in my early education, other than brief references to a few of the major dramatic incidents in American history. Even in college, one of the few courses that discussed unions was economics 101, and many professors of economics view (or viewed at my school) unions as a market inefficiency that had a negative impact rather than a positive influence. Some of the better political science courses discussed labor issues but often in the context of Marx, Hegel and other political philosophers.
I knew nothing meaningful about unions until I began working at an employer that was unionized. It still took me a good year or two to understand what the union was and what it could do for employees. Once I understood this fully, I was hooked. I eventually made union activism my career. Having started literally from zero knowledge, I quickly realized one of the biggest problems in the labor movement: we do not do a sufficient job educating even our own members about what it means to be in a union, what resources and advantages unions provide, and what role individual members play in the success of the union as an organization.
People who have been in the labor movement for a long time assume several things that are not true for most people, particularly those in younger generations: that employees know what a union is, that employees understand the structure and functioning of their own union, that employees have some meaningful understanding of the history of unions, and that employees even understand basic terms like collective bargaining agreement, bargaining unit, or grievance. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Some unions do a good job of member education and outreach, but many unions do not, and there is a growing disconnect between the membership and their leaders.
If union members themselves don't have a solid understanding of the union movement, then it is going to naturally follow that the public at large will not have any greater understanding than they do. This contributes to the state we find ourselves in, where unions have utterly failed at driving the marketing and public relations narratives that surround them. We have allowed employer groups to convince employees, even our own members, that we are the threat, that we are going to cost them jobs and somehow take away their liberty as individuals. We need to start from scratch, educate our own members first, and create a comprehensive plan to take back perception internally and externally in the short and long run. Collective bargaining is a wonderful, dynamic and very effective process that benefits all involved. But before people understand that, they have to understand how it works.
We need to get back to basics, and eliminate all assumptions that keep us from progressing.