Here's a quick thought.
I've been working a lot of overtime lately. It's not by choice, and it's not much fun. But during the evenings I spent in my cubicle, I took some comfort in knowing that my paycheck would be significantly bigger, with time-and-a-half pay for every hour worked over the normal 40-hour week.
Well, after three or four weeks of this, I actually took a look at my pay stub (something I ought to do more often) and noticed that, in fact, I was not getting time-and-a-half--actually not even close. So, the next day I waltzed into my boss' office to correct the simple mistake. Everybody knows that time-and-a-half for overtime hours is law, just like the minimum wage.
I showed her the numbers. "See, that's not even close to time-and-a-half," I said. "Who do we need to talk to to get this fixed?"
"Actually, we don't do time-and-a-half," she answered.
"We 'don't do' it?" I pondered.
But my boss confidently cited the specific office policy on the matter. So I went back to my desk to look it up.
She was right, at least according to office policy. Time-and-a-half for overtime and the minimum wage (and other good things) are guaranteed under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The catch is that every single employee in my office is "exempt" from the Fair Labor Standards Act. How convenient!
My coworkers and I supposedly fall into one of the categories set up to exempt most white collar employees from the law. I guess my employer thinks we fall under the "administrative employee exemption" or the "learned professional employee exemption." But according to the explanation of the exemption categories on this site, I think my employer is wrong.
And this is where a union would help. I'm just one guy, sitting at my desk, Googling about my rights, and telling my boss I think she is mistaken about the law. Even if every other worker in the office is doing the same thing, it's not going to add up to anything. The response from the boss is always going to be some variation on, "Nope, you're wrong. Here's our policy statement. Go sit down."
But if the workers were organized, we would at least be heard. A union would have the capacity to take questions like this to court if necessary, where win or lose, at least there would be due process. A union would have some actual power to maintain our rights against the sometimes arbitrary fiats of the bosses. The next time management declares that we are "exempt" from labor law, a union could say, "We think not." And someone would listen.