What is a Union Bug?

A union bug is a small label that indicates merchandise is union-made. In the mid-to-late 1900s, corporations started branding and advertising. Unions began branding themselves, too, with an imprint about the size of a fly. That’s why it’s called a bug. So why is this so important?

Union bugs contain information that shows exactly which shop made the item carrying the bug. When an item has a union bug, it helps consumers understand that the merchandise with the bug adheres to the union’s standards. What union standards? At a minimum, fair wages and good working conditions.

What Merchandise Has a Union Bug?

The union bug has been used in union manufacturing for hundreds of years. And not just on shirts; it’s on auto parts, parking tickets, and even presidential inauguration announcements. The bug is the best way to signal that what you’re buying was made with union labor, like a handshake of solidarity. If you’re a union worker, and you’re wearing union-made drip, that means your union wages went to other folks’ union wages. Which is reciprocity and solidarity in action! 

This isn’t a new idea. In fact, there’s a delightfully cringey 1978 song about it (sorry, not sorry in advance when this gets stuck in your head):

Over the years, other terms like “fair trade” or “ethically manufactured” have entered the chat, and while those terms can signify that what you’re buying was made under the conditions specified, it doesn’t guarantee that the product was made with any union labor. (And don’t get us started on the labor-washing: Labor washing refers to the practice of using terminology commonly associated with the ethical labor movement to mask manufacturing’s darker practices. You might assume that something made with “fair trade” on it is well, fairly traded, but it might not be, because there are no set standards across the manufacturing sector to guarantee it. One company’s notion of “fair trade” might be totally different from another’s.

Closeup image of various t-shirts made by Worx

Basically, if it doesn’t have a union bug, you can’t guarantee that union labor was involved in the production process. It’s more than a tag, and better than a brand. (Note: The union bug is also different from a union label mentioned in the song above; the bug is on the garment itself, whereas the label is sewn in to indicate the shirt itself is union made. A shirt may not be union made if it has the union bug, in other words.) We love the union bug because it’s a part of labor history that has steadily sustained into the 21st century.

Why Union Bugs Matter When You Buy Custom Merchandise for Your Organization

If your organization is mission-focused, supporting a political campaign, or supporting fundraising around issues of equity, social justice, the environment, climate change, or some other progressive cause, we salute your efforts to create a brighter, more equitable future.

When you buy customized merch as a way to fundraise or promote your cause, what that swag is and where and how that custom t-shirt, baseball cap, or other branded merch was made is a reflection of your mission and ethics. When your merch has a union bug, it shows your audience you show solidarity with fair labor practices.

When you buy custom swag for your organization, it’s a smart idea to associate your organization’s brand and logo with the highest standards of ethical manufacturing.

When you source custom merchandise from an ethical supply chain, it’s just one more way to support your mission and elevate your brand. We encourage you to create your custom merch through a union print shop like Worx Printing and to build long-term relationships. This way your organization benefits:

  1. You and your supporters can know for sure that your branded merchandise supports living wages and good working conditions
  2. Your custom merch is produced through domestic supply chains, so they have a reduced environmental impact
  3. The local supply chains your union printers are using are less vulnerable to overall logistical disruptions
  4. Working with a trusted union merchandise partner consistently means you’ll benefit from economies of scale, making ethical merch more accessibly priced.

It’s true that USA-made, union-printed merchandise often costs more than promotional products made overseas with unknown or questionable labor conditions. But that cost shows your organization supports American Made merchandise and the workers who create it.

How Many Union Bugs Are There?

Right now, there are almost 60 union bugs represented in the unions of the AFL-CIO alone. We love a classic bug, with simple clean lines (a nod to the mechanical nature of how these were first made…think early printing press, for example). 

In fact, we love a union bug so much we based the Worx logo on it. The next time you put on a union-made garment, take a minute and check out the bug. And if you don’t see one…it might be time to upgrade. We can help with that.

How Do You Know if a Union Bug is Real and Authentic?

Sadly, 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 a customized stainless steel water bottle is immediately suspect. Most stainless steel water bottles are manufactured in China, and don’t meet U.S. labor standards required to carry a union bug. It’s hard enough to find legitimate union-made custom merchandise, and it’s upsetting to know that there are scam union labels out there making it harder for your organization to find what you’re looking for.

A group of people in various union-made t-shirts.

Follow Worx on Instagram and Twitter for more. And if you want your worker-owned, union, and/or co-op business or organization featured on GOOD PRESS, email us at goodpress@worxprinting.coop. Solidarity!