Right now there are over 60 unions representing over 14 million workers throughout the US. So what is a union? Basically, it’s an organized association of workers, usually ones who share a single profession or industry, that has been formed to protect workers’ rights and best interests.
Historically, labor unions formed as a way for workers to collectively advocate for things like better pay, higher safety standards, and humane working hours. Often they do this by sending representatives to negotiate with industry leaders on behalf of workers. If you hear about a union in the news, it’s often in the context of workers going on strike.
Technically, any group of workers has the right to form a union, but there are some professions that are more likely than others to be unionized. So who belongs to a union?
- 34.4% of public sector workers
- 34.7% of protective service workers (police officers and firefighters)
- 14% of construction workers
- 9.1% manufacturing workers
- 6.5% of private sector workers
Pros and Cons of Unions
When exploring union vs non-union jobs, it’s worth thinking about some of the overall pros and cons to being part of an industrial union.
- A stronger voice. By banding together collectively, workers have a stronger voice and more power than they would on their own.
- Higher pay. Union employees earn an average of 30% more than non-union workers within the same industry.
- Better insurance. 92% of union workers have job-related health coverage (compared to 68% of non-union workers).
- Better retirement benefits. 93% of workers who are associated with a labor union have access to retirement benefits.
- Safer work sites. Research has found that unionized workplaces tend to have fewer health and safety violations. Often this is attributed to the fact that workers have the right to a union representative in injury and fatality investigations. And, because union workers are protected from repercussions, they’re more likely to report safety issues.
- More likely to have savings. A 2016 paper found that union families had a median wealth of $80,993 compared to $45,025 for non-members—a difference of 80%.
- Equality. There are also society-wide benefits to unions like closing the wage gap for female, black, and hispanic workers.
- Annual dues. Workers often pay 1.5-3% of their salary in union fees.
- You need skilled negotiators at the helm. By joining a union, you’re effectively ceding your right to negotiate on your own behalf and agreeing to be bound by any collective negotiations. So, if the negotiators for a labor union are not skilled, then workers can potentially be forced to accept low wages and poor benefits.
- Limits your individuality. If a strike is called, no one works, even if you wish to remain on the job. And you’ll be bound by union decisions, even political support, even if you don’t agree.
- Seniority rules. Most labor unions operate on the principle that the last one hired is going to be the first one fired if layoffs occur. Likewise, promotions tend to be heavily influenced by seniority, which can be frustrating as it may take highly qualified workers longer to reach their full potential.
- Less collaborative work environment. Unionized workers experience less of a sense of partnership and trust with their supervisors, according to a Gallup survey.
Changing role of unions
Union membership overall has declined in recent years. In 1983, union membership was 17.7 million — representing 20 percent of all wage and salary workers. Last year, it was 14.8 million, representing just 10.7 percent of those workers.
Though, some argue, this decline is due in part to the changing role of unions. Unions have become more active partners with companies in terms of training and recruiting employees, especially in manufacturing. And some of this is also due to the nature of the demands from younger workers, who may be more interested in portable health insurance or career training advancement than pension plans.
Whatever your ultimate choice when it comes to joining a union, it’s worth doing some research on your specific industry context. Ask yourself:
- What union(s) exist for my industry?
- Do many/all of my coworkers belong to a union?
- What are the associated dues?
- What are the associated benefits?
- Who is the leadership and what are their qualifications?
- How am I beholden to uphold the union’s decisions once I join?
Job hunting? At WorkStep, we can connect you to a wide range of jobs across warehouse, production, trucking, and the skilled trades.