The first union in the United States formed in 1794, but it was an effort that ended in disaster. The Philadelphia shoemakers, who were called “cordwainers” at the time, were barely earning enough money from their work to buy food that would feed their families. They banded together to go on strike to demand higher wages for their work.
The state government at the time responded to the strike by indicting the union, alleging that they were involved with a criminal conspiracy. This action bankrupted the effort and placed the workers on trial. Although the actual court actions were not documented, the outcome was that the union members had to pick up the cost of the proceedings and pay a fine of $8. Using a standard inflation calculator, that is the equivalent of $182 today.
Although the fine was not unreasonable, when households are struggling to make ends meet already, an unexpected cost that is comparable to a speeding ticket today can be a challenge to manage.
The debate about labor unions today follows a similar path to the one that happened over two centuries ago, especially when the discussion involves public-sector employees. These are the critical pros and cons to review on this subject to discover if this structure is helpful or harmful to the average employee.
List of the Pros of Labor Unions
1. Labor unions typically provide better wages than comparable non-union positions.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that non-union workers had a median weekly earnings rate that was only 82% of what employees who were union members received for their labor and productivity. People who had union representation in 2018 earned an average of $1,051 per week, while non-union workers earned an average of $860 per week. Although the actual gap between these wages is shrinking (union members earned $200 more per week in 2011), this trait is a consistent advantage.
Those extra funds add up when you consider them in the context of a year. In 2018, a union worker earned almost $10,000 more in wages assuming a 52-week payment schedule.
2. Union members often have better access to employee benefits with their job.
Far more employees who join a labor union as part of their employment experience receive medical benefits compared to non-union workers. The National Compensation Survey has repetitively found that 93% of U.S. workers with a labor union are entitled to medical benefits compared to the 69% of their non-union peers. This advantage applies to unmarried domestic partners as well. Unionized positions experience 89% of their health insurance premiums begin paid for single workers and 82% coverage for families, whereas non-union positions experience 79% and 66% rates respectively.
3. Labor unions provide better access to retirement benefits for employees.
Workers who decide to join a labor union as part of their job have better access to retirement benefits, along with more value to this perk, when compared to their non-union counterparts. 93% of workers with a labor union say that they have access to these benefits through their employer compared to 64% who have not joined this type of organization. Almost all employees who receive union representation pay less for their benefits like this, but then receive more than those who are working without this help.
4. There is more job security available for unionized workers.
Many non-union employees are usually hired in an “at-will” capacity, which means they can be fired without a reason. The only protections that are in place for these workers involves a termination that meets the definition of discrimination. No workers can be fired for reasons that violate public policy. That means you cannot be fired as an older worker only because of your age. The same applies for gender designation, religious preference, or other forms of discrimination. You cannot be fired for being a “whistleblower” either.
Employees who receive representation from a labor union must be terminated for “just cause.” This misconduct must meet a specific definition of severity to qualify for such an action. Most workers can go through a grievance process or even arbitration before they actually lose their job. That makes it easier for workers to speak up if they see something unjust happening in the workplace.
5. It offers more strength because workers come together as a group instead of as individuals.
Workers who have union representation are able to have more power within their workplace because they are acting as a cohesive group instead of as a series of individuals. When employers see that an entire movement of people wants the same thing and is speaking with one voice, it becomes a powerful motivational tool to find some way to meet the needs of everyone involved. That process is especially apparent during the negotiation process of a collective bargaining agreement, allowing workers to negotiate for better wages, workplace safety, and benefits through their union instead of individual meetings with supervisors.
6. Labor unions create contractual obligations for both parties to follow.
Because a labor union works with an organization to produce a collective bargaining agreement, it creates a written contract which all parties can reference whenever something happens in the workplace. Each side knows what the expected outcome will be in virtually any situation because there is verbiage within the agreement that dictates the steps each party must follow. This structure reduces the anxiety and uncertainty that workers have if something unexpected happens as part of their job.
7. There is a measure of job protection available to union workers.
Although the terms of seniority are different based on each collective bargaining agreement that is agreed upon, most operate in some way with an approach that has the last person hired being the first person fired if layoffs occur. Someone with more seniority will sometimes receive a higher preference for an open position as well. It can be used as one of the factors that are evaluated for applicants who are seeking a promotion. The idea of incorporating this advantage into the representation contracts is that it will eliminate favoritism that can sometimes occur in the workplace.
8. The collective bargaining agreements are usually short-term contracts.
There are more opportunities for change in a union environment compared to a non-union workplace because the collective bargaining agreements are typically in place for 24 months to 5 years, depending on the type of work involved. That means workers have an opportunity to negotiate for better wages, benefits, and protections each cycle. Their non-union counterparts are forced to plead their case in front of their superiors to receive a similar benefit. That is one of the primary reasons why union wages are typically higher.
9. It is easier to find solutions for disputes or complaints in the workplace.
When labor unions are organized correctly, then they make it easier for the employees in the workplace to handle complaints or disputes that occur. These issues may happen with management or with co-workers. The collective bargaining agreement creates a formal process that all parties must follow to raise a grievance which occurs. Most labor unions will also subsidize the legal fees of workers who need to sue an employer for some reason, such as a wrongful termination or for discriminatory actions against them.
List of the Cons of Labor Unions
1. Employees must contribute to a labor union for it to be successful.
There are three areas of participation in which employees must be active if they are going to have a successful experience with their labor union: monetary contribution, stewardship, and advocacy. The dues for a labor union can range from a couple of hundred dollars per year to more than $1,000 depending on the salary of the worker. Some require an initiation fee as well. These costs go to help pay for the salaries of those who conduct union business.
Most unions require a 3.5% royalty from each paycheck as well, although the percentage can be less for some positions. Workers are then asked to advocate for the union and their work environment during their free time and provide stewardship services in the office where union officials are not often present during the regular working hours.
2. There can be a lack of autonomy when working for a labor union.
Although a labor union does provide an excellent safeguard for workers to ensure they have an ongoing position, there can be a lot less individuality encouraged when people band together to create a single voice for change. If you happen to disagree with the decisions of the union or your co-workers, it doesn’t matter. You are still bound by them. The only out that you have is to either quit your job or disassociate from the union.
3. It creates a working environment which can discourage collaboration.
People who work in a unionized environment report that their direct supervisor often treats them in a hierarchical way instead of as an equal partner when completing tasks at the office. Almost half of all workers feel like this disadvantage applies to them after they join a labor union compared to 36% of employees who say this happens in a non-union position.
Workers who are not unionized also report that their supervisor creates an environment that is open and more trusted compared to employees who joined a union to work. When eliminating government workers from this result, the margin was 80% to 71%. Although there aren’t large differences in the job satisfaction rates of these two groups, it is clear to see that the relationship that people have with labor unions is becoming more acrimonious.
4. The political climate can often turn against labor unions.
Unionized employees can make legitimate gains in wages and benefits when they come together in the public or private sector. Because over 50% of all union members belong to a public-sector union being a state or federal employee, the politics of employment often create a climate that can rapidly turn against employees who associate with a labor union as a measure of job protection. Political attacks, such as those levied by Governor Scott Walker against workers in 2011, can decrease membership rolls and weaken the gains that the unions have made over the past decades.
5. There is the issue of seniority to consider with labor unions.
The advantages that seniority provides within a labor union can be a detriment to new workers who are looking to get a start to their career. Many employees are asked to be more productive and talented as a rookie than their veteran counterparts who might be working right beside them. Despite the higher levels of effort that are expected to maintain employment, it is the people who were first hired that will lose their jobs if downsizing occurs. Junior workers may decide to avoid union employment if there is uncertainty in their preferred industry.
This issue can even cause junior workers to lose a position even if their job is not part of the downsizing effort. Some collective bargaining agreements allow workers with more seniority to “bump” out people with less to take their position. That process continues until the least-senior member of the team loses their job or someone decides to leave, taking an early retirement.
6. It can be challenging to remove disruptive employees from a unionized environment.
When there is a labor union in place to protect workers, then there are protections that require employees to be fired for “just cause” or “due cause” based on their conduct and a history of disciplinary action. It can be challenging to remove workers who are disruptive to the workplace in this situation because an immediate termination may not be permitted by the collective bargaining agreement. Managers must be proactive about documenting every conversation and meeting they have with disruptive individuals to prove that they have taken steps to correct the situation and those measures failed.
7. Labor unions can disregard worker experience or educational assets.
Although the workers who are hired by an employer under a union contract must meet specific qualifications to hold their position, the experience or education that they bring to the environment is often secondary to the seniority of other workers. A collective bargaining agreement would typically remove someone with a doctorate over a worker with 10 years of experience and a GED. This process can lead to a lack of innovation in the workplace because the newest ideas are the first to disappear in times of crisis. That can make it challenging for some companies to grow.
The pros and cons of a labor union show that on the balance, most workers are better off with one than without its presence. There are significant increases in wages and benefits which can apply to the entire family. The working environments are typically safer as well, and job security is much less of an issue. Although there are more dues and fees to pay for these privileges, many union workers find themselves earning up to $200 more per week than their non-union counterparts for completing the same work.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Masters Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.