In 1983, the Bureau of Labor Statistics started counting the number of employees (wage and salary) who belong to unions. In that year, 20.1% of staff had joined a union, made up of 17.7 million employees. These figures have shown a decline to 10.3% in both 2019 and 2021 with only 14 million registered members. Higher numbers of public sector employees (33.9%) join unions than those in the private sector (6.1%). What are the drivers behind these figures? We look at the pros and cons of belonging to a union from the employees’ perspective.
It is easier for an employer to fire an employee who doesn’t belong to a union. Those who do can utilize arbitration and grievance procedures and the employer is required to show just cause for termination.
Collective bargaining secures higher salary increases and better benefits, although all employees gain from it. Overall, union members are paid 30% more than non-union employees in the same industry. While 68% of non-union staff have health insurance, 92% of union workers are covered.
Unions have improved working conditions in the US, such as the OSHA guidelines, overtime regulations, and a minimum wage.
Unions have the clout to contribute to political agendas that affect the working class. They improve the salaries and close wage gaps for women and other minorities.
Unless protected by right to work legislation, potential employees must belong to the union if the workplace has a closed category union to get a job within that company or else they must join after being hired. They will then be liable for union fees, which vary between 1.5% and 3% of income. This scenario doesn’t apply in an open union environment.
When a union decides to pursue a course of action, members are bound to accept its decision. For example, if the union calls for a strike, union members have to participate. This may affect their income via the company’s no-work-no-pay policy.
Unions tend to support and fight for the promotions of members with seniority. This can hold back employees with better qualifications and skills.
A survey has shown that there is less trust and cooperation between union members and their supervisors. Similarly, employers may be less likely to employ someone who belongs to a union.
Shop stewards and union representatives do not all have equivalent skills when it comes to negotiations or assisting their members with grievances.
Right to Work Legislation
‘Right to work’ legislation exists in 28 states in the US. This law means that an employee cannot be forced to join a union or pay union fees as an employment condition. This is covered under the National Labor Relations Act, Section 14(b). For government employees, every state carries the right-to-work protection, as ruled by the Supreme Court in 2018. Employees still benefit from the collective bargaining negotiation agreements. To learn more about employees’ rights, and to read a list of right to work states, check out this infographic from G&A Partners.
Each individual must weigh the advantages and disadvantages of belonging to a labor union for themselves and make their own decision, knowing that this right is protected by the law.