What to Know About Union Membership

Recently, with the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it was once again brought to our attention as Americans more about not just what happened that day but the ripple effects that have lasted for two decades. 

For example, many of the labor organizations in New York State and throughout the country, according to the Hansen & Rosasco law firm that handles 9/11 claims, came together to help. Many unions assisted as their members got sick from toxin exposure at the attack sites, and they remain involved to this day. 

With that in mind, particularly with 9/11 once again so fresh on all of our minds, the following are things to know about joining a labor union. 

What is a Labor Union?

A union is an organization serving as a go-between for members and their employer. The goal of a labor union is to provide power to workers to negotiate favorable labor conditions and other benefits, primarily through what’s called collective bargaining. 

Union members do earn higher wages than non-union workers. On average, union workers have wages 28% higher than their counterparts who aren’t members. 

The collective bargaining process is one in which employees, through unions, negotiate contracts and conditions with their employers. Collective bargaining is used for terms of employment including job health and safety policies, benefits, hours, leave, pay, and more. 

This type of negotiation is used as a way to deal with problems in the workplace. 

Around ¾ of private-sector workers in the U.S. have the right to collective bargaining, as do 2/3 of public employees. 

The Pros of Belonging to Unions

There are certainly upsides that come with union membership. 

Along with union workers having higher salaries, the vast majority are entitled to medical benefits, which is not the case for non-union workers. It’s more likely if you’re in a union, your partner will have access to health care benefits as well. 

In most states, non-union workers are considered at-will, meaning employers can fire them for almost any reason. There are a few limitations, like discrimination, but not many. When you’re a member of a union, there has to be just cause for your employer to fire you, and they typically have to go through a process like arbitration to do so. 

If you have a dispute or complaint with your employer, unions will help you use processes to deal with it. 

Collective action can be facilitated through the concept of strength in numbers. 

What About the Downsides?

While there are plenty of benefits to union memberships, there are also some downsides to be aware of. 

The big one in the eyes of many employees is the dues. Dues can be up to several hundred dollars a year, which means they offset your higher wages. Sometimes, your union dues may end up deducting anywhere from 1.5% to 2.5% of your paycheck. To join some unions, you also have to pay a one-time initiation fee. 

The dues go toward paying the salaries of officials in the union and to conduct business, but there are sometimes complaints from members about how money is being spent, how it’s allocated between the local and national union, and how much they pay in general. 

If a workplace is unionized, it may be open or closed. 

Open employers don’t require paying dues for fees to a union as part of your employment. With a closed employer, employees have to be union members to apply. A closed employer might let someone not unionized apply, but then when they’re hired they’re required to become a member. 

A closed employer might also let you work as a non-member, but you must pay agency fees. Those fees then go toward the work of the union. 

Another downside is that you lose some of your autonomy when you’re unionized. You have to follow the union’s decisions even if you disagree with them. 

Just like it’s harder to fire employees who are part of a union, it can also be harder to promote them, so this is a downside. Unions put a lot of focus on who’s senior in a workplace. That means that if you’re a newer or high-performing employee, you might be passed over for opportunities because seniority is more important. 

Overall, there are extensive upsides and downsides to union membership. One of the more critical considerations in the whole concept of whether membership is worth it is the corporate culture. There are some employers where the corporate culture significantly supports union membership, even if it’s not required. 

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