Thanks to labor unions, wages have improved, the workweek is shorter and the workplace is safer.
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However, employers sometimes complain that unions are harmful to business and to the economy. From an employee standpoint, is being a union member beneficial? Here are some pros and cons of union jobs.
The Pros of Belonging to a Union
Better wages. The median weekly income of full-time wage and salary workers who were union members in 2010 was $917, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For nonunion workers, it was $717.
More access to benefits. Some 93% of unionized workers were entitled to medical benefits compared to 69% of their nonunion peers, according to the National Compensation Survey published last year by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The survey represented about 101 million private industry workers and 19 million state and local government employees.
Unmarried domestic partners -- same sex and opposite sex -- also had access more often to these benefits if they were unionized. Workers with union representation also had 89% of their health insurance premiums paid by their employer for single coverage and 82% for family coverage. For nonunion workers, the comparable numbers were 79% and 66%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And 93% of unionized workers have access to retirement benefits through employers compared to 64% of their nonunion counterparts.
Job security. Nonunion employees are typically hired "at will," meaning they can be fired for no reason. There are exceptions. Employers can't terminate a worker for discriminatory reasons such as race, religion, age and the like. Nor can they fire an at-will employee for being a whistleblower and certain other reasons.
However, workers with union jobs can only be terminated for "just cause," and the misconduct must be serious enough to merit such action. Before an employee can actually be fired, he or she can go through a grievance procedure, and if necessary, arbitration.
"If I know I can't be easily fired, I can speak up more freely," says Monica Bielski Boris, assistant professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois.
Strength in numbers. Unionized workers have more power as a cohesive group than by acting individually. "What you gain is the muscle of collective action," says Hoyt Wheeler, a professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina who is now a labor arbitrator. Through collective bargaining, workers negotiate wages, health and safety issues, benefits, and working conditions with management via their union.
Seniority. Rules differ among collective bargaining agreements, but in the event of layoffs, employers usually are required to dismiss the most recent hires first and those with the most seniority last -- sometimes called "last hired, first fired."
In some cases, a worker with a union job who has more seniority may receive preference for an open job. Seniority also can be a factor in determining who gets a promotion. The idea is that seniority eliminates favoritism in the workplace.
"The chief advantage of seniority is it is objective," Wheeler says.
The Drawbacks of a Union Work Life
Union dues and initiation fees. Dues can range from $200 to several hundred dollars per year, partially offsetting higher wages. Some unions also require a one-time initiation fee. Dues help the union pay for officials' salaries and conducting union business, but members sometimes complain about the amount they pay, how the money is spent, and how it is allocated between the national and local union.
Loss of autonomy. The flip side of job security is that union members sacrifice individuality by belonging to a group. You may disagree with the union's decisions, but you are bound by them.
"It's a trade-off," Bielski Boris says.
Less collaborative work environment. Unionized workers experience less of a sense of partnership and trust with their supervisors, according to a survey conducted by the Gallup and Healthways organizations last year.
More than 149,500 interviews of workers were conducted. Regardless of whether they worked in local, state or federal government or outside of government, unionized employees more often said their supervisor treated them like he or she was their boss and not a partner than did their nonunion counterparts. Among nongovernment employees, for example, the margin was 48% to 36%.
Similarly, nonunion employees across the board said their supervisor created an environment that is trusting and open more often than those who were unionized. Among nongovernment workers, the margin was 80% to 71%. Despite this, there aren't large differences in job satisfaction between the two groups, according to Gallup and Healthways.
Employers' relationships with unions have become more acrimonious since the 1970s, Bielski Boris says. And nowadays, some governors of revenue-starved states are blaming public sector unions for their woes and aggressively attempting to reduce benefits and curtail collective bargaining rights. (Public sector unions account for more than half of all union members in the United States.)
"The political climate can often turn against unions and their members," Bielski Boris says. The political attacks, combined with declining membership rolls, could weaken gains made by unionized employees.
Seniority. The advantages that seniority provides can be a detriment to newer employees. You may be more productive or talented than a veteran worker, yet you're the one who likely will be laid off in a downsizing. A union's collective bargaining agreement also may require employers to provide other perks based on seniority rather than merit to the detriment of junior workers with union jobs. Some agreements enable a worker displaced from a job to "bump" another worker with less seniority and take his or her job.
Wheeler, the labor arbitrator, understands the pros and cons of being a union member better than most. "On balance, I think workers are better off with a union than without one, by far," he says.
WASHINGTON -- This week, Republican state legislators in Wisconsin plan to take up right-to-work legislation in a special session. If the measure passes and is signed by Gov. Scott Walker (R), Wisconsin would become the 25th state in the country with a right-to-work law on its books.
So what is right-to-work?
Under U.S. labor law, a union that wins an election in a workplace must represent all the workers in the bargaining unit, even the ones who may have voted against the union. Since that representation costs money, unions prefer to ink contracts that require all the workers in the unit to support the union financially. Right-to-work laws make such arrangements illegal.
Under right to work, no employee can be required to pay fees to the union. Once provided with an out, many workers naturally choose to stop supporting it. Some may have never liked the union or its politics. But others may opt out simply due to economic self-interest: It makes little sense to pay the union for a service that it's obligated to provide you anyway.
Conservatives like to say right-to-work legislation promotes individual freedom. Unions like to say it advances individual free-riding, since workers can enjoy the benefits of the union's bargaining without helping to underwrite it.
(Contrary to popular opinion, no worker in the U.S. can be forced to be a full dues-paying, card-carrying member of a union. But they can be compelled to pay so-called "agency fees" -- the portion of dues that goes expressly to bargaining and representation costs, as opposed to, say, political campaigns. Right-to-work guarantees that workers do not have to pay these fees.)
On the right, proponents of right-to-work argue that the laws make states more competitive and attract business. On the left, opponents of right-to-work argue that the laws drive down wages and fail to create jobs. What few would deny is that right-to-work laws can be crippling for organized labor.
As workers bow out of unions, the remaining workers must bear a larger share of the costs associated with representation and organizing. And if the union becomes less effective, workers have even more reason to leave, creating a downward spiral.
Republicans in Michigan passed a right-to-work law there in 2012, despite the state's storied labor history and the presence of the United Auto Workers union. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics has already revealed a drop in union density in Michigan. Last year, the estimated number of union members dropped by 48,000, despite the fact that the state added 44,000 more workers to its economy.
Whatever their feelings on labor unions' role in the workplace, many Republicans have a political interest in passing right-to-work legislation. By weakening organized labor, the laws indirectly hurt the Democratic Party, as unions remain a critical piece of the party's base. It's worth noting that the very phrase "right to work," with its positive connotations, constitutes a linguistic coup for the right. (Unions have sought, with much less success, to brand the legislation as "right to work for less.")
Like other legislative attacks on collective bargaining, the proliferation of right-to-work laws plays a large role in organized labor's ongoing existential crisis. Right now, not even 7 percent of private-sector workers belong to a labor union, down from a peak of about 30 percent in the post-World War II years. More right-to-work laws will likely diminish that density further.
Wisconsin would carry some particular symbolism as the 25th state to become right-to-work. If half the states in the country had adopted such laws, right-to-work status would be more the norm than an aberration. Long common in the South and West, such laws have recently made inroads in the comparably union-dense Midwest, not just in Michigan but also Indiana. And as more states become right-to-work, conservatives in other states will undoubtedly argue that they also need to be right-to-work to remain competitive.
If the 2011 labor demonstrations in Madison were any indication, the Wisconsin capital could potentially burst into large-scale protests against the legislation this week. Regardless, Walker has acknowledged that he will sign a right-to-work bill if it reaches his desk. As contentious as such laws may be, they now appear possible -- if not always likely -- in just about any state where Republicans control the legislature and the governor's mansion.