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4 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Joining a Union
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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
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Union members work together to improve workplace conditions and collectively bargain for their rights and interests. They are often entitled to numerous benefits that many nonunion members are not.

Every worker has the right to join a union or establish one at their place of work in the United States. With more than 60 unions throughout the nation, representing many different professions and more than 14 million employees, it’s not difficult to find one to represent you. 

First, you’ll need to get information from the union that represents employees in your industry and/or place of work. A union organizer can go over the details. What else is involved in joining a union? Here’s the rundown.

Union jobs/ and typical industries with union jobs

Industries and professions that typically have union jobs include:

• K-12 teachers

• Firefighters

• Miners

• Factory workers

• State workers

• Bakers

• Nurses

• Bus drivers

• Farm workers

• Public employees

• Plumbers

• Office workers

• Pilots

• Engineers

• Construction workers

• Doctors

• Electricians and other utility workers

• Railroad conductors

• Truck drivers

• Actors, directors and producers

• Camera operators

How much does it cost to be a member of a union?

Most unions require monetary membership fees, and union member dues can vary considerably. They are used to support union activities, such as political campaigns, strike funds and salaries for the leadership. Generally, the amounts of the dues are determined by members of local unions (also known as chapters). 

For example, American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest union for federal employees, says that members pay an average of $18 - $22 per pay period. 

Can anyone join a union?

Everyone has the fundamental right to join a union in the U.S., but not all places of work or industries have them. It’s also your right to organize a union, so if there isn’t one available for you to join, you can consider starting one at your organization.

Why would I want to join a union?

There are many benefits to joining a union. One of the most important is that you’ll be part of a larger group that advocates together and on your behalf. Collective bargaining is a much stronger bargaining tool than a single voice because you’re more likely to be heard as a group than alone.

This leads to better working conditions in general. For example, union members typical enjoy benefits such as excellent health insurance, better working hours, paid time off (PTO), retirement savings plans, and other resources. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), nonunion workers had wage earnings that were only 82 percent of union workers’ on average in 2018.

Because union members are not considered at-will employees, unlike the majority of workers in the U.S., union members typically have stronger job security than their peers. Employers can only fire union workers for just cause, and employees can appeal those decisions through a grievance procedure. In the event of layoffs, seniority plays an important role; those who were hired first must be laid off last. Seniority also grants privileges such as first dibs on internal job openings.

Is joining a union a good idea?

There are plenty of perks you’ll enjoy if you join a union, but it’s important to keep in mind some of the drawbacks, too. For one, you’ll have to pay union dues, payments that typically fund the union’s activities and leaders’ salaries. These costs vary depending on your particular union; generally, they are agreed upon by the members.

Moreover, you may begin to feel like you have no autonomy as a union member. Most decisions are made by the group, not on an individual level. You won’t be able to negotiate salary and other issues by yourself; the union will do that on your behalf. You also won’t be able to decide whether or not to strike — this decision is typically made by a majority vote, and if the union decides to do it, you’ll have to participate and forfeit your wages for the duration of the strike.

Another disadvantage is that because seniority plays such a strong role in areas like promotions, raises, layoffs and more, you may feel like you’re not being rewarded for your performance. This is one of the biggest criticisms of unions: an excellent worker may lose out on a promotion to a poor one because the latter has been at the company longer, and there’s less incentive to work hard.

Other tips for joining a union

Before you commit to joining a union, here are some other tips:

• Research the union by asking coworkers and leadership about factors like policies, procedures and dues. You should also ask your colleagues whether they’ve found the union helpful — have they needed the union to negotiate on their behalf? What was the outcome? What perks do they enjoy as a union member?

• On the subject of dues, find out how much they are, how frequently you’ll need to pay and what they’re used for. (If your workplace has a union and you’re not a member, you may be required to pay all or a portion of union dues anyway, unless your state is a Right to Work state. Keep in mind that you are not required to join a union, however.)

• If your job isn’t affiliated with a union, consider alternative routes for joining a union, such as going through a union apprenticeship program. (This is a more likely step if you’re looking for a job, rather than if you already have one.) There may also be unions for your industry you can join outside of work.

• Consider starting your own union at your place of work. It’s your right to do so, and the process is less involved than you may think. These steps will help you get it off the ground.

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