There are pros and cons to everything — including employee unions. Here's everything you need to know about the benefits and pitfalls of unions before you consider joining one.
What is a labor union?
A labor union can be described as an employee organization that, simply put, advocates for the rights of employees.
"A labor union or trade union is an organized group of workers who unite to make decisions about conditions affecting their work," according to Union Plus. "Labor unions strive to bring economic justice to the workplace and social justice to our nation."
In fact, there are currently over 60 unions representing over 14 million workers throughout the country, according to Union Plus. These workers span a whole host of industries, including education, farming, mining, plumbing, healthcare, office work, etc.
Basically, unions function much like democracies. They hold elections to elect officers who make decisions on behalf of the union's members and they strive to give workers more power in their workplaces — just like democracies hold elections for presidents to make decisions on behalf of the country and in the best interest of the country's citizens.
While unions sound all positive, however, there are arguably some negatives to them, as well. Like everything, there are pros and cons — and their usefulness and benefits are largely debated, depending on who you ask.
Pros of Unions
Here are some of the most important pros of labor unions.
1. Unions protect workers' rights to work.
Many workplaces employ workers with at-will contracts, which means that they can be fired for really any reason — including for things that don't take place within the four walls of their workplace. Union representation, however, looks out for workers so that they have a better chance of retaining employment.
2. Unions increase workers' negotiation powers.
Unionized workers can better negotiate their contracts because they can bargain as a collective unit. Without a union, workers have to negotiate their pay and benefits on their own — and studies show that many women and minorities have a tougher time doing this.
3. Unions help workers to defend themselves.
Unionized workers have a guaranteed advocate in the workplace. Unions promise them enhanced job security, fair pay and a level of defense against things like disciplinary action statements and warnings at work. Unionized workers have grievance processes if they disagree with disciplinary actions taken against them, for example.
4. Unions ensure that workers have better retirement opportunities.
Unionized workers have better access to retirement benefits. Employees that are represented by a union in the workplace have better access to retirement benefits. In fact, workers who are employed within a unionized workplace are more likely to have 401ks or IRAs, as well as pensions.
5. Unionized workers tend to earn more than non-unionized workers.
Unionized workers tend to earn more than non-unionized workers all across the country. And it's not just pay either. Unionized workers have tougher ground on which to stand when negotiating all types of benefits like health and life insurance, paid vacation time, sick days and more, for example. In fact, about 93 percent of unionized workers were entitled to medical benefits compared to 69 percent of non-unionized workers, according to the National Compensation Survey published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Cons of Unions
Here are some of the downsides of labor unions.
1. Unions do not provide representation for free.
Unions aren't free. Union dues can actually range from about $200 to several hundred dollars per year, which takes a serious chunk out of workers' paychecks — if they're in a place to pay the dues (not all unionized workers are required to pay!). Workers, therefore, pay a portion of their salaries in order to receive the benefits of union representation, which may be upwards of 2.5% for some unions. There are also yearly fees, initiation fees, apprenticeship fees and more for some unions, which, of course, all adds up.
2. Unions may pit workers against companies.
Some may argue that unions pit workers against companies — always fighting for their rights, instead of working together with the company to fight toward a common goal. For companies, of course, this can hurt the culture of a workplace.
3. Union decisions may not always align with individual workers' wishes.
Many unions are active politically and, as such, will lobby governments at the local, state and national levels. Of course, not all employees in a union will share the same political views. This can cause some tension, especially because the lobbying efforts often come out of the dues that workers pay to be part of the union. Some employees may not want to support causes with which they don't agree.
Likewise, unions may advocate for changes in the workplace that don't necessarily benefit all employees — or they may advocate for certain benefits over others that aren't of the utmost priority for some workers who'd rather push for different changes. Because it's a group effort with unions, all advocacy is made on behalf of the majority, not the individuals.
4. Unions can discourage individuality.
Individual identities may arguably fall to the wayside with unions, which inherently operate with a group mentality. While there's, of course, strength in numbers, individuals may have a tougher time exercising their own power when it's masked by that of the group. Voices are louder together, but this means that individuals don't get to share their own voices beyond their votes, either. After all, unions make all decisions based on majority votes — not based on an individual's thoughts, opinions or ideas.
5. Unions can cause businesses to have to increase prices.
Because businesses tend to pay unionized workers higher pay, they also have to charge consumers higher prices. This also causes taxpayers to foot the bills in the long run — which can be a serious con for both businesses and consumers. Businesses might lose clients and customers if their prices are too high for people to pay, so this could be a dangerous loop.
About the Career Expert:
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist for a gamut of both online and print publications, as well as an adventure aficionado and travel blogger at HerReport.org. She covers all things women's empowerment — from navigating the workplace to navigating the world. She writes about everything from gender issues in the workforce to gender issues all across the globe.