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.
Labor unions, also known as trade unions continue to be controversial despite the purpose of supposedly protecting the rights of employees and laborers. A labor union is an organization created by a group of workers of a company to protect its workers when it comes to concerns on wages, working conditions and hours at work.
These unions are more common in mining, construction, manufacturing and transportation industries and in recent years, have suffered a decline particularly in the private sector. Some economists are also not in favor of this practice because of the monopoly that goes along with it. In the United States, labor union organizations include the United Auto Workers, United Steel Workers, American Postal Workers’ Union and the Screen Actor Guild. Here is a look at the pros and cons presented by the advocates and critics of labor unions.
The Pros of Labor Unions
1. They protect the interests of employees.
Organizations like labor unions aim to ensure that workers are given fair compensation for their work. Employees who are members of a labor union are given the voice and support to demand for higher wages, a safe working environment and not work more than eight hours without overtime pay. Without this kind of organization, proponents are concerned about employers taking advantage of their employees. They say that without a support system to back up the employees, the management have all the right to impose policies at the office which are pro-management like no security of tenure, low wages and overtime hours without pay.
2. They can result to satisfied employees which is beneficial to the company.
Employees who are not satisfied with their jobs often leave the company, which can be a loss for the business. With more unhappy workers, resignation is high and this would mean having to train new members of the staff as well as added expense to the company. With a labor union to negotiate with the company regarding better working conditions and higher wages, employees are unlikely to resign because they will be content to work with their employers. This will also mean more productivity from the team and more sales for the company.
3. Labor unions are responsible for added benefits.
Advocates of labor unions believe that an employee is more likely to get what he or she wants when it comes to benefits such as number of paid leaves, retirement benefits and insurance coverage for both single employees and married employees. According to surveys, unionized members enjoy these benefits while only a small percentage of non-union members have access to these benefits.
4. Employees are protected from discrimination and inequality.
Individuals approving of labor unions say that employees who are union members will not be discriminated upon when it comes to religion, race, age and gender. Labor unions can include in their policy a clause about prohibiting the discrimination of an individual on certain factors, including sexual orientation and ailments such as being HIV positive. Without an organization to protect the right of an individual to work, it will be easy for some employers to hire not based on qualifications but on selection.
5. It results to collective power which is a good thing for employees.
Some proponents of labor unions believe that there is strength in numbers which makes these organizations effective in being able for employees to bargain with their employees and get what they want. Through collective bargaining, employees are more likely to get more benefits, higher salaries and better working conditions from management as opposed to forwarding these concerns individually.
The Cons of Labor Unions
1. They are cartels.
According to critics, labor unions can be monopolized and can be run by cartels. With their power to demand for higher wages, they also cut down the number of jobs available in the market. It might be beneficial to the union members but employers are forced to cut down on hiring other workers for certain jobs. Those who are against say that the ones who are in the losing end are those non-members, taxpayers and the consumers.
2. They enjoy privileges such as immunity from taxation and antitrust laws.
Opponents of trade unions raise their concern on these two issues. Even if a labor union is an organization, it is exempted from taxes, which opponents believe should be paid to the government. An antitrust law, on the other hand, finds any restraint in commerce and trade as illegal. With labor unions, employees have the right to stop production and go on strikes which in effect is a form of restraining trade and commerce. The end result will be less supply and higher prices of the affected products. They will not be sanctioned because they exempted from antitrust laws. These exemptions are contended by opponents,
3. Labor unions can be costly not only for the employers but to employees as well.
With the government backing up labor unions, critics say that in the long run, the employees are the ones who will suffer because these organizations often demand membership dues which can be a dent to the net amount employees should be bringing home to their families. They are also not agreeing to the way the system works especially when it comes to boycotts and strikes, pointing out that not all members want to join these activities. Despite their reluctance, they have no choice but to be a part of these unrests since they are union members.
4. Employees are dictated by these labor unions.
One of the criticisms thrown at labor unions is the effect on employees’ performance. Although these organizations can influence workers’ productivity by way of getting higher salaries, labor unions can also demand union members to stop carrying their tasks, which would curtail production and affect the consumers directly.
Both proponents and opponents of labor unions have relevant points when it comes to labor unions. These organizations have a number of benefits to offer members but there are also economists who don’t completely agree that it is what the economy needs and in the U.S., unions have become unpopular with the private sector. These types of organizations have advantages and disadvantages that should be taken in consideration by the government and voters alike. The important thing is for any employee to know and understand the policies of a certain labor union before he or she joins one.