When should one consider joining or perhaps even creating a trade union in the US, as opposed to taking other actions? That is, when would it do more good for the person, rather than doing him or her no good?
When considering unionizing it is important to realize that the process is likely to be harmful (at least in the short term) to your company and to the workers.
Many companies are forced out of business when they are not able to compete due to added costs required due to the union.
I would not consider voting to unionize unless the company is strong and has a solid profitability. Better to quit a job you hate than cost every one else you work with their job. Not to mention bringing in a union could just cost you dues and end up costing you pay.
These conditions may warrant considering unionization:
Things you should not unionize for:
There are companies that I have worked at in my life that I feel could or have benefited from unionization. If I were going to try to organize a union I would try to find one that was not part of a big national union. These are businesses with their own interests that you can not count on to care about your company, your wages, or your retirement.
There's no easy answer.
On pay, the most comparable issue, the headline statistics for the US as a whole are that:
As with all statistics, they come with caveats - the full info is here: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm
To help you think through it, you need to ask yourself whether you're prepared to make it work:
Do you have issues which you and your colleagues have common cause over? This could be wages, but it could be safety, stress and workload, or even just respect.
Are they issues which people care about? A union is no good if its members don't care. But if you and your colleagues are willing to be confident and work together, then you can make a difference.
Are they issues on which you can make a difference? If your company is about to close down, you may find getting a new coffee machine might not be achievable. But generally, there's a lot that is winnable with the right approach. You can make the case that taking care of your employees is an effective way for the company to foster the trust and innovation that's essential to success.
If you have issues which match these three criteria, then there is something you can do collectively. You can try to do it on your own, or you can ask an existing union for help. Think about what's important to you in a union, consider what other workplaces in your industry are doing. It's a decision you and your colleagues need to make together.
If you're going into it thinking just "will it benefit me", then you need to think about your career. If you're genuinely going to be leaving your job soon, then don't make a half-hearted attempt. But if you plan on working in the same industry for any length of time, then please do consider joining a union. Very often unions on one job end up improving conditions for all jobs, union and non-union in that industry.
Finally, if it only evens out for you personally, consider that it might help your colleagues!
In the United States we have two basic systems for Unionized workers. Twenty three states have 'right to work' laws which in general prohibit collective bargaining agreements that force all employees to join the union and outlaw forced collection of union dues from non-members.
The other states all allow some form of compulsory union membership contracts.
In general the states with forced union membership have slightly higher average wages, but they also have significantly higher unemployment.
If you are considering forming a Union in a right to work state you'll have a steeper hill to climb.
Keep in mind that union membership has been steadily declining in the U.S. private sector, dropping from 20% in 1983 to 12% in 2010.
If you are interested in forming a union then the first step is to talk to an existing union, such as the AFL-CIO, Teamsters, or Service Employees International Union. They will be glad to help you take the first steps if you decide to try and unionize your employer.
While union membership by technical professionals is unusual in the U.S., it's not unheard of. Boeing engineers in Washington state unionized a few years ago.
My brother had a great quote about unions "Unions are like medicine..." Meaning, on one hand, that unions should be seen as a solution to a problem or a preventative measure to prevent problems from occurring/recurring and on the other hand that taking them in excess or when not needed may make you sick.
Some quick tests that may uncover whether a union may be a good prescription: