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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?

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Attitudes to Unions very around the world. It is difficult to know how to answer this question without the context of your location. In some countries, Unions are seen as money grubbing parasites, seeking to stifle competition and destroy tax earning businesses. In other countries, unions are the bastions of democracy, the only organisations capable of effectively fighting for fair pay and conditions. In the UK, we have a more balanced approach, recognising their failings, but also appreciating the work that Unions do for the benefit of business and society. – Mark Booth Apr 16 '12 at 11:06
I think that perceptions on Unions are often coloured by politics. In the UK, many of us look at the US and consider it right wing, but when we look at much of Europe we consider it left wing. Our labour laws reflect that, they are not as libertarian as the US, but nor are they as liberal as other European countries. Foaming mouth unionists aside, many unions in the UK do a good job of employee representation and collective bargaining and contrary to popular believe many are free of association with a political party. – Mark Booth Apr 27 '12 at 15:41
@MarkBooth - There are unions in the US that do the same. I am scared to think about how the Meat Packing industry would operate today if it were never unionized. Unions also tend to help keep non union shops honest. – Chad May 2 '12 at 15:36
@ramhound in no way is the UK Balanced the balance is very strongly on the side of the employer and we don't have the "issues" that bedevil Unions in the USA – Neuro Oct 17 '12 at 20:17

4 Answers 4

up vote 14 down vote accepted

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.

While no one can predict the fate of your company if you become unionized, you should know that the Teamsters' track record for its members keeping jobs is not a good one.


Today's unions are a multi-billion dollar per year industry, collecting more than $10 billion per year in union dues from workers. The majority of today's union-represented employees never voted to become unionized but must pay the union or be fired from their jobs. Union dues are used to finance the running of the union's business.


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:

  • The company has a history of flouting the laws and regulations regarding safety and employee rights.
  • The company uses false promises and disingenuous incentives to drive goals but has real consequences for not meeting base standards.
  • The company moves employees to positions they are not capable of doing or that are unpleasant to force out employees they do not like, or who are on the verge of retention awards.

Things you should not unionize for:

  • Better pay - You will end up losing here. While you may see an immediate bump in pay you could earn more taking your experience to another company than you will get though unionization.
  • Better benefits - See above.
  • Better working hours - The business has needs. This is usually one of the first thing the union gives up in negotiations anyway.
  • Because you do not like your company - You will not like your employer anymore in a union shop than you did before. Causing the company harm will do no good. You are better off finding a job at a company you do like.

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.

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You left out under you shouldn't unionize if "You are higher skill, capability or just a harder worker than your peers and those qualities in your particular area of expertise is rewarded with higher raises.". Because when you are in a union, the best and worst workers are treated the same. – Dunk Apr 19 '12 at 18:01
@Dunk - Because I do not think that is a valid reason not to unionize. You form a union to protect yourself and your coworkers. If you need protecting it does not really matter if you are a better worker than your colleagues. – Chad Apr 19 '12 at 18:08
I think the answer is balanced but is the source likely to be responsible for the facts that it cites? – Erik Reppen Jul 20 '12 at 3:11
@Chad Being politically charged encourages bias. I'm just saying I would look for slightly more neutral ground. That nobody disputes the figures is kind of hard to corroborate and doesn't necessarily prove they're not trumped up. Again, good balanced answer. I'm just picking a nit. But I wouldn't go to either extreme of the gun-rights debate for instance, if I were looking for facts. – Erik Reppen Jul 20 '12 at 19:02

when would it do more good for the person, rather than doing him or her no good?

There's no easy answer.

On pay, the most comparable issue, the headline statistics for the US as a whole are that:

In 2011, among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $938, while those who were not union members had median weekly earnings of $729.

As with all statistics, they come with caveats - the full info is here:

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!

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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.

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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:

  • Are your basic human rights being violated?
    • Safe working conditions etc.
  • Is your company violating your local or national labor laws?
    • This can be a grey area, sometimes simply reporting the issue may resolve it.
  • Are the majority of people in your workplace living below the poverty line, while the company boasts considerable profits?
    • Are people being economically exploited?
  • Do most of the tasks performed in your workplace require a significant amount of skill, training, or experience?
    • Measure of how easy it will be to replace the workforce.
  • Do you think you can gain and maintain critical mass?
    • Are enough of your coworkers interested and are they likely to stay interested?
    • If your company operates out of more than one location can they afford to close your location?
  • Do you and your coworkers have specific demands that you all agree on?
    • General discontent isn't actionable, you need clear goals.
  • Does the company realistically have the resources to meet your demands?
    • Pick your battles, you can't squeeze blood from a stone.
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