Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Why Join a Labor Union? The Key Benefits Workers May Not Know About

August 19th, 2019 | Janet B. Gerhard

Unions are struggling in this country. The U.S. Department of Labor reported that the percent of U.S. wage and salary workers who were members of unions in the year 2018 was 10.5 percent, down from 20.1 percent in 1983. That low level of membership has not been seen since the 1930’s—just before the introduction of labor laws protecting workers’ rights to organize—a September 2018 PBS News Hour article observed. When only 1 in 10 U.S. workers is a member of a union, according to Bureau of Labor statistics, it would seem that many working Americans are missing out on the key benefits that union membership affords.

Biggest Reasons to Join a Union – How Unions Improve Workers’ Welfare

When I asked my friend Ray Greaves, who is General Chairman of New Jersey’s Amalgamated Transit Union, how he would sum up the benefits of joining a union, he said this: “Any worker who has the opportunity to join a union should, because when you join a union, you improve your safety at work, prioritize the health of both you and your family, protect your financial stability, invest in your retirement savings, and access a whole community of support in your job.”

Those benefits were worth unpacking further, with a closer look at how unions improve workers’ welfare— starting with these three key benefits:

  1. Better Wages and Job Benefits Via “Collective Bargaining” – Membership in a union means that you are part of an organized body of employees who can negotiate better, more favorable wages and other conditions of employment, such as health insurance benefits, retirement plans and fair work practice policies. As evidence, a study by the Economic Policy Institute found (among still other economic advantages to joining a union) that:
  • Unions raise wages of unionized workers by roughly 20% and raise compensation, including both wages and benefits, by about 28%.
  • Unionized workers receive more generous health benefits than non-unionized workers— and pay less for those more generous health benefits. In retirement, unionized workers are 24 percent more likely to be covered by health insurance paid for by their employer.
  • Unionized workers are more likely than their nonunionized counterparts to receive paid leave, are 18 to 28 percent more likely to have employer-provided health insurance, and are 23 percent to 54 percent more likely to be in employer-provided pension plans.

In other words, there is strength in numbers. Whereas one person won’t convince HR and management that they need comprehensive health insurance coverage, a large body of unionized employees will be much more persuasive at making the same case.

  1. Better Job Security and Just Representation of Your Employee Rights – Unions have successfully championed legislation to protect employees from unfair work environments and labor practices. A case in point: the Weingarten Act, passed in 1974, which allows a union member to ask for union representation if they are called into a meeting that may change their job status or take disciplinary action.

Often, union representation can ensure the mitigation of disciplinary actions against you. Imagine, for example, a scenario in which you have a drug or alcohol problem and test positive for a drug screening or begin to exhibit problem behaviors at work. In addition to successfully advocating for protection of your job and milder punitive actions on the part of your employer, your union may help you find a low-cost treatment option that allows you to keep your job by seeking treatment for your condition. (In many cases, a union will have contracted with a specific provider for just these sorts of situations.) That access to low-cost addiction treatment and protection of your job while you are away are benefits that many non-unionized workers often don’t get.

  1. Safer Working Conditions – A 2016 study in the American Journal of Public Health concluded that labor unions promote healthier, safer workplaces by ensuring “higher wage and benefit standards, working hours limits, workplace hazards protections, and other factors.” The researchers further concluded that unions promote workers’ well-being by encouraging “democratic participation” and “a sense of community among workers.”

There are many benefits to union membership: This list is not exhaustive. Still, better wages and benefits, better job security and representation of your rights, and safer working conditions are three key reasons to join a union. Together, they make the case that more working Americans should be joining unions.

About the Author: Janet B. Gerhard is Director of Public Affairs for FHE Health, a nationally recognized addiction and mental health treatment provider. Janet is regularly invited to speak to workforce gatherings about addiction-related topics. Learn about FHE Health’s addiction treatment programs here. If you have questions about this issue or other treatment-related inquiries, feel free to contact Janet at 1-866-768-7021.

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