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Does a Union Job Provide Security?

If you are in a profession such as teaching or nursing, or work in a skilled trades position such as electrician, plumber or pipe-fitter, then you are probably a member of a union. Many professions involve or even require being in a union. You may accept a job offer not realizing that the job or the company you are joining is “unionized.” So, if you take a union job, what does it mean? And does it provide security and benefits that non-union jobs don’t or can’t offer? 

First, What is a Union?

According to the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization for U.S. unions, a union is an organized group of workers that uses the collective strength of its members to have a voice in the workplace regarding wages, hours, benefits, workplace safety, job training and other work-related issues. U.S. Law protects the right of workers to join or form a union to improve their jobs and ensure fairness, respect and safety in the workplace.

On average, union members earn better wages and benefits than workers in similar professions who aren’t represented by a union. Unions benefit employers by providing a more reliable and happy workforce. Union workers are required to pay dues to the union, which can be a set percentage of each workers’ pay or a percentage calculated on a sliding scale based on salary. Dues are used by the union to fund the programs and activities it is engaged in.  

Unions typically form employment contracts with employers on behalf of their members. Any changes to the terms and conditions of the contract have to be negotiated, and the members of the union or their elected representatives are able to vote for or against proposed changes. Therefore, with a union in the workplace, benefits and other working conditions cannot be changed at the whim of upper management, as they can in a non-union workplace. This system makes it more likely that an employer will avoid actions that it cannot justify to its employees, such as implementing unsafe equipment or extended work hours without proper compensation.

Union workers have the right ? protected by law and union rules and procedures ? to affect union policy, while non-union workers do not have a similarly protected right to affect change in any other private organization. However, if you take a union job, there are no guarantees that you would agree with everything contained in a union contract, as these contracts are approved by a majority vote of the union members in the bargaining unit or the union officers elected by the members. If your union votes to go on strike because of stalled or broken contract negotiations, you are obligated to join in ? and at the risk of receiving no wages during the strike. Some unions may have funds banked to cover members’ wages during a strike, but that isn’t guaranteed.

Union Workers’ Job Security

Job security has always been a key benefit to being part of a union, as unions typically work with employers to preserve jobs, especially during hard times when a layoff may be necessary. Since non-union workers are typically hired "at will" and without a union contract behind them, they can be fired for no particular reason. Workers with union jobs can only be terminated for "just cause," and the misconduct must be serious enough to merit such action.

Unions protect workers from arbitrary employer actions and provide them with legal support in the event of a workplace issue that could result in discipline or dismissal, such as sexual harassment or a customer complaint. Before an employee can actually be fired, he or she can go through a grievance process and, if necessary, arbitration. That protection and support helps make jobs better and often leads union members to stay at their jobs longer than non-union workers. By ensuring better training, lower turnover and a clear role for workers’ in decisions about how work gets done, unions increase productivity.

Evolution of Union Job Security

However, in the past 20 years or so, it has become more and more difficult for unions to maintain job security, as many union-dominated industries have had to make mass layoffs. Market forces such as globalization, changing technology and the use of robotics instead of people to perform tasks have also contributed to making jobs less secure. As a result, union membership has declined. Also contributing to the decline in union membership is the trend among most workers, particularly younger ones, to not stay at the same job or workplace for their entire career. Most unions will only ensure certain benefits, including promotion, if a worker has been in the job a set period of time.

As you can see, there are several advantages to being in a union, however there are some drawbacks too (including paying annual union dues). By researching upfront what a particular union job entails, and what the organization behind it offers, you will have a concrete understanding of what to expect as you consider your career options.

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