16 Key Pros and Cons of Labor Unions Today

Thanks to the presence of labor unions around the world, there has been an improvement in wages. The workweek for many employees, including those without representation, is shorter today than it was in the past. Our workplace environments are safer because of this organizational effort as well.

Employers will also complain about the presence of labor unions today because they can be harmful to the business environment. Wage demands might be too high, benefit expectations could be unreasonable, and the terms of a collective bargaining agreement could make it a challenge to remove unproductive employees from the workforce.

There are about 15 million people who identify as being part of a union today in the private and public sectors, creating a membership rate of about 11%. These numbers have been going down over the past 20 years as efforts at union busting have taken place, especially for public-sector unions supported by taxpayer dollars.

The pros and cons of labor unions today is still essential to review because many of the protections that they offered in the past are still required today.

List of the Pros of Labor Unions Today

1. Workers earn more money per week when they join a union.
The median weekly income for a full-time wage and salary workers in the United States is $200 higher week compared to employees who work in a non-union environment. Even workers who don’t receive representation but have a union supporting their co-workers benefit from a higher wage. This advantage allows an employer to attract better talent to their company because they’re offering wages that are more competitive and guaranteed. There might be less flexibility with hours when compared to freelancers or gig economy specialists, but the extra income helps to establish the middle class.

2. There is more access to benefits thanks to labor unions today.
Over 90% of the unionized employees in the United States are entitled to some type of medical benefit through their job. For non-union workers, the rate is below 70%. More family members have access to healthcare because of this advantage as well, with unionized positions more likely to support unmarried domestic partners in same-gender or opposite-gender relationships.

More of the healthcare insurance premium is paid with a union-based position compared to non-union jobs as well. Employers cover 89% of the cost for single coverage and 82% of family coverage needs on average with today’s collective bargaining agreements. Workers in a non-union position only had 79% of single coverage and 66% of family coverage expenses covered with this benefit.

3. Workers have better job security with a union in the workplace.
Most non-union employees are hired as an at-will worker, which means that they can be fired without cause unless the reason involves some issue with discrimination. The only protections for workers in this circumstance is unemployment insurance, which may be denied if there was a justifiable reason for the termination, or if there is a whistleblower incident involved.

Union workers can still lose their jobs, but it requires the employer to establish just cause for taking the action. This structure means that a worker’s misconduct must be severe enough to qualify for taking such an action. Arbitration and grievance procedures may be available before termination as well to ensure that all of a worker’s protections are in place. That means a worker can speak up more often because they know that it isn’t easy to fire them.

4. It provides employees with a mechanism to speak with one voice.
Another advantage that labor unions today provide their workers is the option to have strength in numbers. When people come together in a union, then they have more power because they can act as a cohesive group instead of as a set of individuals. This action allows for one voice to speak on wage negotiation, health and safety concerns, workplace conditions, and benefits through the management of their union. Although this process can stifle independent creativity for some, it is work that creates a rising tide so that everyone benefits from the effort.

5. Retirement benefits are better in labor unions today.
Most workers today have access to a retirement program which offers a 401(k) or 403(b) plan and not much else. A match of 5% or less might be offered as part of the benefits package. If you join a labor union, then you are more likely to retire with a pension instead of a mostly self-funded investment vehicle. Some people see a pension as a way for other people to pay for their retirement, but that is not always the case. Pension funds invest in the stock market just like other accounts, creating a rise in value that supports everyone who draws an income and health benefits from this advantage.

6. Seniority is a priority in the modern labor union.
The rules on seniority are different in each workplace, and they are based on what the local collective bargaining agreement establishes. In the event of a layoff, employers are usually asked to dismiss the most recently hired workers first. That means the employees with the most seniority receive their pink slip last. Even if this situation only applies to a specific department, someone with more seniority can displace another worker with less, allowing the employer to benefit because there is a mechanism in place allowing them to keep their most important people around.

This benefit can also apply when there are open positions or promotions available within the company. The goal here is to eliminate the idea of favoritism that can be in the workplace sometimes, especially when there are family or friends as part of the leadership team. It provides a level of objectiveness.

7. It creates learning opportunities for the next generation.
Many skill-based labor unions today offer apprenticeship opportunities and certification classes to their local community. This structure gives young workers an opportunity to get involved right away so that they can gain the experience necessary for a high-paying job in the future. It is a process which follows the time-honored traditions of the past where a skilled laborer teaches unskilled individuals in the art of what they do. This method allows us to have plumbers, electricians, and even emergency services that are consistent in each community.

8. Labor unions today create a force for ongoing change.
If someone receives an at-will employment contract, then the only changes that occur are agency-driven or merit-based from supervisor evaluation and feedback. In the unionized workplace, most collective bargaining agreements are negotiated every 5 years – and sometimes even much faster than that. This advantage makes it possible for workers to negotiate for better wages and benefits with greater frequency. When employers are on board with this process and both parties send competent negotiators to the table, then it becomes possible to have each group and worker benefit from this process.

List of the Cons of Labor Unions Today

1. Joining a union will always come with a cost.
When a union is present in the workplace, then there are going to be union dues and initiation fees to pay under most circumstances. The cost can range from a couple hundred dollars to several thousand dollars per year, which acts as an offset to the higher wages that are possible with its presence. There are some unions who require workers to pay an initiation fee as part of the condition of their employment as well. This money goes to pay for the salaries of union officials and the cost of conducting business.

2. The money that you pay into a union can go toward questionable activities.
There are legitimate expenses that a union must pay which most workers have no problem supporting. This disadvantage comes into play when there is a disparity between how much money goes toward the local union and what percentage must pay to the national one if it exists. Some unions are politically active as well, which means that the organization might support candidates for office which go against the individual philosophies of the worker. Some even product mailings and marketing materials which imply union workers should vote for specific people.

3. There is a loss of autonomy experienced when joining a union.
Although workers get to benefit from the increased levels of job security when they have a unionized environment, there is also less individuality found in the workplace. As part of a group, you are bound by the majority decision at all times, even if you disagree with the actions under consideration. All it takes is a 50%+1 vote on contract issues, grievance needs, or other authorized actions under the collective bargaining agreement to make the rules apply to everyone. If you vote against a measure and it still passes, then you are bound by the expectations that are put into place.

4. You will find less collaboration available in most unionized work environments.
There is a lack of partnership in many union workplaces, especially when considering the relationship between the manager or supervisor and the employee. Some workplaces purposely but these two groups at odds with each other as a way to support independence. That lack of trust can lead to problems with cooperation and collaboration on the work that needs to be done.

Healthways and Gallup have conducted nearly 150,000 interviews with workers. Their results are conclusive at all levels of government and in every industry. Employees who are in unions are more likely to say that their supervisor treats them like their boss instead of a partner 48% of the time. For workers in a non-union workplace, that rate falls to just 36%.

5. Unions create a lack of trust in the working environment.
Employees in union working environments are also less likely to trust their supervisors and their co-workers compared to those who are in a non-union job. The difference is nine full percentage points, 80% to 71%, in favor of those who are not in unions. Although this issue and the other disadvantages do not create a significant difference in the rate of job satisfaction between the two groups, there is a noticeable difference in how people feel like they are treated when they report for work each day.

6. The political climate can quickly turn against unionized workers.
The relationship that employees have with their unions have become much more acrimonious today than they were 40 years ago. Because about 50% of all union members in the United States belong to a public-sector union, they have become targets of political leadership in states which are starving for revenue. Officials like former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker often blame the presence of benefits and collective bargaining rights through unions as the reason for a lack of money.

Monica Bielski-Boris, Assistant Professor of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois, says that this issue can see adverse turns that happen quickly. “The political climate can often turn against unions and their members,” she told Fox Business. “The political attacks, combined with declining membership rolls, could weaken gains made by unionized employees.”

7. Seniority can also be a disadvantage with labor unions today.
The advantages which seniority provides to experienced employees is a detriment to new hires. Even if someone is more talented, skilled or productive than a veteran worker, it will be the rules of seniority which determine layoffs during the downsizing process. The collective bargaining agreement can require employers to offer other perks to workers based off of seniority instead of merit as well. Some new workers can even be bumped out of their position to receive a layoff if a veteran worker who loses their job in another department gets a pink slip.

8. Employer costs can be negotiated to unreasonable levels by unions.
Union negotiations can lead to better wages and benefits for workers. There are times when this work can receive a boost to unreasonable levels, making it impossible for the organization to sustain the expense. That means the company can raise the prices on their goods or services, reduce the number of employees they hire, or layoff people to meet their budget demands. Since none of these options are desirable for the people they impact, a poor collective bargaining agreement can quickly lead to high levels of discord in the workplace.

When examining the pros and cons of labor unions today, most economic experts tend to agree that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages in most circumstances. Even though membership comes at a price, the wages are still higher with a union than without one. When you factor in the increased benefits and how far they can extend, there is a lot of value to be found when workers can negotiate in one voice.

Labor Union Statistics by Number of Employees in the United States

Labor Union Statistics by Industry Sector

Author Biography
Keith Miller has over 25 years experience as a CEO and serial entrepreneur. As an entreprenuer, he has founded several multi-million dollar companies. As a writer, Keith's work has been mentioned in CIO Magazine, Workable, BizTech, and The Charlotte Observer. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our content editing team a message here.