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The pros and cons of union jobs

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Highlights
  • Workers with union jobs can only be terminated for "just cause."
  • A union worker who has more seniority may receive preference for an open job.
  • Union dues can range from $200 to several hundred dollars per year.

Thanks to labor unions, wages have improved, the workweek is shorter and the workplace is safer.

However, employers sometimes complain that unions are harmful to business and to the economy. From an employee standpoint, is being a union member beneficial? Here are some pros and cons of union jobs.

The pros of belonging to a union

Better wages. The median weekly income of full-time wage and salary workers who were union members in 2010 was $917, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For nonunion workers, it was $717.

More access to benefits. Some 93 percent of unionized workers were entitled to medical benefits compared to 69 percent of their nonunion peers, according to the National Compensation Survey published last year by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The survey represented about 101 million private industry workers and 19 million state and local government employees.

Unmarried domestic partners -- same sex and opposite sex -- also had access more often to these benefits if they were unionized. Workers with union representation also had 89 percent of their health insurance premiums paid by their employer for single coverage and 82 percent for family coverage. For nonunion workers, the comparable numbers were 79 percent and 66 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And 93 percent of unionized workers have access to retirement benefits through employers compared to 64 percent of their nonunion counterparts.

Job security. Nonunion employees are typically hired "at will," meaning they can be fired for no reason. There are exceptions. Employers can't terminate a worker for discriminatory reasons such as race, religion, age and the like. Nor can they fire an at-will employee for being a whistleblower and certain other reasons.

However, workers with union jobs can only be terminated for "just cause," and the misconduct must be serious enough to merit such action. Before an employee can actually be fired, he or she can go through a grievance procedure, and if necessary, arbitration.

"If I know I can't be easily fired, I can speak up more freely," says Monica Bielski Boris, assistant professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois.

Strength in numbers. Unionized workers have more power as a cohesive group than by acting individually. "What you gain is the muscle of collective action," says Hoyt Wheeler, a professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina who is now a labor arbitrator. Through collective bargaining, workers negotiate wages, health and safety issues, benefits, and working conditions with management via their union.

Seniority. Rules differ among collective bargaining agreements, but in the event of layoffs, employers usually are required to dismiss the most recent hires first and those with the most seniority last -- sometimes called "last hired, first fired."

In some cases, a worker with a union job who has more seniority may receive preference for an open job. Seniority also can be a factor in determining who gets a promotion. The idea is that seniority eliminates favoritism in the workplace.

"The chief advantage of seniority is it is objective," Wheeler says.

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