career

The pros and cons of union jobs

The drawbacks of a union work life

Union dues and initiation fees. Dues can range from $200 to several hundred dollars per year, partially offsetting higher wages. Some unions also require a one-time initiation fee. Dues help the union pay for officials' salaries and conducting union business, but members sometimes complain about the amount they pay, how the money is spent, and how it is allocated between the national and local union.

Loss of autonomy. The flip side of job security is that union members sacrifice individuality by belonging to a group. You may disagree with the union's decisions, but you are bound by them.

"It's a trade-off," Bielski Boris says.

Less collaborative work environment. Unionized workers experience less of a sense of partnership and trust with their supervisors, according to a survey conducted by the Gallup and Healthways organizations last year.

More than 149,500 interviews of workers were conducted. Regardless of whether they worked in local, state or federal government or outside of government, unionized employees more often said their supervisor treated them like he or she was their boss and not a partner than did their nonunion counterparts. Among nongovernment employees, for example, the margin was 48 percent to 36 percent.

Similarly, nonunion employees across the board said their supervisor created an environment that is trusting and open more often than those who were unionized. Among nongovernment workers, the margin was 80 percent to 71 percent. Despite this, there aren't large differences in job satisfaction between the two groups, according to Gallup and Healthways.

Employers' relationships with unions have become more acrimonious since the 1970s, Bielski Boris says. And nowadays, some governors of revenue-starved states are blaming public sector unions for their woes and aggressively attempting to reduce benefits and curtail collective bargaining rights. (Public sector unions account for more than half of all union members in the United States.)

"The political climate can often turn against unions and their members," Bielski Boris says. The political attacks, combined with declining membership rolls, could weaken gains made by unionized employees.

Seniority. The advantages that seniority provides can be a detriment to newer employees. You may be more productive or talented than a veteran worker, yet you're the one who likely will be laid off in a downsizing. A union's collective bargaining agreement also may require employers to provide other perks based on seniority rather than merit to the detriment of junior workers with union jobs. Some agreements enable a worker displaced from a job to "bump" another worker with less seniority and take his or her job.

Wheeler, the labor arbitrator, understands the pros and cons of being a union member better than most. "On balance, I think workers are better off with a union than without one, by far," he says.

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