How to find a union job

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Cost-cutting measures in the workplace over the past few years have translated to greater uncertainty for workers, making the protection of a union job more attractive.

“People like the fact that the union is there to protect them and stand up for them,” says Alex Colvin, associate professor at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “Wages tend to be higher by 15 (percent) to 20 percent in a union shop, and there is typically an even bigger difference in benefits such as health and retirement with union jobs.”

Union workers numbered nearly 14.8 million workers in 2011 — about the same as the previous year but significantly less than in the 1980s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And last year, union members had median weekly earnings of $938, while those who were not union members had median weekly earnings of $729.

But how do you find a union job? These tips can make your search easier.

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Union shop talk

It’s not so much a strategy of finding a union job as it is of finding a union shop. A union shop is a business in which the employer is allowed to hire a nonunion worker, but usually the worker must subsequently join the union to continue to work there.

There are two ways to end up in a union shop, says Galen Munroe, spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The easiest is by getting a job with a company that is unionized.

“You can look at a union’s website and see who they represent and who the major employers are,” Monroe says.

For most workers, getting a job in a union shop is not much different from getting a job anywhere. They get hired by a unionized employer and join the union, says Wayne Ranick, spokesman for the United Steelworkers International, which represents steelworkers as well as workers at oil refineries, in health care institutions, and at pulp and paper factories, among others.

“In the case of electricians or some other fields where we do training, contractors might come to the union hall and hire people from there. But they’re still being hired by the employer,” Ranick says.

Indeed, a local affiliate of a labor union can help workers find jobs in other ways. For example, the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, represents workers in the health care industry and has employment centers in all five boroughs of New York City. Union job applicants can drop off resumes and employers can post openings, says Helen Schaub, a coordinator of 1199SEIU, a union with 350,000 members in Florida, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

Labor unions are another source of union jobs, with staff and management positions. They hire workers for jobs such as researchers, organizers, field representatives, trainers and accountants.

The AFL-CIO, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and others list job opportunities by union, by trade or by geographical area on the AFL-CIO’s Union Jobs Clearinghouse website.

Forming a union local

The second way to work in a union shop is to unionize within the nonunion workplace where you are currently employed.

Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, a federation of 57 labor unions, says the organization offers a feature on its website called “How to Join and Form a Union.” The feature walks workers through the four basic steps to get workers started in the formation of their own “local,” or chapter of a larger labor union.

The site points out that many employers strongly resist their employees’ efforts to unionize. Before they start discussing union representation where they work, workers should get in touch with the appropriate union that can help them organize.

The federal government’s National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, sets rules for how people can organize unions in their workplaces, Schaub says.

“Employees who are interested in bringing in a union sign cards. If one-third of the employees sign up, that triggers a representation election, which is run by the federal government,” she says.

NLRB spokeswoman Nancy Cleeland says the NLRB has 32 regional offices where people can get help with organizing a union.

Right to work

In some states, you may find a union job but not have to join the union. In 23 right-to-work states, companies have union as well as nonunion workers on their payrolls. In those states, a worker is not required to join or pay dues to a union.

“The union still represents everybody. If you don’t belong to the union and you get fired unjustly, they have to represent you, but you have to pay for the arbitration. In non-right-to-work states, part of the contract is that everyone has to pay dues,” Colvin says.