The union membership rate among American wage and salary earners was 10.8% in 2020, 0.5% more than in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Despite the small increase, overall membership numbers in the U.S. have been declining for the past few decades, dropping from 17.7 million union workers in 1983 to 14.3 million in 2020. Controversies surrounding unions have pushed away many workers wary of high dues, corruption, and lack of personal autonomy for union members. Nonetheless, Americans today should carefully consider the pros and cons of union membership before deciding what’s right for them.
Certain occupations, states, and ethnicities have higher rates of unionization than others, demonstrating widespread differences.
An Overview of Unions, 2020
Unionization rates vary among employment categories. For instance, in 2020, 34.8% of public sector workers (or 7.2 million people) were union members, while only 6.3% of private sector workers (or 7.1 million people) were unionized.
Protective services had the highest unionization rate among occupational groups in 2020, at 36.6% of workers, followed by education, training, and library (35.9%) and construction and extraction (17.7%). Occupational groups with the lowest unionization rates were farming, fishing, and forestry (2.6%); sales (3.2%); and food preparation and service (3.4%). Public sector union rates were divided between local governments (41.7%), state governments (29.4%), and the federal government (25.6%). The unionization rate for full time workers was 11.8%, while the rate for part time workers was 5.8%.
Among states, Hawaii and New York had the highest unionization rates, at 23.7% and 22%, respectively. The states with the lowest unionization rates were South Carolina (2.9%) and North Carolina (3.1%).
Unionization rates among men and women were similar, at 11% and 10.5%, respectively. Unionization rates were highest among Black individuals (12.3%), followed by white (10.7%), Hispanic (9.8%), and Asian workers (8.9%). The breakdown of unionization rates by age category is as follows: 45-54 (13.2%), 55-64 (13%), 35-44 (12.2%), 25-34 (9.8%), 65 and over (9%), and 16-24 (4.4%).
How Labor Unions Work
Labor unions primarily work by collective bargaining, a tactic that involves gathering a group of workers to negotiate with business owners about pay and working conditions. Labor unions can threaten to go on strike if employers don’t consider their demands, giving workers an advantage.
Historically, workers had few employment options and were forced to work in poor conditions for little pay because employers had easy access to a large labor pool. Today, labor unions can negotiate wages, working hours, vacation time, and even job responsibilities.
The Pros and Cons of Unions
Labor unions thrive in some sectors and not in others due to complex factors.
The Benefits of Labor Unions
Union workers typically earn higher wages than nonunion workers. In 2020, nonunion workers’ median weekly earnings were 84% of union workers’ median weekly earnings — $958 versus $1,144.
In addition, union workers have access to better benefits. In March 2019, 94% of union workers had access to retirement benefits through their employers, compared with 67% of nonunion workers.
Other benefits include better working conditions, greater job security, and greater upward mobility.
The Drawbacks of Labor Unions
Labor unions charge dues to pay the salaries of union leaders and workers during a strike. And unfortunately, some unions spend union dues on six-figure salaries for leaders and luxurious headquarters.
Other drawbacks of labor union membership include less autonomy, workplace tension, and slower advancement.
Pros and Cons of Teachers Unions
Teachers unions provide members with legal protection, advice, support, and guidance. Members also qualify for discount programs, including life insurance benefits, credit card opportunities, and mortgage assistance.
The drawbacks of teachers unions include expensive union fees, lack of compensation for teacher participation in union activities, potential disruption in education for students, and lack of taxpayer representation during the negotiation process.
Pros and Cons of Nursing Unions
Nursing unions counter potentially misleading public statements made by healthcare providers during negotiations. However, their actions may be ineffective, and the public may disapprove of nurse strikes.
Pros and Cons of Unions for Employers
Though employers know they have access to a stable and well-trained workforce, they may struggle to reward exceptional employee performance due to labor contracts. Additionally, while labor contracts allow employers to predict future operational costs accurately, unions decrease business competition by raising wages and benefits.
Employer and Union Rights and Freedoms
The National Labor Relations Act grants employees the right to organize, join, or assist a labor union for collective bargaining purposes — or refrain from these activities — without fear of retaliation.
Employer and Labor Union Conduct: What’s Illegal
Employers may not threaten to fire workers or remove their benefits if they join or vote for a union or engage in protected activity. In addition, it’s illegal for employers to threaten to close the workplace indefinitely if employees unionize or to promise benefits to employees who don’t support unions.
Labor unions, on the other hand, may not threaten employees with the possibility of losing their jobs if they don’t support the union. Furthermore, they may not punish an employee for not being a union member, even if they’ve paid or offered to pay the initiation fee and periodic fees.
The Decision to Join a Union
Union membership can offer great benefits to workers in certain industries. Those who do join a union should take the time to research the rules and requirements of becoming a member to reap the full benefits of unionization.