Unions pros and cons gain fresh interest as technological advances and globalization change the nature of work. To have stories like this and more delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.
Unions, Then & Now
Unions pros and cons gain fresh interest as technological advances and globalization change the nature of work. Before analyzing today’s leading partisan opinions, let’s review.
Labor unions are associations that promote and protect workers’ rights and best interests. Local, national, and international unions typically represent workers in a specific trade, industry, or company. Most notably, they handle collective bargaining — negotiating employment conditions with employers on behalf of workers.
The Industrial Revolution fueled the modern US labor movement. Craftsmen joined forces to protect their trades from mass production. Unskilled laborers — protesting grueling hours, low wages, and unsafe conditions in factories, coal mines, and railways — organized as well. This era was riddled with strikes, boycotts, riots, and tragedies. However, it also saw rising wages, increased healthcare benefits, protections for injured and retired workers, and federal labor law reforms.
Regardless, unions represented just one-third of American workers at the movement’s peak. Racial minorities and women were largely excluded from membership and leadership positions. Today, nearly 11 percent of US workers belong to a union. However, positive interest appears to be on the rise. Before diving deeper in the polarized political landscape today, let’s explore unions pros and cons.
First, unions help level the playing field between employers and workers. Negotiating as a collective lends workers a stronger voice and more bargaining power. This is especially powerful for lower-wage, lesser-educated employees working in large, hierarchical organizations.
As a result, union workers enjoy higher wages, greater employment benefits, and stronger job security than their nonunion peers. Union members earn a “union wage premium” — roughly 20 percent more than nonunion workers with similar jobs. During booms and recessions, unionized workers receive raises sooner and pay cuts later than nonunion workers, Encyclopedia Britannica also notes.
Proponents also argue that unions can protect historically disadvantaged workers from compensation discrimination. According to the Center for American Progress, collective bargaining at the industry, regional, or national level helps reduce gender and racial wage gaps.
Strong unions may also help reduce income inequality. One recent study found that strong union membership by low-wage workers from 1940-1970 correlated with a lower level of economic inequality nationwide. These and other researchers conclude that the unions’ efforts result in smaller, yet significant, compensation boosts for nonunion workers too.
Lastly, unions can serve as lobbyists, educating members on important legislation, encouraging voting, and relaying member interests to their government representatives.
First, union membership isn’t free. To cover operating expenses, unions require monthly membership dues and fees for some activities. Consenting to monthly payment deductions can be a difficult decision for low-wage workers.
Additionally, some workers are required to pay union dues, regardless of their preferences. The National Labor Relations Act allows unions and private employers to sign union-security agreements, requiring all employees covered by the union-negotiated contract to join the union and pay dues. Nonunion workers are also prohibited from negotiating alternative contracts with the employer. The Supreme Court has banned these agreements for public sector employment. Regardless, the rule stands for private sector unions in states and territories without right-to-work legislation.
The higher costs of union labor can make private businesses less competitive in the global market. To cover the cost of inflated compensation packages, employers must raise consumer prices. Higher prices make it difficult to compete with cheaper imports and exports.
Lastly, labor unions can impede productivity and innovation. Union contracts typically include strict parameters for firing and layoffs. This makes it harder to terminate unproductive workers, negatively impacting company revenue and culture. They can also restrain a company’s ability to adjust its workforce as market conditions change.
Unions Pros and Cons: Where Both Parties Stand Today
According to History.com, the US labor movement’s foray into national politics began with nonpartisan efforts. However, the New Deal’s collective bargaining legislation and Democrats’ embrace of working class immigrants solidified the movement’s alliance with the party. Conservative think tank American Compass notes that Republicans held a balanced view of unions until the 1990s. That’s when a more libertarian view, opposing compulsory union membership, took hold.
As such, a partisan divide holds strong today. Gallup’s 2020 poll finds that 65 percent of Americans approve of labor unions. However, 85 percent of Democrats and just 45 percent of Republicans share this positive outlook.
The division is clear in state and national politics. The majority of states that ban compulsory union membership with right-to-work bills lean Republican. At the federal level, House Democrats passed the PRO Act in 2020 to strengthen worker protections and collective bargaining rights. Republican President Donald Trump had planned to veto the bill, though the Republican-led Senate never debated the matter.
On the 2020 campaign trail, Democrat Joe Biden took a strong pro-union stance and earned support from union leaders. Although, union members in key battleground states still maintained strong support for Trump and his “America First” policies.