Across the US, about 14 million workers are part of a labor union. And it's not just people building cars (looking at you, United Auto Workers). While the highest unionization rates are in education (you go, National Education Association), training, and library occupations, unions are gaining traction in other industries, too. Like among those slinging lattes at Starbucks, giving safety demonstrations on Delta planes, writing cover stories for Vogue, and working in Amazon warehouses.
Still, union membership overall has been in decline since the 1980s (much like walkmen and legwarmers). Because of a decrease in manufacturing jobs (an industry where union membership has historically been high) and right-to-work laws (which give certain employees the choice to join a union). And women tend to lag behind in membership. They were banned from joining for much of US history. Even in the '80s, only 15% of women were union members, compared with 25% of men.
Back up. What’s a labor union?
Labor unions are about as old as the US, originating with craftspeople in the late 1700s. And the first-ever strike was in 1768, started by a group of tailors in New York.
They really picked up steam during the Industrial Revolution and helped workers earn the right to an eight-hour workday, down from 100-hour weeks (yikes). And later, they helped workers gain access to safer working conditions and better pay. Pretty much what they're still doing today.
Tell me more. What does a labor union do exactly?
A few key things:
Negotiate contracts with management through collective bargaining. For things like better benefits, higher wages, and safer working conditions.
Give workers a voice. So they have a say in their pay, conditions, and benefits.
And what does all this have to do with me?
If you have a labor union at your workplace…
It could pay off: Union employees tend to earn more per week, on average, than their non-union counterparts.
They also tend to have better benefits:
84% of union workers participated in an employer’s healthcare plan vs. 54% of non-union workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And new mothers represented by unions are 17% more likely to take the paid family leave that they’re offered than new moms not represented by a union.
But it could cost you, too: Union dues can reportedly be up to 2.5% of your pay.
Unless you live in one of the 27 right-to-work states, you’re required to join a union if your workplace has one.
If you don’t…
Your pay might be lower, your benefits may not be as good as they could be, and your work conditions may be less safe (which could lead to costly injuries).
Upside: no union dues.
Labor unions can also impact the economy at large…
Unions can (and do) push for minimum wage increases, which could affect everyone’s wages (and mean more tax revenue for the government).
Whether or not you’re in a union, it’s important to be in the know about what they are and what they do. They’ve shaped the American workplace in the past — and they’re continuing to do so today.
Updated June 22 to include the latest Amazon union information.
Subscribe to Skimm Money
Your source for the biggest financial headlines and trends, and how they affect your wallet.