Why do workers organize?

Experts have spent much time and money trying to discover why workers unionize, and they’ve proposed many theories. Yet is no simple answer to the question, partly because each worker probably joins for his or her own reasons.

However, workers don’t unionize just to get more pay or better working conditions, though these are important factors. For example recent median weekly wages for union workers was $ 781 while that for nonunion workers was $612. Union workers also generally receive significantly more holidays, sick leave, unpaid leave, insurance plan benefits, long term disability benefits, and various other benefits than do nonunion workers. Unions also seem to have been able to somewhat reduce the impact (but obviously not eliminate) downsizings and wage cuts in most industries.

Studies suggest that two factors – employer unfairness and the union’s clout – explain why employees unionize. In one Australia based firm, researchers found that individuals who believe that the company rules or policies were administered unfairly or to their detriment were more likely to turn to unions … But, to vote pro-union the employees also had to believe the union could improve their wages benefits and treatment.

The Bottom line

The bottom line is that the urge to unionize often seems to boil down to the belief on the part of workers that it is only through unity that they can protect themselves from unilateral management whims. Sometimes even when the employer is trustworthy and benevolent, employees feel they need unity to protect themselves. When Kaiser Permanente’s San Francisco medical center cut back on vacation and sick leave for its pharmacies and other workers, the pharmacists union, the Guild for professional Pharmacists, won back the lost vacations days. As one staff pharmacists said Kaiser is a pretty benevolent employer, but there’s always the pressure to squeeze a little. One labor relations lawyer puts in this way, the one major things unions offer is making you a for cause instead of an at will employee which guarantee a hearing and attribution if you’re fired. So, in practice low morale fear of job loss and arbitrary management actions help foster unionization Employees ignore that at their peril.

In some respects these factors have not changed in years. Here is how one writer describes the motivation behind the early unionization of automobile workers.

In the years to come, economic issues would make the headlines when union and management met in negotiations. But in the early years the rate of pay was not the major complaint of the autoworkers. Specifically the principal grievances of the auto workers were the speed up of production and the lack of any kind of job security. As production tapered off, the order in which workers were laid off was determined largely by the whim of foremen and other supervisors. The workers had no way of knowing when he would be laid off and had no assurance when, or whether he would be recalled. Generally what the workers revolted against was the lack of human dignity and individuality and a working relationship that was massively impersonal cold and non human. They wanted to be treated like human beings – not like faceless clock card numbers.

What do unions want?

We can generalize by saying that unions have two sets of aims, one for union security and one for improved wages, hours, working conditions and benefits for their members.

Union security

First and probably foremost unions work security for themselves. They fight hard for the right to represent a form’s workers and to the exclusive bargaining agent for all employees in the unit. (As such, they negotiate contracts for all employees including those not members of the union).