Why do Workers Organize?

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

It does seem clear that workers don’t unionize just to get more pay or better working conditions, though these are very important. In fact, weekly earnings of union members are much higher than those of non-union workers: about $50 a week more in service jobs, $60 in manufacturing $130 in government and as much as $300 a week more in construction jobs, for instance. Union workers receive significantly more holidays, sick leave, unpaid leave, insurance plan benefits, long term disability benefits, and various other benefits than do nonunion workers. On the other hand, the main issue is not always Pay. As an example, the UAW recently restarted efforts to organize workers at Nissan motors’ Smyrna Tennessee auto plant. The issue here isn’t pay, since Nissan plant employees earn about the same per hour as UAW workers at other plants. Of greater concern, are increasing workloads, mounting injuries and what union officials described as inadequate retirement benefits at the Smyrna Plant.

Thus, 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 get their share of the pie and also protect themselves from management whims. For example, several years ago angry FedEx pilots or a time rejected a proposed agreement backed by their own union leaders, in part, said one pilot because there was a trust relationship that has deteriorated. In practice, therefore low morale, fear of job loss, and arbitrary management actions help foster unionization. And 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 recent years to come, economic issues would make the headlines when union and management meet in negotiations. But in the early years the rate of pay was not the major complaint of the autoworkers. Specifically the principal grievance of the autoworkers was 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 were laid off was determined largely by the whim of foremen and other supervisors. The worker 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 face less clock card numbers.

What do Unions want?

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

Union Security: First and probably foremost, unions seek security for themselves. They fight hard for the right to represent a firm’s workers and to be 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. Five types of union security are possible:

1. Closed shop: The Company can hire only members. Congress outlawed this in 1947, but it still exists in some industries (such as printing).
2. Union shop: The Company can hire their non-union people, but they must join the union after a prescribed period of time and pay dues (If not, they can be fired).
3. Agency shop: Employees who do not belong to the union still must pay union dues on the assumption that the union’s efforts benefit all the workers.
4. Open shop: It is up the workers whether or not they join the union – those who do not pay dues.
5. Maintenance of membership arrangement. Employees do not have to belong to the union. However, union members employed by the firm must maintain membership in the union for the contract period.