News & Events

The benefits of union membership: numerous and measurable

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
May 2005 Edition

By Joe Twarog
Associate Director, Labor Education & Training

What difference does it make to work in a union facility versus a non-union facility? Can the differences be quantified and measured?

The evidence illustrates that union workers earn more. Union members have better pension and health care benefits. Union members have better sickness and accident benefits. Union members have contractual protections for safety on the job. Union members have better job security and protections from discretionary actions by the employer. Union members have a voice in their workplace. Union members have access to a grievance and arbitration procedure to challenge contract violations and unfair treatment. Union members can advocate for their patients and for quality health care in a real and enforceable manner. And in fact, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Nursing Administration (March 2002, vol. 2, No. 3), patients, specifically patients suffering a heart attack, have better outcomes in a union facility compared to a non-union facility.

Benefit   Union   Non-Union
Due process   The union contract provides each bargaining unit member with access to "due process" through the grievance and arbitration procedure.   No formal grievance process with arbitration. In some cases, there may be an internal, self-policing "appeals"process that is ultimately unenforceable.
Wages, benefits and working conditions   These are negotiated. All members have the opportunity to improve their working conditions through contract negotiations at the bargaining table.   All are unilaterally set by the employer. No avenue for employee input. Management gives what it wants to.
Hiring, promotions, transfers, layoffs   All are governed by the contract. Seniority and other objective standards apply.   All are determined unilaterally and subjectively by the employer.
Changes in working conditions   The negotiated contract establishes all working conditions. These can only be changed by negotiations between the parties   Changes can be made at any time, without warning, by the employer alone.
Discipline   Any disciplinary action is usually subject to the "just cause" standard, meaning that there is a burden of proof on the employer to justify the discipline.   Workers are "employees at will" meaning that they are subject to discipline and termination for no reason at all, depending on the whims of the employer. No just cause standard applies.
Weingarten Rights   These rights allow an employee to have a union representative present during investigatory meetings when discipline may result.   No such rights. Recently, the National Labor Relations Board reversed its position and took away these rights in non-union facilities.
Voice in the Workplace   Employees have a real and formal voice in their working conditions at the bargaining table.   Employers may listen to the employees and then do whatever they choose to do, regardless.
Access to Information   The union, through its officers and floor representatives, has access to facility information in order to investigate grievances and for contract negotiations.   Employees have no rights of access to information. The employer tells employees what it wants to. Information is closely guarded.
Voice in Patient Care   Through the contract, RNs can negotiate enforceable language on staffing levels, mandatory overtime, floating and other issues that impact directly on patient care and the quality of health care.   In some facilities, RNs may be afforded the opportunity to make suggestions on some issues, that management is then free to ignore. None of the nurse input is enforceable.

And, in addition to all of the above, according to a recent study (Dave Belman, “Unions, the Quality of Labor Relations, and Firm Performance”), unions translate into increased productivity for the employer with better training, less turnover and longer tenure of the workforce. There is a clear and measurable benefit for labor and management when workers have a real and legitimate voice in the workplace.

While there are some laws that affect workers’ rights, such as minimum wage, OSHA, FMLA and ERISA, these are regarded as the floor in union facilities. That is, the union views these legal rights as the starting point from which to bargain better benefits above and beyond what the laws provide. However, in non-union facilities, these laws are most often the ceiling. These laws are it. End of story.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the difference in median weekly earnings for 2004 shows that there is a 27 percent wage advantage in union facilities (all industries, public and private) over non-union facilities. Furthermore the union wage advantage (all based on median weekly earnings), for women is 33 percent, for African- Americans is 35 percent, for Latinos is 51 percent, for Asian American is 11 percent.

The U. S. Department of Labor, National Compensation Survey for Employee Benefits in Private Industry (March 2004) illustrates the differences in benefits (see chart at right).

It is therefore clear that being unionized makes a world of difference, in clear and measurable ways. The differences are dramatic. Furthermore, the benefits of unionization extend well beyond those of simple self-interest. The contract and the union make a difference in the lives of its members, as well as a difference in the patients they care for and serve.