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Unionized Workers Have Become More Satisfied Than Non-Union

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A big change – but you have to look hard to find these jobs

There’s good reason to join the 48% of workers jonesing for a union card, and it’s not just the free t-shirts proclaiming Unions: The people who brought you weekends.

For decades, labor unions maintained a curious quirk: Union workers enjoyed less job satisfaction than their non-union counterparts. This was not a selling point. “Unions are there to make the lives of their members better, so you would think that would make members happier with their jobs,” says Alex Bryson, an applied labor economist at University College London. But no. “Up until the early 2000s, whichever way you cut it, there was this association between being unionized and being less satisfied with your job.”

This paradox was consistent, across countries and industries — so standard that economists called it an “empirical regularity.”

A seminal book on the topic, “What Do Unions Do,” by Harvard economist Richard Freeman, posited many reasons why unions might house less happy workers. Perhaps people with job problems are more likely to join; perhaps the process of union bargaining makes for adversarial employer relationships; maybe unions reduce quitting — and therefore maintain dissatisfied employees; perhaps union members are just more used to sounding off in general, or more attuned to workplace well-being.

Scholars love a good paradoxical fact, so there’s a whole literature on this topic.

Corporate union-squashing efforts were more than happy to broadcast this detail, giving pause to a generation of prospective union members. Do you want to earn 13% more with better working conditions, but your job satisfaction might plummet? That was the unions' proposition.

Now all that’s changed. The paradox has disappeared. Union workers now do what you’d expect: feel more satisfied at work than non-union members.

For people who study such things, this is a solar eclipse. Bryson says, “I remember the moment my colleague, Danny Blanchflower at Dartmouth College, rang. He said, ‘That union job dissatisfaction thing, it’s turned around.’ I said, ‘I don’t believe you.’”

Blanchflower was right. In the U.S., the U.K., Europe and elsewhere, union members, particularly younger union members, are now happier, even after controlling for some of the scenarios listed above. It’s unclear why, but it’s happening. Bryson and Blanchflower published their findings in a new working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, which also finds that union memberships are on an upswing over the last two to three years. “We thought we were seeing the slow death of unions — maybe workers were expressing their voice in the workplace through different mechanisms,” Bryson says. But not quite.

What does this mean for you? Well, snagging a union job is now a rather positive proposition. Some details to consider:

  • Union membership is a boon when considering the alternatives of facing wage inequality, discrimination, bullying and arbitrary employer behavior. Unions continue to be the most effective antidote for individuals. 
  • Know that union organizers can suffer career penalties. Thomas Breda, an economist at the Paris School of Economics, has shown that employees who are union representatives are paid 10% less than coworkers (both union and non-union). 
  • Prepare to feel better. “Supportive unions provide an unexpected psychological benefit,” says Teresa Cardador, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois. “Traditionally, you don't think of unions as shaping how people experience their work. But there’s this positive association between perceiving your union as supportive and feeling that your work is meaningful.”
  • Union decisions might not align perfectly with your individual preferences. This matter arose frequently during the pandemic, when groups like teachers disagreed with union agreements for returns to work.

Just 10% of American workers are in unions, according to the Institute for Work and Employment Research, and this has less to do with union life, and more to do with U.S. law, which makes starting a union an uphill battle that requires 50% of workers to vote in support of it. U.S. companies, which mostly stridently oppose unions, are allowed to do things like hold meetings explaining the value of being non-union. But more unions may be on the way, now that President Biden recently signed an executive order to create a task force promoting unionization nationwide, and the PRO Act, the strongest pro-union legislation in generations, is winding its way through Congress.

Where are union jobs? Almost all the growth of represented workers in recent decades has been in government employment, with the Service Employees International Union organizing workers at the state and local levels. Many healthcare roles are unionized. As are manufacturing jobs in the North; not so much in the South. Older companies are more likely to employ represented workers generally.

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