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10 Reasons Public-Sector Employees Choose Not to Belong to a Union

At Americans for Fair Treatment, we spend a lot of time talking to public-sector employees who are unhappy with their unions. Many of the concerns and frustrations we’ve heard fall into the same categories, so we thought we’d compile them into a list. This isn’t an exhaustive catalogue of the complaints that have come up, so if you have one you think we should add, let us know!

  1. Politics – Unions spend a lot of members’ time and money on politics. They lobby, they donate to campaigns, they endorse candidates, and they mobilize their members to work for politicians at the local, state, and national level. Often unions speak out on issues, get involved in political races, and spend money in areas of the country that have nothing to do with the interests of their members. By engaging in politics, public-sector unions also politicize public employees and their concerns by virtue of association.
  2. Loss of Voice – Exclusive representation means public employees lose their voice and power with their employer. The union speaks for all bargaining unit members, crowding out individual employees’ influence.
  3. Buyer’s Remorse – Once a union is in place it is very difficult to get rid of. The process of decertification, which would remove a union from a bargaining unit, is arduous, and unions will fight aggressively any attempt to de-unionize a workplace. Many state politicians have also made it extremely difficult for public-sector employees to leave their union on an individual basis, even though the Supreme Court said in Janus v. AFSCME that they had that right.
  4. Lack of Accountability – Unions often spend money on lobbying and politics without asking their members how they would like their dues to be spent. And when a union spends money to promote an issue or candidate, it is difficult for individual members to get the union to change course. A significant amount of local dues are sent to state and national affiliates, which are even harder for individual union members to hold accountable. It is nearly impossible for public employees to oust union leadership or challenge internal union rules.
  5. Adversarial – American unions, unlike their European counterparts, are extremely adversarial, and this affects the workplace. They often do not behave like professional organizations, but rather like activist organizations. This creates a layer of distrust between public employees and their employers and can affect the trust between employees and the public. Moreover, in some public-sector workforces, supervisors are also unionized, adding another level of complexity and potential area for conflict.
  6. Cost – Members’ dues rarely support their local union and often go to bloated salaries, overhead, and political activism of the state and national level union employees. Unions collect a lot of money, and union dues are not typically progressive, so younger workers who make less money may feel they are carrying more of the load than older, better compensated employees.
  7. Workplace Restrictions – Unions often advocate for extreme positions on issues like pensions, pay, and work rules, and lock employees into one-size-fits-all contracts. The contracts also reduce the professionalism of employees by restricting what they can do and by binding them to specific rules, often making it difficult for them to do their jobs.
  8. Waiver of Legal Rights – Unionized employees are restricted from filing certain lawsuits without going through grievance processes set forth in a collective bargaining agreement. Worse, those who are union members often lose the right to take legal action against their union officials without exhausting the union’s internal dispute process first. These internal processes are often overseen by union officials with a vested interest in protecting their friends and punishing their enemies.
  9. Bad Apples – The union protects and advocates for all employees, even those who have clearly done wrong. This reflects poorly on other employees. In some unionized workplaces, unions have been known to create a culture that penalizes whistleblowing, making it difficult for employees who want an ethical workplace.
  10. Bullying – Unions often cultivate a culture of fear among workers, making them afraid to speak up if they don’t like something the union is doing. If you don’t like something your union is doing, who can you turn to? There is also social pressure within unions to speak with one voice on issues, making it difficult for those who disagree with their colleagues. Union leaders have been known to intimidate or bully public employees who disagree with the union’s position. And the union keeps dissenting members unaware that there may be other like-minded colleagues.

Suzanne Bates

Suzanne Bates is Senior Writer and Researcher with Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector workers offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Prior to joining Americans for Fair Treatment in 2020, Suzanne worked as a journalist for the Associated Press, as Policy Director with the Yankee Institute, as a contributor for The Hartford Courant, and as a regular commentator for WNPR’s The Wheelhouse.