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Unions Aren’t the Answer to Public and Private Sector Employment Concerns

From Amazon to Starbucks, employees in many corporations and industries are unionizing, some in hopes of obtaining better pay, benefits, and working conditions, and others in an effort to push their employer to engage in social activism. But are unions the best way to achieve any of these goals?

Many employees who have had negative experiences with their union would answer with a resounding “no.” Unions are supposed to represent employees’ interests, but they don’t always fulfill that purpose and can often do more harm than good. This applies to unions in both the public and private sectors.

Unions are, more often than not, themselves large corporate entities with their own layers of bureaucracy, inefficiencies, and corruption. Take the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) for example, which represents employees in both the public and private sectors. SEIU represents millions of employees across the United States in over 100 different occupations. In 2020, only 12% of its $310 million dollar budget actually went towards representing members. A whopping 31% of its spending went just to overhead expenses.

The purpose of a union is to ensure that an employer is responsive to its employees’ needs. But adding additional layers of bureaucracy and forcing employees into collective bargaining agreements limits an employer’s ability to be agile in addressing those needs. In fact, it takes an average of 409 days to ratify the first collective bargaining agreement in a newly unionized workplace. Down the road, making changes to that agreement is similarly difficult.

On top of that, the agreements that unions do negotiate may not even be in the best interest of their members. Employment satisfaction does not appear to be any better for employees in the public sector, who are far more likely to be unionized than in the private sector. Just look at teachers, who are among the most unionized employees in the country. Only half of all teachers report being satisfied with their jobs right now, with only 12 percent saying they are “very satisfied.” If unions bring so many improvements to a workplace, why are their members so unhappy?

Unions routinely leave members out of important conversations, making it more likely they’ll agree to something their members don’t want. Both public and private unions don’t have to listen to their members in contract negotiations and are merely required to meet a duty of “fair representation”—under federal law for private unions and state law for public ones—a very low bar to clear from a legal standpoint.

If union members are unhappy with their representation, it can be very difficult to replace union leadership or kick out the union altogether. That’s because internal union elections for both sectors are notorious for having problems with transparency, and union decertification is difficult to accomplish. In the private sector, specifically, legal restrictions often require employees to wait years before they can file a petition to get rid of an ineffective or abusive union. Instead of functioning as a protective barrier between management and employees, unions often become just another stumbling block preventing employees from having their needs and concerns addressed.

Employees of corporations like Amazon and Starbucks can achieve across the board workplace improvements without a union, maintaining the individual employee’s right to bargain directly with his or her employer—and they already have! Starbucks employees, for example, have successfully achieved a $15 an hour starting wage and free college tuition, all without any union assistance.

Workers in a non-union environment can learn from their unionized counterparts who have seen what happens when employees surrender their right to negotiate with their employers to a union. We’ve been told that unionization is the cure-all for workplace issues, but in practice, it just creates more problems.

Patrick Moran

Patrick J. Moran is a Staff Attorney at Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector employees offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Prior to joining Americans for Fair Treatment, Patrick served as an attorney for the USDA. Before that, he was a legal associate at the Cato Institute, where he focused on First Amendment issues, including religious liberty and free speech. Patrick received his law degree from the University of Florida, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from University at Albany, SUNY. As a native New Yorker, he works to ensure that public-sector employees in his home state know their constitutional rights and receive fair treatment under the law. Patrick lives in Maryland with his wife.