Unions: Good or Bad?

When the American auto industry became the next in line for a big government bailout, there were those who immediately tried to blame the unions. The topic of unions seems to come up in my world rather often, so I thought I’d make it this week’s subject.

Are unions bad or good? Being a socialist at heart, I always thought an organization to protect workers’ rights was a good thing. But when I grew up and belonged to one for the first time, I started hearing tales of how corrupt they were. But none of these stories was really backed up by any specific detail or example. So I never knew what to make of them. All I can rely on is my own experience. And I have three examples of why unions are a good thing.

Example one. I was in a situation where my supervisor retaliated against a coworker and me for going to the union about something. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but after the union set it straight, we were both suddenly written up on bogus “out of uniform” charges. All it took was the word “retaliation” for my union rep to get on the horn and have the write-ups removed from the files. Score one for the union.

Example two. Our personnel office commented that it was wrong for me to be classified as a “technical” series (read: blue collar qualifications) while a coworker doing the exact same thing was a “professional” (white collar). I’d never though much of these arbitrary categories, until they cost me a promotion. So with HR as backup, I initiated the process of being reclassified. Unfortunately, both my supervisor and her supervisor were uninterested in helping me. In fact, they actively blocked me at every turn. Enter the union. I didn’t want to file an actual grievance, but just having them on my side lit enough fires under the right butts to get the job done. Score two.

Example three. In my current situation, I serve on a team. Everyone on the team does pretty much the same job. But some of us are GS-11, and some are only GS-9. How is that fair? Why should someone get paid more to do the same thing? I know what personnel would say, and I know what a union would say….if only I had one here. Because this is a non-union forest, I get to remain screwed as one of the lesser-paid employees. No score here, because I don’t have a union to defend my rights.

So for me, unions are good. I’m sure there are corrupt elements out there somewhere – but that could be said of any and every field, union or no. Is union corruption any more prevalent than anyplace else?

To realize what would happen if there were no unions, just think of the plight of Wal-Mart employees. It is well-documented that Wal-Mart keeps employee hours just below levels that would require benefits, that they deny worker’s comp coverage on bogus technicalities, and all manner of other abuses. And let’s not even mention the recent trampling……(ok, I’ll mention it but that’s all).

As government workers, some of us are unionized and some aren’t. It would be nice to live in a society where all workers’ rights were protected. But we don’t. And I don’t like that. There are too many loopholes for the big guys, and not enough for us. Unions are the only way to ensure that we receive fair treatment at the hands of our employers.

And if anyone thinks that unions have anything to do with the problems facing the Big Three auto makers, they’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid.

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Paulette Neal-Allen

GeekChick – do you think that having a union would have prevented the trampling death? On the one hand, the poor unfortunate was a temp, and I suspect that he would have been a temp even if there had been a union. OTOH, If there had been a union might they have insisted on better preparation / protection / security? Having been a dutiful mom and taken my girls out to a couple of the wait-in-line-on-black-Friday-morning trips in the last few years, I personally think it was just a matter of time before it happened. I’m surprised it didn’t happen at one of the electronic stores during the Wii phase…
Musing aloud, is all.
Thanks for the thought-provoking post, as always.


No, I did not mean to imply that a union would have prevented the trampling. I agree, it was only a matter of time before something like this happened. But that’s a topic for another blog…….

That said, you raise an interesting point. Would a union have insisted on better preparation or certain safety/security measures? Maybe. Or, they sure as heck would for future Black Friday sales. I’ll have to think about this one.

All I was saying was that Walmart is a classic example of employee abuse. And in my rant I threw the trampling in there. I think the public reaction to the incident would be slightly different if it were a different store.

You haven’t elbowed anyone to grab a good 4am bargain, have you? ; )

Kate Yemelyanov

Unions add enormous value where stewards and officers are knowledgable about bargining unit rights and HR policies in general. I have also seen them give bad advice and create false expectations that cost workers salary and hours of productive time.

Marcus Peacock

Unions are, of course, like most other groups, both good and bad. The important thing is to try and drive the good up and drive the bad out. I will say this as someone who worked in an open shop — it is not always good to have a union in an organization, but their existence elsewhere encourages better behavior everywhere.


Marcus: I’m curious to hear about your bad experience w/ a union. I realize that my experience has been exceedingly positive and therefore doesn’t represent a balanced view. I consider myself very lucky.

On the other hand, maybe the success of a union’s actions is reliant (at least in part) on us as workers. As Kate mentions, unions can give bad advice and create false expectations. And now that I’m thinking of it, I know of one instance where the union just prolonged a situation that was messed up to start with, and they drug it on by supporting a troublemaker. Workers should be responsible for thinking for themselves — not just blindly swallowing what a union rep says. If a rep gave me advice, I’d think about it, weigh it against other options and other facts of the situation, and I would base my actions on that. And I wouldn’t use it to further an unjust cause, as I’m sure happens now and then.

So maybe the bottom line is that unions are only as good as the people they represent. Kind of like the government, now that I think of it.

C Porche

I think it would be useful to hear from GAO employees who recently unionized their professional auditors, evaluators, and analysts.

Pam Broviak

I have had mainly very good experiences with unions but unfortunately recently had a very negative experience. And the negative one definitely is an example of the union’s negative action being a direct reflection of the people who are represented.

Because I work on construction sites a lot, and Illinois has a prevailing wage requirement that we pass each year, the contractors on the job are primarily union. From talking to the workers, I realize that the unions are very serious about providing training and work to create a very professional labor force. Yes, you might occasionally come across someone who is not a very good worker, but they are not bad because they are in a union – it is more of a personality thing. So overall I have found the union workers to be more professional, safer, they work faster and more efficiently, and seem to actually take more pride in their work. Perhaps some might argue this is a regional aspect, but not working much outside of the state, I don’t really know. I did have one major company that normally only hires non-union put up a union-built facility in our city. Their comment was that it was the fastest built one they ever did and had the least construction issues.

As for my one negative experience, it was with our city union. I had to give an oral reprimand to an employee for exhibiting unsafe behavior that put the public at risk. Because I like to have an open-door policy, I made sure the union could come if they wanted even though this was not required. Well, they decided the person to be disciplined did not have to be there. Because it is difficult to give an oral reprimand to someone who is not present to hear it, I tried to call him in and he argued with me and did not come in. The mayor decided to give the person 3 days off without pay for insubordination. So we had a predisciplinary hearing to inform the person of this. The union did allow him to be present for that but then fought it all and won because they felt guilty for getting him in trouble by advising him not to show up and they lied in the arbitration about how I handled the predisciplinary hearing.

Not sure how to counteract something like that. You think you are doing the right thing by advising someone they are putting the public at risk, they refuse to show up because the union president tells them they don’t have to, then when the guy gets time off for not listening, the union lies at the arbitration to make sure they win. It is actually a very sad story because it ends up causing hard feelings and impacts the work environment. But to me, I don’t think of it as a union-related problem. The basic problem to me is that people lie to get out of trouble. And how do you change that?