Monday, September 01, 2008

Improve your finances: organize a union at your workplace!

On this Labor Day, here's some personal finance advice that might surprise you-- if you're looking to improve your financial situation, organize a union! (Or if you've got one already, work on making it stronger and more effective.)

There are a lot of big financial benefits to being a union member:

  • Wages. The average "union wage premium" in the U.S.-- the amount that union members make above non-union members-- is currently 11.9%, after controlling for age, gender, race, education, industry, and state. This effect is particularly pronounced for low-wage workers, in the range of 20%, but even at the high end there are still significant benefits: workers at the 80th percentile of wages (those who make more than 80% of other wage-earners) have a wage premium of 9.0% and those at the 90th percentile have a wage premium of 6.1%, still significantly higher than the cost of union dues (typically around 2%, sometimes lower.)
  • Benefits (most of this is from the government's Employee Benefits in Private Industry, March 2007 Summary, a PDF):
    • Health Insurance. In the private sector as of 2007, 88% of union members have access to health insurance through their employer and 78% participate, while 69% of non-union members have access and 49% participate. The difference in take-up is probably because non-union workers have to pay much more of the premiums than union members do; union members in the private sector on average pay 8% of the premium for single coverage and 12% of the premium for family coverage, while non-union members pay 20% of the premium for single coverage and 32% of the premium for family coverage. (Union workers are also significantly more likely to have dental, vision, and prescription drug coverage.)
    • Retirement. Union members are significantly more likely to have access to retirement benefits than non-union workers (among private sector workers it's 85% of union members and 59% of non-union members; among public sector workers, 97% of union members and 83% of non-union members.) However, it's even more dramatic when you look at defined-benefit pension plans, which 69% of private-sector union members have access to, compared to just 15% of non-union workers.
    • Other benefits. Union members are more likely to have access to a whole host of other benefits, too. 76% of union members in the private sector get life insurance from their employer compared to 56% of non-union members; 61% of union members have short-term disability coverage from their employer compared to 36% of non-union members. Union members are more likely to have paid holidays (84% to 76%) and those who do have paid holidays have more on average (10 for union members compared to 8 for non-union workers.) They're also more likely to have a number of other types of paid leave (from vacations and sick days to funeral leave and jury duty), albeit generally by relatively small margins.
  • Security/Stability. Unlike the "employment at will" at most non-union jobs in which you can be fired without notice for any reason, in a union job after you're off probation typically you can only be fired if there's actually just cause for it (determined by a neutral third-party.) There's also often language prohibiting the contracting out of work that can be done by employees. And if you do get laid off there's more likely to be severance pay, and you may be kept on a recall list and have the first shot at it if your job or a similar job returns.
  • Career development. Union members are more likely than non-union workers to receive employer-paid benefits for education and training. The other great part about career development in a union is fairness in promotions; the effects of favoritism are greatly diminished when you can challenge being passed over for someone who's less qualified than you.
  • Health and safety. I can't access the primary sources that it's citing, but this link talks about a number of studies which found that health and safety is better at union workplaces-- injury and illness rates are lower. Not only does work-related illness and injury effect your quality of life, but it can have short and long-term financial consequences, too.
These are all extremely important, and on a personal note I really appreciate them. I love having no monthly health insurance premium, a $10 co-pay for doctor's visits and paying $1 for prescriptions. It's a cool feeling that I've qualified for a pension at age 26 (a small one, and rightfully so, but I'll get at least $7000 a year-- even after considering inflation that's probably the equivalent of $1000-$2000 today, which isn't too shabby-- and if I stay longer the amount keeps going up.) And as I watch as my boyfriend has to haggle personally for every dollar, I truly appreciate knowing I can count on a couple of wage increases every year, and that when it comes time to bargain new ones, my coworkers and I are all working collectively to do so.

But as a proud union member, I have to say that some of my favorite benefits are actually the non-economic ones. Solidarity-- knowing my coworkers are on my side and I'm on theirs if something goes wrong, that we can and do stand up for each other and support each other. A voice at work-- having labor-management committees in which employees can sit across the table with management and talk about where we think our employer should be going, what changes could be made to help us be more effective. The knowledge that I am accountable to my employer, but my employer is also accountable to my coworkers and me.

Of course unions have their downsides too, and some unions can be very ineffective. But really, unions are as strong or weak as their members. If you have a union you're not happy with, then organize your coworkers and make some changes! Do what you can to make your next contract negotiations more successful. Go to your union meetings and start discussions about the issues that concern you. If you think that some of the priorities and provisions in your contract are off, make your case to your coworkers-- and organize them! Run for an elected position in your union. If you've got a problem with the higher-ups at your union rather than the people at your worksite, then look for another union to affiliate with or go independent. There's no reason not to insist on getting your dues' worth and beyond.

Are you a union member or have you been one in the past? What pros and cons have you experienced? What do you think the net financial (and non-financial) effects are/were for you?

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