Unions: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly


If you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ll understand by now that each day I provide a short read on some topic that is directly related to gettting or keeping a job, and things you could do to improve your chances of moving up in your career. If you’e new to the blog, a hearty welcome, and you may be interested in reading some of the archived blogs which go back to February of 2012 when I first started.

Today I want to look at a topic that is in the news constantly here in North America, and yet not everyone is comfortable talking about unless they are first aware of the opinion the person they are talking to beforehand. The topic? Unions. Are you part of a union in your current job or have you been part of one in the past? If you have personal experience as a member of a union, I’m willing to bet that you’ve got an opinion one way or the other on whether or not you saw value in membership.

So why did unions come about in the first place? Well historically, unions came about when workers had no or few rights. Back in the industrial age owners of businesses often mistreated workers by today’s standards; long hours, terrible working conditions, few breaks if any, child labour, termination of employees without justification, terrible wages. Those workers eventually realized that they could influence for the better their working lives and in turn their livelihoods if they banded together and stood up to Management. Eventually they won concessions from owners, and they collected from each member a portion of their wages in order to fund the change that was needed.

Now today, you’ll get very different takes on unions and whether or not they are still needed in all fields of work. Each union democratically elects leaders to represent them, and these union leaders are entrusted to bring about positive change on behalf of those members. In some cases this is exactly what happens and these leaders work with Management to provide workers with fair salary and benefits in exchange for productive work and hopefully profitable business operations.

However, there are times when individual members don’t necessarily agree with the actions that the membership as a whole wishes to move on, such as in the case of a holding back of services generally referred to as a strike. It is in these situations that some workers feel stress and anger when a co-worker yells at them, bullies them and does their best to brand them as a Scab, to be ostracized when the strike is over and isolated as a form of punishment. This is unionized behaviour at its worst.

Unions can be very effective in defending members who may unfairly be disciplined by Management in an organization. So perhaps someone has an attendance problem due to a health issue say, and the union leaders may mitigate discipline on behalf of their member. They may to grieve a situation on behalf of a member and strive to get that person favourably considered for a job involving seniority etc. In many cases a union can negotiate pay increases or benefit supplements on behalf of members.These are the upsides to unions.

Be aware though that unions have to defend members be they what I’ll call for the sake of brevity, good and bad workers. I myself worked with a fellow years ago who had attendance and performance issues. I was at a team meeting one time before our Supervisor came in and we his teammates were trying to persuade him to pull up his socks and cover for us like we covered for him when he was absent. His response? “Just let Management try anything; I’m gay and I’m (racial group) and I’ll play both cards with the union who’ll fight for me. Management won’t dare touch me.” I still remember those exact words; we were stunned. So here was a situation where if it ever came to it, the union would defend this guy, using our union dues which we had no choice but to pay, to defend him in some disciplinary hearing. You can draw your own conclusions and opinions, but unions must defend all their members equally. Hopefully however, your leaders in a union have the kind of relationship with Management where they can sit down, discuss problems and maybe even in some situations have a chat with their member first if they are in the wrong and tell them so.

Unions, like any other organization are never always bad or good. There are some that are aggressive, some that are rationale, and some that are weak. Some unions improve the lives of the workers and others actually have a negative effect and workers choose to de-certify their union and go back to the way things used to be and Management goes on treating the workers fairly and there is no need for unions whatsoever.

If you are going to be working in a unionized setting, make sure you know what your union dues are every pay. Find out who your leaders are and what do they stand for. Are they militant or do they strive for reasonable working agreements? Not all Management is bad and would take advantage of the workforce if there were no unions. It is true that some unionized members would not keep their jobs if the union wasn’t there to protect them and sometimes that’s because they really are poor workers with low productivity. After all, companies should have the best, most productive people working for them in order to be successful, especially in competitive times.

So there are upsides and downsides to the creation of unions and working within one. You’ll have to decide for yourself how you personally feel about membership and then make a decision to work within one or not. It’s a good idea to go to some meetings, hear the tone of discussions, see if you feel comfortable, find out what direction the union recommends moving in and when it’s time to negotiate contracts what do they want to achieve on your behalf?

Like many things in life, there are the good the bad and the plain ugly, and in the end all you want I suspect is to do fair work for a fair income in a setting where you can feel valued and appreciated.

All the very best as you greet the day today!

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2 thoughts on “Unions: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

  1. I am in a management position in food service. I have worked with unions before. It is important to read over the contact and learn about it. At some point in history employees must have been treated poorly therefore resulting in the union getting their foot in the door. The way disciplinary issues are handled is interesting. A delegate is always present with the employee and a witness for the supervisor or manager giving the warning is always suggested. Not saying I agree or disagree with unions but learned a lot about the process during my tenure.

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