Dispelling Labor Myths: The Truth About Union Dues
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There is a major difference between union support and union membership in the United States.
According to Gallup, the union approval rate among Americans is at its highest level since 1965 with 71 percent of people approving unions. Yet data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows only 10.1 percent of American workers belong to a union.
Why? What are the reasons behind this disparity? What is keeping workers from joining unions?
The answers to these questions are multi-faceted, but one of the driving forces is the proliferation of anti-union rhetoric and labor myths intended to intimidate or scare workers away from unionizing.
Employers and pro-business advocates “tend to promote a number of myths about labor unions in order to discourage workers from exercising their legal right to collectively organize,” explains employees’ rights attorney Steven Mitchell Sack.
The most prevalent of these falsehoods about labor unions pertain to union dues.
Myth: Union Dues Are Too Expensive
One of the first arguments management will make against unions in their union-busting campaigns is that membership dues for unions are expensive. Companies often “engage in scare tactics regarding union dues,” writes The Guardian’s Adrian Horton.
For example, when Amazon workers were attempting to organize in Bessemer, Alabama, in 2021, the company told workers “they would have to skip dinner and school supplies to pay their union dues,” writes reporter David Streitfeld at The New York Times.
Such messaging can be, and often is, very effective at scaring workers and turning them against the union, even though the message is patently false.
Workers need evidence to the contrary to prove they can afford union membership.
Fact: Union Dues Are Affordable
The typical monthly dues a member pays to their union is between 1.5 and 3 percent of their pay.
As examples, here are what member obligations look like for two unions:
- The member dues for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare 1199NW are 1.8 percent of pay, with a cap of $90 per month.
- SEIU Local 1000 members pay 1.5 percent of their gross salary, also with a $90 per month cap.
To dispel the myth that union dues are too expensive, union leaders need to share the actual costs of membership and, more importantly, explain the value members get in return for that investment.
“Union members earn better wages and benefits than workers who aren’t union members,” notes the AFL-CIO. “On average, union workers’ wages are 11.2% higher than their nonunion counterparts.”
In a Reddit discussion, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers says their 3 percent investment in membership dues translates to a salary that’s 20 percent higher than their nonunion peers.
Dues enable unions to negotiate contracts that include higher pay for members. But that’s not all. Unions secure a number of other benefits and protections for members through those negotiations.
“What I paid in union dues is very minor for the things I got — not being unjustly disciplined or fired; the pay and benefits; being treated fairly on overtime work; no favoritism; safety rules to keep us safe,” Kenneth Turner, a retired former member of the United Steelworkers Union, writes in a Quora discussion.
In short, “the cost of belonging to a union,” explains International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 965, is “a very wise and very sound investment when you consider what you get for your money.”
Union leaders need to push this message to show how union dues are not the waste of money employers would have their employees believe.
Myth: Unions Use Member Funds for Selfish Purposes
Another theme of employer anti-union messaging, note Gordon Lafer and Lola Loustaunau, respectively a professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center and an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School for Workers, is that “unions only care about extorting dues payments from workers.”
This was a key message in Amazon’s campaign to defeat the union election in Bessemer. As CNBC writer Annie Palmer reported at the time, “Amazon sought to cast doubt on how workers’ dues would be spent by telling workers that the RWDSU spent more than $100,000 a year on vehicles for employees.”
By spreading the message that unions only care about collecting money to spend in ways that meet their own ends, management plants the seeds of doubt in the minds of workers about joining a union.
Fact: Unions Use Dues Monies to Fight for Workers
The truth is that membership dues enable unions to do their job — fighting for and protecting the rights of workers.
“By joining the union, and agreeing to pay union dues you are helping set up your own worker-controlled ‘war chest’ to have resources to organize your co-workers to take on the boss and win improvements,” explains United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 111.
“Dues are an investment that comes right back to you through good contracts, quality education, and a wide range of union services,” asserts the United Steelworkers Union USW. Unions must explain that such benefits and services, as highlighted by the SEIU, include:
- Negotiating and enforcing contracts.
- Defending members.
- Setting up education and safety programs.
- Organizing workplaces.
Anti-union messaging seeks to erode trust between unions and workers through this narrative, so it may also be worth explaining that unions have nothing to hide when it comes to how they spend the monies paid by members.
In fact, all unions covered by the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) are required to file annual financial statements to the U.S. Department of Labor. These statements are a matter of public record and most unions make them available to members for inspection. Explaining that members can see exactly what the union does with their money can help unions establish trust with workers who are skeptical.
And, given the huge gap between union supporters and union members, there appear to be many people with doubts about actually becoming dues-paying members. Labor leaders have to demonstrate to American workers that union membership is a worthwhile investment.
Labor detractors promote myths that unions are self-serving organizations that take too much of people’s hard-earned money to use as they see fit. Nothing could be further from the truth. A tool like UnionTrack® ENGAGE® can help union leaders share this message.
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