Unions can be somewhat of an abstract idea — a concept you've definitely heard of, just not very relevant to your own life. After all, the union representation rate in the private sector is just 7%, indicating that private sector workers covered by a union are a rare minority. And that scarcity is not that surprising. It isn't exactly easy to organize your workplace; it can be a lengthy, contentious process.
The right to form a union is supposed to be protected by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 — though it doesn't protect all workers — and the National Labor Relations Board exists to enforce those union rights, but its muscle depends on many factors, including who the current presidential administration appoints to the board. A company might be found to have violated the NLRA, but only face relatively minor consequences. Even if the NLRB steps in, the unionization process can drag on for years. Case in point: Amazon workers at a warehouse in Bessemer, AL, first took a unionization vote early last year, but their fate is still up in the air because the NLRB ruled that Amazon had meddled in the first vote. A second vote will begin on February 4.
To grow up in the U.S. unfortunately also means that you absorb a lot of anti-union attitudes. How often have you heard that unions are corrupt, skeevy institutions that mainly serve to obstruct a friendly, efficient relationship between workers and managers? Or that they'll eat up your hard-earned wages through exorbitant dues that go toward nothing useful for you? They'll stymie your career growth and make it impossible for you to truly shine at your job. Even if the rhetoric isn't that explicit, in a society that lauds rugged individualism above almost all else, the idea of a union becomes easier to scoff at.
All this to say, there are a lot of misconceptions around unions — like who should have them, and who doesn't need them. The persistent stereotypical image of a union worker is someone in a manufacturing job, like an auto worker. When Google employees formed the Alphabet Workers Union last year, for example, some detractors wondered why highly paid, privileged Silicon Valley employees would need a union, as if people need to experience a certain minimum threshold of suffering in order to deserve collective bargaining power.
The reality is, people with all kinds of roles in all manners of industries have organized or are trying to organize right now. The past several years have seen a boom in unionization efforts within digital media, for instance. Vice Media Group, the parent company of Refinery29, unionized in 2016 with the Writers Guild of America, East. But digital media is far from alone. Ahead, Refinery29 spoke to five people from different industries on what they do in their union — and what it does for them.
Amelia*, 32, works in marketing. "I grew up in a pro-union household," she says. "My mom was a nurse and my dad worked at a potash mine. I was very aware of the importance of unions, and I spent two of my spring breaks as a child walking — or, more accurately, rollerblading — the picket lines during nursing strikes."
"That being said, I never thought unions would factor into my career," she continues. "I went for my business degree right out of high school and didn’t associate the white-collar jobs I aspired to with unions."
But after working at a handful of non-unionized companies, she ended up taking a job at a unionized workplace, where she still works today. "Before even applying for the position I experienced a benefit of the union in that the job posting outlined the pay scale for that position. In previous roles, one at a boutique firm and the other at a large public corporation, I didn’t know the starting salary until the position was offered to me, and in both cases it was lower than I anticipated," Amelia says.
"The pay [at my current job] is significantly better, and my day ends at 5 pm. I rarely have to work evenings or weekends, and if I do I'm compensated accordingly," she continues. "I would say I have an above-average work-life balance, especially compared to previous jobs where I frequently went into the office early and left late."
Amelia's union is pretty active, she says. "Given the pandemic, everything has been virtual, but there are monthly meetings and socials as well as topic-specific meetings when issues arise. Involvement in the union really varies, with some of my peers being highly involved and others not. The majority of people in my department of roughly 200 have been at the company over 10 years, and that tends to be the group that’s more involved in our union," she says.
"Currently, our union is fighting for permanent remote work arrangements. We’ve all been working from home full time since the start of the pandemic, but it wasn't an option before," she says.
Still, Amelia points out that being in a union isn't a magic wand that makes all problems suddenly disappear. "Management and the union are often in conflict, with both parties frequently calling out the other in front of employees," she says. She finds this aspect disappointing. "It makes it difficult to want to participate when it feels like they occasionally take an antagonistic approach with our management who, at the end of the day, hold all the cards in terms of our career opportunities and advancement."
A part of the difficulty is that her union represents an immense number of people at her company. "We are such a large and diverse group, the final decision and details are up to the union leadership," she says. "There are 7,000 members across the organization, and it includes blue collar and white collar workers." It can understandably be difficult to agree on everything.
But when asked whether she thinks being in a union has positively affected her pay and work environment, her answer is an unequivocal yes. "Marketing and communications roles are, in my experience, often overworked and underpaid," Amelia says. "I make a higher salary than most of my peers and work significantly less hours."
"I would say that, overall, a union will likely result in higher pay and a better work-life balance. Career advancement does happen, but it’s not as dynamic as in non-union workplaces so, if you have time-specific goals, I would really dig into that in the interview process and try and understand if or when those opportunities are available and what the process is — will union members get priority, do those with more seniority get preferential treatment?"
"Some people find getting involved in the union to be very rewarding, but if you don’t choose to go that route, in most cases, it’s totally acceptable to enjoy the benefits without engaging directly in union matters," Amelia points out.
"Unions are often reflective of the culture of the company," she says. "A company that has a positive workplace culture will likely have a good union."
Amelia believes the opposite holds true as well. "I think the union definitely influences the culture. My colleagues and I feel more empowered to ask management for what we need and it really evens out the power dynamic," she says. "And among colleagues, people are open about their career goals and there’s room to be openly ambitious since the process is so regimented and transparent."
Sophie*, 34, currently works as a financial analyst at an academic medical center. But she originally went into teaching — a career experience that didn't end well.
"I graduated in 2009 with an education degree," she says. "It was the worst time to try to be a teacher. People who had been teaching for years were being let go due to budget constraints, and I was fresh out of college with no experience."
Eventually, though, Sophie got a science and math teaching position at a local parochial school. "Since it was a parochial school, there was no set curriculum, and no one else taught the subjects I taught. So I was building my own lessons for seven different subjects and I made decisions as a teacher that the parent population didn’t really agree with, and I was struggling in general."
But the final straw occurred in early November. "Our principal happened to be out one day, and the acting principal came to ask me something highly unusual. They said that the county sheriff wanted to speak with me. I had no clue what’s up or why, but I went to talk to him," Sophie recalls. "It was about an assault that happened on Halloween in the neighborhood. My truck matched a description they got, apparently, and it had a piece of orange plastic riding around in the bed that matched some of the pumpkins that had been smashed," she recalls.
Sophie later learned that someone had planted the orange plastic in her truck while it was in the school parking lot, but by then, the damage had been done. "[The police] chased down my story and alibi so long that the class period ended and my classes switched out in the hall. This conversation was unfortunately happening in an office with a window, so my students saw me talking to the sheriff," she says "I came back to my classroom at the end of the day and of course my 8th graders had questions. So I was faced with a choice: I could either be honest with them, or tell them it was none of their concern and let the rumor mill fly. I chose to be honest rather than make up fictions," Sophie says.
"The kids of course told their parents and I’m sure that didn’t help anything. I had taken a probationary contract when I started the job for the first three months. The school decided to exercise that right."
"My mom worked at a public elementary school at the time and said that what happened to me was totally out of line, and the secretary should have told the police that I was with students and to come back at X time and to speak with me after hours," she says.
"Had I taught at a public school with a union, they would have had to show what I did wrong, and prove that I had endangered the kids or done something illegal," Sophie says. "I didn’t know any better, but when you teach at a private school the parents are essentially paying your salaries. So if the parents aren’t happy or are concerned about who this teacher is and why law enforcement is talking to them during school hours, that’s the ball game."
Sophie considered suing for defamation or personal damages, “but that costs money, and I just needed to be able to pay rent at that point."
Since that harrowing experience, Sophie has taken union jobs in other industries. "I got the opportunity to apply for an admin assistant job at a hospital via suggestion of someone in my network. I knew once I was in there, I could move and grow into a different position. I utilized tuition benefits and the knowledge of position title requirements — a union perk — to determine what I wanted to do next and needed to do education-wise to retrain and be qualified, since I clearly wasn’t going back to teaching," she says.
After six years, Sophie took a non-union job as a project accountant in the construction industry. But she says construction was “a very different world, very old school — and I thought healthcare dragged its feet on technology!" After two and a half years, feeling overworked and underpaid and wanting a better work-life balance to support her future goals of being a working mother, she returned to the hospital system. "The hospital would get me paid family leave, more flexibility on schedule and working hours, the option for remote work even after the pandemic, [benefits] that weren't an option with the construction gig,” Sophie says. “It was a choice about the type of place I wanted to work as I prepare for my life to possibly change in the next few years."
"It was totally by accident that the hospital role ended up being union, but it did provide a level of comfort in accepting the role," she adds.
"My current job is great. I work my 40 hours and that’s that. I have a really good work-life balance; my manager is super flexible about time off for appointments and life needs. I’m also in a rare position where I'm still a union employee, but I'm salaried."
Teresa*, 29, is a journalist. Like many of us, she didn't know much about unions growing up. In fact, the first time she became conscious of what roles unions might play in people's lives was in high school. "In junior year, my teachers went on strike for over a week," she says. "I didn't fully understand, but I just remember the word 'collective bargaining' being said. I was a very active junior, so I stood outside my school and protested for them to have union rights." But when she thought of her future career, unions didn't factor into the picture.
Her first personal brush with unions came when she was 25 and worked as a freelancer for WNYC. When she joined the company, the podcasters in the digital media department were in the process of joining WNYC's union as part of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). "I was still on my parents' health insurance back then," she recalls, "and I went to all these union meetings and I was like, oh my God, this is fucking sick — SAG has the greatest health insurance. How much you pay for it is based on how much money you make."
But about a month before she would have been eligible to start receiving SAG health insurance, Teresa was laid off.
At her next job in the media industry, she was eligible to join the Writers Guild of America. "I finally got to actually benefit from being in a union. Now, I feel like being in a union is part of my personality, honestly. I would not go to another workplace that didn't have a union, unless I was making over six figures."
For Teresa, the difference before and after having a union job has been stark. "Before WNYC, I was at a film distribution company for three years and I made no money and had no rights. I worked 60 to 70 hour weeks making between $30k to $40k at this company." She felt like she was “constantly fighting” for herself, and despite asking for several raises, and making “these huge documents detailing why I deserve this promotion and this raise,” her efforts were typically in vain. “I got shut down all the time because [the company] was just these two dudes who got to decide my fate. Sometimes they'd throw me a bone and give me a $3,000 raise,” she says. Without WGA, "I think I would have stayed comfortable at $50k and been like, this is what I deserve. I just don't think I would have pushed as hard to make more money. And now I'm making $80k," Teresa says.
In her current, unionized job, Teresa also has a better work-life balance. "Part of that is because I'm older and care about myself a little bit more," she notes. But she says a large part is the epiphany that she deserves a livable wage, especially in a high-cost-of-living city. "[Being in a union] opened my eyes to what I should look for in a job. Whether or not I recommend working in digital media is a different story," she adds.
"I also think that having the union throughout the pandemic, especially with layoffs, was so important to me — having this space," Teresa continues. "[The union] just made me feel like I have agency. I don't think I ever felt like I had agency before."
Finding that personal agency also enabled Teresa to form a better sense of community. "When I was in SAG, it was really nice to see that someone else cared that I got benefits because they knew that I needed them," she says. "Obviously it didn't end up working out, but that was beyond my union's control. I just think that it teaches you to care about other people more."
"When you're trying to figure out how to talk to employers, when you're trying to negotiate certain things about your job, it's so easy to get lost in the barrage of information on the internet," Teresa notes. And most of the advice focuses on how an individual can savvily negotiate, overcome the odds, and actually get the higher pay they desire. "People on TikTok are going to tell you, what's the worst thing that could happen [when you negotiate] — they say no? But actually, the worst thing is that you could be severely underpaid and overworked."
"There's just such a big difference between you negotiating for yourself and a collective unit negotiating together for the benefit of everybody."
Melissa Campbell, PhD, is a 38-year-old postdoctoral scientist researching brain development at Columbia University — and she's also the vice president of the Columbia Postdoctoral Workers, which is affiliated with the United Auto Workers (UAW).
Postdoc researchers often face long hours in the lab, without adequate compensation for those hours. According to a survey conducted by Nature, only 42% of postdocs said they earned between $50,000 and $80,000 a year, and just 3% earned more than that. The Columbia Postdoc Union, which voted to unionize in 2018, is one of a growing number of postdoc unions fighting against overwork and for better pay, among many other issues.
"The person that recruited me, or got me interested in [the union], actually was a student at Columbia and was part of a student unionizing effort, and then graduated and became a postdoc," says Dr. Campbell.
"When you're at a place that isn't really paying attention to the needs of certain workers, there's talk that happens. People start talking about things that need to be improved and things that are a problem," she says.
Dr. Campbell’s experience speaks to how unionization efforts, while they can seem too complex to undertake at first, often begin with everyday acts such as venting and complaining with your colleagues — which, one could argue, are a necessary part of a healthy work life.
As the postdocs began to talk to one another, "there was a groundswell of interest and sort of banding together and convincing Columbia to make a change," says Dr. Campbell. "The students really, I think, helped push the postdocs to be empowered to unite and fight for their interests."
Dr. Campbell also echoes Teresa’s thoughts on how unions build a feeling of kinship, especially if you're feeling siloed at your place of work — stuck in your literal or metaphorical cubicle. "At Columbia, there wasn't that much of a sense of community. I think that's a real lack of this place. And the union gave us that," she says. "You feel part of something with your fellows that you wouldn't necessarily always talk to. It just gives you some shared identity that you didn't feel before."
"The thing about postdocs is that we're all part of these tiny little islands. I work in a lab that has about five or six people, and we have a boss. And there's many, many, many little labs at Columbia," Dr. Campbell says. "Much of your experience actually is determined by your supervisor, and the supervisors vary greatly."
While Dr. Campbell says she’s been lucky to have fantastic supervisors and therefore good experiences at Columbia, that's not always the case. "I can say, as the vice president of the union and also just when I was part of the bargaining committee, one of the big things we did was to go around collecting stories and sharing what was going on with people. When you hear someone tell you a story and they say, ‘My supervisor is doing this,’ and you go, well, that's not okay, and there's no recourse to do anything about it — it's really disempowering, and I felt like we were always hearing stories like that."
"But after we unionized and signed our contract, we could write an email to HR or whoever and say, I'm this person from the union and this is not allowed. And it would be fixed immediately," Dr. Campbell says. "That's the first step in feeling like what's happening matters and that those individual parties or supervisors are going to be held accountable and held to a standard that is reasonable," she says.
A lot of what their union has done, according to Dr. Campbell, is to codify in their contract what was already in the university's faculty handbook. "They shouldn't tell you that you can't go home for Christmas and you have to work," she says. But now that 'shouldn't' is enforceable.
It took some while to adjust to the new reality where they, as workers, suddenly had more power. "I was just thinking about someone who didn't get their paycheck on time," recalls Dr. Campbell. "This happens at Columbia all the time. I can't even tell you it's crazy how often it happens. We're not making all that much and you're living in one of the most expensive cities in the world and trying to plan ahead for when HR makes a whoopsie."
After forming their union, Dr. Campbell remembers emailing HR about a paycheck issue a member was having. "The supervisor, the person I wrote to, called me on my cell phone to apologize profusely for having done this," she says. "I was like, well, thank you for taking care of it. I hung up and I was just like, wow, I gotta not let this get to my head."
Dr. Campbell says that their union is fairly active, with monthly member meetings and weekly Executive Board meetings. "It's quite active, and actually a lot of people wanted the union because they appreciated the advocacy aspect of it," she says. "This came up especially during the pandemic with BLM, and we had a lot of discussions about signing onto letters, supporting other efforts to bring unionization to other universities, putting out statements about various activities, like Columbia's relationship to New York City police."
"There's been a lot of discussion about what we should support, what we don't support. And I'd say that makes up probably the majority of our meetings," she notes.
While Dr. Campbell says that their union operates in a “flat” structure, she adds that their union meetings aren't a free-for-all where everyone speaks at once, either. They set agendas, and the meetings’ structure is laid out in the union bylaws that they passed. Making sure the process is democratic is a big priority, she says. “I'm the VP, but it's just a title,” she adds. “Everyone contributes."
Some people may fear having to adopt an adversarial attitude toward management if they join a union. But Dr. Campbell believes that this doesn't have to be the default. "My uncle used to be a union leader at GM and then eventually got promoted to management," she says. "When [the postdoc unionizing] was all happening, I went to talk to him and he said that during the negotiations of the contract it seems very adversarial. But an enlightened management would realize that the union can be really helpful if you're about to roll something out that you know people aren't going to like but have to do. You talk to the union people first. If you have a good relationship — which everyone should always be trying to go for — you can work with the union to see what their biggest sticking points are and you can work together so that people aren't blindsided at the end and it feels more like a compromise. It feels like people's needs and the union's interests are being taken into consideration, and I think that can soften the blow."
During the pandemic, Dr. Campbell and other Columbia employees fought for more childcare support. The union and management talked about the options together. "They asked us, ‘What do you think your members would like the best?’ We spent some time workshopping it with them, and at the end of the day, the university just gave people money and they also expanded some of the back-up childcare stuff."
Her advice to people who've never been in a union, or who feel any degree of wariness about joining one, is this: "You have to take a look at the union, because the culture of the union matters. And I think I'm really proud of the culture of our union here at Columbia," she says. "Unions themselves aren't something to be feared. But you have to look at a place and think about, What does the union spend its money on? Do you support it? Does that feel good to you? I think it's an opportunity. It shouldn't be seen as the immediate fear."
"We're an institute of higher learning, the ivory tower. We're not working in a factory," Dr. Campbell says. "Just by that alone, some think, why would you need a union for that? But the truth is, any place where there's this power dynamic, it's possible for it to be abused — and unions help defray that problem."
The Columbia Postdoctoral Workers won their latest contract in 2020, through a lot of Zoom bargaining sessions. A lot of gains were made, including a higher salary minimum. "We're the highest-paid postdocs in New York City now," Dr. Campbell says. "We have the longest parental leave."
Campos took her first home care job while she was trying to save money for college, where she intended to get an education degree with the hopes of becoming a preschool teacher. But, she says, “I found that I got everything that I was wanting in home care."
Home care work isn't the kind of job that allows you to remain emotionally, mentally detached. "You are taking on a client, someone who's relying on you," Campos says. "They tell you not to get too close, but you can't help it. They do eventually become a part of your family. You're responsible for an entire life."
“Honestly, it's a beyond stressful job, and it's not easy — you just take it one day at a time and try to breathe as much as you can," she adds.
For Campos, one major benefit of the union is that it gives her a place to unload some of this emotional burden. "It gives you an outlet where you can talk about these things, because we're not legally allowed to be discussing everything that happens. We have to be protecting our clients at all costs." If she weren’t in a union, she’d only have coworkers or managers to lean on, and, she notes, "I learned the hard way that I couldn't rely on my coworker and my manager."
She first saw the benefits of her union after she faced disciplinary action at work. Due to an injury, Campos was prohibited from working nights for a period of time. "But the company begged me to come back," she says. Campos checked to make sure everyone at work would be okay with her working night shifts, then relented. But when she did, she was punished for working — despite being pressured by management to do so.
"[Management] told me, you can either quit or, if you call the union, we will have to throw you in jail. My manager literally told me that. And that fueled me. How can you throw me in jail for something that you told me to do?" she says.
"I felt so betrayed by everyone. I’ve never felt so alone," Campos continues. "That's when I looked through my papers and found my packet from the union. I was like, Oh, I have a union. I called and told them everything," she says. "I remember my union rep said, ‘What were you thinking in believing that these people were your friends?’ He's a very honest man, I've got to give him props. He will tell you when you've messed up."
"[My union] got me my job back," she says. "From that point, I promised myself that I wouldn't let anyone else go through what I went through. I was fortunate,” Campos adds. “At the time, I still had my other restaurant job, [and] I was still living at home with my parents, so I could go an entire month without a salary. But I can't imagine that situation for a mother, or someone living on their own."
Campos is now a leader within her union. "I've truly never felt so strong in my life," she says. "In the past five years, I've been able to be a part of bargaining committees, and my pay has gone up almost $5 an hour since I've been a part of this. We were able to sit on the bargaining table and won COVID relief pay, PPE gear."
The union has also opened the door for her to get involved in broader labor advocacy. "I've been involved in every possible thing that the union could possibly get their hands on," says Campos. "I joined the Women's March; I went to D.C. to be trained on how to properly speak out and be a better leader; just recently, we went to D.C. to try to get the Build Back Better plan passed. Seeing all these changes, all of this impact that we're able to make honestly makes me feel like I'm a part of something so much bigger."
For anyone who feels uncertain about how a union could benefit them, Campos' advice is this: "Don't wait until it's too late. Don't wait until you're in a situation that you can't get out of yourself," she says. "The union is there to honestly help you, to build you up, to teach you how to succeed in your job. You have that foundation of help and support, where people truly understand that we all deserve to make a living wage and live our lives without being mistreated at work. You have that place to go to when you think you have no one to go to. How can you pass up that security?"
"I've been offered jobs at other companies where they're paying more, even management positions — but how can I give up my union?" she asks.
*Names have been changed to protect identity