15 Nursing Labor Unions Pros and Cons

If you are a registered nurse, then there may be an important question waiting for an answer in the near future: should you join a nurses’ union?

Even though about 10% of U.S. workers belong to a union, nurses are more likely to work in a unionized environment. 18% of the currently employed nurses in the United States belong to unions, with that number steadily rising.

These unions work to advocate and protect the interests of their members. This benefit may include collective bargaining on your behalf, the right to due process with your employer, and a grievance process to work with should there be issues with your hours, wages, benefits, or working conditions.

Some people choose union membership (or choose to avoid unions) because of their sentiments toward them. A better method to evaluate this critical decision is to weigh the various pros and cons of nursing labor unions to see if this option makes financial sense/

List of the Pros of Nursing Labor Unions

1. The nursing labor unions in the United States are locally or regionally based.
At the time of this writing, there is no one single labor union which represents nurses throughout the United States. Those which are currently operational are all based on local or regional needs. Some examples of this include National Nurses United, SEIU United Healthcare East, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, and the AFL-CIO. This structure makes it possible for union leaders to meet the needs of local workers in meaningful ways because they live and work where you are.

2. Better job security is available through a nursing labor union.
Most unions negotiate a contract with your employer that will prohibit you from being fired without a cause. Some include representation for you if your boss tries to initiate disciplinary action for some reason. This advantage ensures that you can’t be fired on a whim like at-will employees, and that you will receive fair treatment even if you make a mistake. That means you can focus more on your patients because you’re less worried about where your next paycheck originates.

3. It creates the foundation for better working conditions.
Nurses are a commodity who are often overworked, underpaid, and asked to care for more people than they can physically accommodate. When there is a nursing labor union representing your interests, they can advocate for better working conditions. That could mean that you’d have a higher nurse-to-patient ratio, allowing you to offer proper care instead of rushing around through your tasks. There might be better protocols and safety rules implemented. Some labor unions can even negotiate an elimination of mandatory overtime or schedule changes.

4. You might gain access to a guaranteed pay increase or a better wage.
Most nursing labor unions can negotiate a living wage increase to your salary each year. That means the value of the salary you earn today will offer a comparable value ten years from now. Without this representation, you might find that your wages are frozen or increases fall below the rate of inflation. The goal of your employment should be to earn more because of your experience instead of being treated as a liability because of the cost of your salary.

5. Union workers gain access to better benefits.
Labor unions help to negotiate the benefits package for their nurses in addition to their wages. A union environment allows for better medical coverage, which usually includes dental. You might have access to more vacation time. There are sick pay considerations to look at. Education reimbursement, retirement matches, pension possibilities, and much more are all potentially available at a better value with a union compared to doing it on your own without one.

6. There is a process to help address grievances you may have.
Unions develop a specific process for addressing a grievance with your employer. These complaints make it possible to address problematic situations without the threat of reprisal from your supervisor. You’re included with the process too, actively working with all parties to facilitate a resolution that benefits everyone. Although some shop stewards and union reps are better than others for pushing this advantage through the administrative red tape than others, this option is not always available to non-union nurses.

7. You can gain access to other benefits outside of the workplace.
Unions negotiate special rates and privileges with other local businesses to help you save money in other ways too. You might receive discounts at dental appointments, qualify for special mortgage rates if you use a partner lender, or even have access to travel discounts when you’re ready to take a vacation. Some nursing labor unions even offer lower insurance premiums and access to no-interest payment plans for products you might need for the home.

8. Unionized nurses gain a significant voice for change.
One of the greatest strengths that every union offers is the ability to speak with numbers. When you need conditions to change because patient care is lacking, then a group speaking with one voice to pursue a common goal creates an influential negotiating foundation. Solidarity is an advantage which is often underestimated. It is a challenge for you to speak up on your own to make a difference in the workplace. When your fellow nurses stand up with you, then you can make good things happen.

List of the Cons of Nursing Labor Unions

1. You will always find a few nurses taking advantage of the unionized structure.
You can definitely enjoy the many benefits which come with a nursing labor union. What you will not appreciate are the “bad apples” that try to take advantage of this system. Because there is such an emphasis on due process, managers must take extra documentation steps to verify violations of workplace policies before they can initiate a disciplinary process. That means you will likely need to put up with inappropriate behaviors from some workers or manage the incompetence of others.

2. You must go on strike if the union declares this need.
When you choose to join a nursing labor union, then a strike is sometimes necessary to gain the better working conditions you want to have at work. You are required to join the strike, if a majority of the members vote for it, even if you disagree with the process on principle. When this happens, then you don’t receive pay because you’re not working. There may not be an option to take vacation or sick pay to cover these hours either. And if you decide to cross the picket line to keep working, that might disrupt your union membership.

3. Performance is secondary to seniority with a nursing labor union.
You might be the best nurse on your floor. Your supervisor might sing your praises to the entire organization. When it comes time for a promotion, the only way you’re going to advance is to have seniority over the other interested parties. The same process holds true for your wages. How much you earn depends on the amount of time you’ve remained employed. The unions do not use a measurable standard of productivity, talent, or skill to determine who gets rewarded. Someone with 10 years of experience will always receive more than someone who celebrated their first anniversary.

4. You may not agree with the union’s position on specific issues.
A nursing labor union will typically create an adversarial relationship with your employer. They do this because it allows them to negotiate with more leverage for the things you need at work. The only problem with this structure is that it creates an adversarial relationship between the management team and the nurses like you. Even simple disputes require union intervention and mediation, which can prolong the issue for everyone involved. If you choose not to follow the grievance process, then you may discover that there is nothing which can be one to improve the workplace either.

5. Dues are a required condition for working with a union.
Nurses who decide to join a labor union must pay dues to benefit from the advantages offered. There may be an initiation fee to pay with your first paycheck when you start a new job. Membership fees are usually deducted as a percentage of what you earn, sometimes as high as 3.5%. Although there are limitations on these dues, and you can designate what your share of a political contribution is directed toward, the costs of representation often even out the paycheck advantages you’d have over a non-union worker.

6. Bargain wages are not always an advantage.
If your wages as a nurse are fixed to a specific contract or collective bargaining agreement, then there is no longer an incentive to work harder to earn more. Your high performance is paid at the same level as an average performance. Merit does not fit into the equation. If that forces some nurses to work harder than others since patient care should always be the first priority, then it can create discord within the nursing staff since some will feel like they’re forced to do more than others without a benefit.

There is also the issue of fair representation to consider. Bargaining covers non-union workers as it covers your position. The dues you pay go to support the wages and benefits of other nurses who opt out of the union. This highlight of personal differences creates as much tension in the workplace as an employee who refuses to hold down their fair share of the work.

7. You have less control over your final schedule.
Let’s say that you want to change your shift or reduce your hours because of a personal situation at home. If your employer wants to approve this alteration to your job description, then they must first go through the union. They might need to post a job opening for your position before you can go over to the new one that you want. The union might even post the job you want to get into, creating a bidding war over the spot. If you don’t hold seniority at the end of the day, then you might not get the changes you need – even though your employer is willing to make those changes for you.

These nursing labor union pros and cons evaluate the various critical points to consider when deciding if an open position like this can meet your needs. You may find that the union is very helpful and supportive of your work, or you might encounter the opposite conditions. Take a look at the opportunity offered, see if the job meets your salary requirements, and then review how you can avoid these disadvantages for the best possible experience.

Blog Post Author Credentials
Louise Gaille is the author of this post. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Louise has almost a decade of experience in Banking and Finance. If you have any suggestions on how to make this post better, then go here to contact our team.