One of union representation's greatest advantages can also be one of its main disadvantages: the ability to engage in economic strikes.
The decision to strike for improved wages or working conditions is a serious subject that requires a thorough analysis of the strike's likelihood for success before it is undertaken. Union officials need to be experienced and knowledgeable about the many economic and social factors that will be brought to bear on striking employees before they make a decision. Incorrect judgments about striking can be harmful to employees who choose to engage in this activity.
Employers of striking workers have the legal right to continue to operate their business with permanent replacement employees who need not be discharged once the strike ends.43 In such circumstances, the best that striking employees can expect is to be recalled when an employment vacancy occurs for which they are qualified. This assumes that the striking employees have not already obtained regular and equivalent employment elsewhere and have made an unconditional request for reinstatement. They are not entitled to immediate and unconditional reinstatement or back pay when their jobs are filled by permanent replacements.
Though employees cannot be discharged for their decision to strike, there is nothing in the law that guarantees them a successful outcome once a strike is commenced. Accordingly, strike activity as a weapon in collective bargaining is decreasing in the United States (see Chart 4).
Another disadvantage for unionized workers is the loss of individuality. When a union is certified as the exclusive employee representative in a workplace, employees become members of an overall bargaining unit in which the majority rules. The ruling majority may not be sympathetic with each individual's specific employment needs or aspirations. Individual agreements between employees and management are not allowed because the employer is under an obligation to deal exclusively with the union. The union leaders make decisions for all employees, which many may deem not to be in their best individual interest. Loss of individuality is of prime concern for many employees, as well as the loss of the opportunity to negotiate for themselves an individual arrangement.
Still another disadvantage of union representation is the cost to employees. Most collective bargaining agreements require all employees to support the union financially as a condition of their continued employment. Federal law provides that employees may, regardless of the language in the agreement, opt not to formally join the union; however, they may still be required to pay certain dues and initiation fees. Additionally, the union can demand the discharge of any employee who fails to pay required dues and fees, unless a right-to-work law has been enacted in the state where the business operates. Michigan does not have a right-to-work law.
The costs of union membership vary widely from union to union, but regardless of the amount, dues represent an expense to employees that they would not otherwise have. The typical Michigan union worker pays hundreds of dollars per year as a result of dues requirements. Nonunion employees may well ask why they should pay more for employee benefits that they already enjoy as a part of the employer's wage and fringe benefit program. (Nonunion members are, however, entitled to pay less than full dues if they assert their rights under the U. S. Supreme Court's Beck44 decision.)
The power of exclusive employee representation can also be a disadvantage to workers. This power carries with it a duty of fair representation that requires the union to negotiate fairly on behalf of all employees in the "bargaining unit," whether they are union members or not. A labor union, however, is granted by law tremendous discretion in fulfilling its responsibilities as bargaining representatives, and it can be difficult to force it to side with any particular employee on an issue that it feels is unmeritorious. In other words, the power of exclusivity gives unions the right to advance the interests of the group over those of the individual.45
One last disadvantage to union membership is that members can be fined or otherwise disciplined by their union for engaging in activities, which, in the union's opinion, are "unbecoming" of union members or which violate the union's constitution and by-laws. Examples of such activities may include crossing a picket line during a strike, exceeding production quotas, or seeking to be represented by a different union. The fines assessed against offending employees can be substantial and are judicially enforceable. Non-members, however, are not subject to any union discipline and private-sector employees may resign from unions at any time in order to avoid union rules and any possible resulting fines.46