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Does it still pay to be a union member?
(excerpted from "Now More Than Ever")

Everyone knows that unionized workers get paid more on average than non-unionized workers. Most people also know that union members tend to get better benefits, pensions and vacations.

But just how big is the union wage "premium"? How significant are the other advantages enjoyed by unionized workers? Do unions in Canada still "deliver the goods"?

union membership in Alberta

The short answer to these questions is, yes – Canadian unions still have an exceptional track record when it comes to improving wages and conditions for their members.

One of the most obvious benefits of union membership is higher pay. In Canada, the average non-union worker earns $14.04 per hour while the average union worker earns $18.57 per hour. This is a huge difference. It means that for every two dollars earned by non-union workers, union workers earn three.

The difference in pay is even more dramatic for part-time workers and female workers. On average, unionized part-time workers earn 72 percent more and non-union part-timers ($16.74 versus $9.76 per hour). At the same time, women workers who belong to a union earn an average of 41 percent more than non-union women ($17.65 versus only $12.48 per hour).

In addition to getting paid more, union members also tend to have better pensions and other benefits than non-union workers. In fact, in many ways the difference in access to these kind of job-related entitlements is even more dramatic than the difference between union and non-union wages.

For example, a survey recently completed by Statistics Canada shows that more than 82 per cent of the Canadians employed in unionized workplaces have pensions of one kind or another – compared to only 33 per cent of people working in non-union workplaces.

workers with benefits union vs non-union

But pensions aren’t the only area where there is a clear union advantage. Union members are also much more likely to have other so-called "non-wage benefits" – like dental plans, vision care plans and paid sick days.

Another major advantage of union membership has to do with on-the-job health and safety. The evidence clearly shows that unions make for safer and healthier workplaces.

For example, a 1993 study by the federal government concluded that union-sponsored health and safety committees have a "significant impact in reducing injury rates." More recently, a study done for the Ontario Workplace Health and Safety Agency in 1996 found that 79 percent of unionized workplaces reported high compliance with health and safety legislation while only 54 percent of non-union workplaces reported such compliance.

But the benefits of union membership don’t stop with wages, benefits and safety. Another important benefit that union members enjoy is the grievance procedure.

In a non-union workplace, workers are usually at the mercy of "the boss." If an employee has a complaint related to the workplace, he or she can attempt to talk to a manager about it. But the manager doesn’t have to do anything. The manager might act on the complaint, ignore it or even punish the employee for raising the issue – it all depends on the nature of the complaint, the company’s labour-managment philosophy or even the manager’s mood on that particular day.

In a unionized workplace, on the other hand, grievances and complaints are handled in an entirely different manner. Unlike the non-union environment where the workers are basically subject to the whims of management, workers in unionized firms have a clear set of rights which are outlined in detail in their collective agreements. If the employer breaches provisions of the collective agreement – for example, if he or she fires a worker without just cause or if an employee is being harassed in some way on the job – then the worker can take defensive action through the established grievance procedure.

So does it still pay to be a union member? Clearly it does. Union members enjoy better wages, better benefits and increased job security. But the biggest benefit is the strength that comes from solidarity. Unlike non-union workers, unionized workers are not alone when they have grievances; they’re not alone when they file WCB claims; and they’re not alone when they raise health and safety concerns.

union wages in Alberta

This is the most basic lesson of the labour movement – that we are stronger when we face management shoulder to shoulder than when we stand alone.

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