According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 12.8% of wage and salary workers in the construction industry belong to a union. Here in Wisconsin, private construction workers join unions at a higher rate than the national average. Historically, unions have been stigmatized for various reasons. However, our founder at Interstate Sawing, Duke Long, is a living testament to how union membership can change your life. If you are a construction worker who is struggling to make ends meet, read on to learn about the benefits of joining a labor union. But first, let’s take a look at how Duke went from 9th-grade dropout to owner of a cutting-edge robotic demolition company. 

Duke Long’s Humble Beginnings and Road to Success

When most people think about dropping out of the 9th grade, they don’t immediately think about a rags to riches story. Unfortunately, failing to complete high school takes away money-making opportunities from most people. However, Duke knew that he would be able to turn things around due to his drive and ambition. He always had a strong work ethic and knew what needed to be done to set himself up for success. For a time, Duke worked non-union, private construction jobs and was living paycheck to paycheck. When he knew enough was enough, he decided to look into joining a local labor union. Once he learned more about the benefits, he joined, and he’s been on an upward trajectory ever since.

How Did Union Membership Help Turn Things Around?

After Duke joined his local union, he started seeing results immediately. He found himself with more hours, better pay, and more comprehensive benefits. Over time, the labor union equipped him with a variety of skills. Not only did he learn the fundamentals of construction work and demolition—he also learned business operation skills that put him in a better position to start thinking about opening up his own construction company.

In just 15 years, Duke went from working lower end construction jobs to starting his own business. By implementing the skills he learned through his local union, he was able to create his own company—Interstate Sawing. Duke may have been able to achieve his goals through hard work and a ton of elbow grease alone; but, Duke is the first to admit that joining a labor union equipped him with the security and skills necessary to take on the risk of starting a construction and demolition business of his own. Today,  Interstate Sawing uses state-of-the-art demolition robots to tackle a wide variety of jobs. Duke has hired over 50 employees who work all over the country, tackling some of the toughest jobs on the market. 

If Duke’s story isn’t enough to convince you to join your local labor union today, here are some concrete reasons why joining a union is the right choice for advancing your career.

Union Workers Benefit from Collective Bargaining

Collective bargaining is the bread and butter of a union. Union workers elect representatives who serve as their voice when it comes to negotiating with employers. At regular intervals, union representatives sit down and negotiate a variety of items with the owners of a business. These representatives try their best to fight for the rights and interests of workers. Negotiations address wages, safety conditions, and other concerns such as contract drafting and scheduling. Perhaps most importantly, union representatives fight for annual raises.

According to MarketWatch, in 2019, nearly half of all workers did not receive a wage increase. Everyone believes that their hard work should warrant an annual wage increase. However, there is no guarantee that a private business owner will commit to increasing wages regularly. In short, one of the best ways to guarantee that your wages will be protected is by joining a labor union. Despite the fact that in-fighting sometimes takes place within unions, everyone can agree that annual raises are necessary for maintaining a middle-class life. 

Labor Union Workers Earn More Money & Retire with Pensions

As of 2018, only 23% of all workers retire with pensions. This means that the majority of workers retire with privately funded retirement plans. In the construction industry, there are more variables that contribute to early retirement than the average industry. OSHA claims around 150,000 construction site workers are injured annually, and many of these workers are forced into early retirement due to their injuries. If they do not have a union to protect them, they risk retiring without the financial protection of a good pension. By joining a union, you can collectively bargain for better benefits, both on-the-job and after retirement.   

Aside from the benefit of retiring with a pension, union workers generally make more money over their careers. In fact, union workers make, on average, nearly 20% more per year than non-union workers within the same industry. Again, union representatives fight hard to make sure that everyone has a living wage, and they negotiate regularly. If you want to increase your odds of making more money while you work—and have a sizable war chest for retirement—union membership is the way to go.

Labor Unions Protect Workers from Unjust Termination

Many people are familiar with the term “at-will” employment. However, for the uninitiated, at-will employment means that an employer can fire an employee at any time for any reason (except for illegal reasons). The employer can also change the terms of employment whenever they want—without notice or consequence. Many of the states in the union are at-will states (some with specific exceptions). This presents a problem for some workers, and the constant looming threat of termination can take its toll over time. 

There are various offenses that a worker can commit that will result in termination. However, for the most part, labor unions step in to ensure that the offense is severe enough to call for justified termination. Union representatives protect workers and advocate for their jobs. Depending on the severity of the offense, union representatives follow specific guidelines with the employer to ensure that a worker’s case is investigated fully and properly. This can be a lengthy process, but these protections are put in place to ensure that workers are treated as fairly as possible. Most non-union workers know at least one person who has been terminated unjustly. Unions severely diminish the number of wrongful terminations within a given company. 

Labor Unions Make Sure Workplaces Are Kept Safe & Regulated

Construction crews have to conduct business in accordance with state and federal laws. For good reason, legislators set regulations in place to protect workers and consumers alike. However, creating regulatory legislation is a slow process. Fortunately, unions are active and reactive in real-time. During the COVID-19 pandemic, private industries crafted their own COVID-19 responses. Private owners generated their policies unilaterally, and probably without the counsel and consent of workers. However, union workers, due to their collective bargaining power, were able to fight for their own regulations. 

According to a report by the Economic Policy Institute, union workers have had more say in generating COVID-19 regulations. The same is true for safety regulations in general. For nearly 100 years, unions have served workers and provided them with countless new safety initiatives. In non-union workplaces, workers have little to no control over their circumstances, especially when it comes to regulation. By joining a union, you can rest assured that you won’t be placed into dangerous or hazardous situations. For construction workers, union membership increases the likelihood that a worker will finish their career without sustaining a life-changing, terminal injury. 

What Should I Do Next?

No matter what industry you’re in, there’s a union for you. As you can see, there are a variety of reasons why union work is more worker-friendly than non-union work. If you want to learn more about the benefits of joining a union, consider looking through the Milwaukee chapter of the LiUNA and see how you can become involved. Whether you’re at the beginning or end of your career, joining a labor union can change your life. It certainly changed Duke’s! Check out the Laborer’s International Union of North America to see if you’re eligible for membership today—a better career in construction is waiting for you.