How unions are generally formed is that the workers at a company take a vote, and if a majority vote for collective bargaining, then all the workers get represented by a union in negotiations with the employer. And many companies negotiate with the union and make an agreement where all employees have to be members of the union and pay union dues as a condition of employment. Some conservative states, however, pass what are known as "right-to-work" laws, which prohibit employers from requiring union membership and dues as a condition of employment.

This creates a problem for unions, because unions spend time and money negotiating a contract for all employees, and employees get the benefit of higher wages and better working conditions regardless of whether they're actually paying dues. So we basically have a collective action problem: employees have no incentive to pay dues, because they can just freeload off of other people paying dues. Thus the rates of union membership in right-to-work states are dramatically lower than in non-right-to-work states.

To the extent that changes in working conditions impact all workers, there's nothing that unions can do about this, but concerning salary and health benefits, why don't unions take advantage of the provision in the National Labor Relations Act that allows them to negotiate members-only contracts? This is where the contract negotiated by the union only applies to dues-paying union members. This way, people won't have an incentive to avoid paying dues, because then they won't benefit from the union contract.

As far as I'm aware, pretty much no unions in right-to-work states negotiate members-only contracts. Is there a reason for this, like legal or logistical obstacles? Would there be disadvantages for unions if they did this?

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    If an employer requires union membership, isn't it likely the union is in the pocket of the employer. I can't see many employers actively requiring union membership unless it's a political boondoggle which actually ends up disempowering the workers. Certainly that's how I've seen it work here in the UK... Commented May 7, 2016 at 11:30
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    @PeterDavidCarter Unions can be great for companies that don't have the ability to negotiate with each employee for each thing on the contract. When unions and employers work together, both the company and the workers end up better off.
    – David Rice
    Commented Jun 28, 2018 at 18:46
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    @DavidRice just to be clear, I started a trade union at an old job and took the massive career hit that resulted. I'm now back on track and completely agree with what you say, though I also believe that truly great employers don't need trade unions to understand their employees are just as important as their customers. Commented Jun 28, 2018 at 18:58

6 Answers 6


Unions can negotiate member only contracts if they want, but it wouldn't really help them at all. They have no power to say what non union members would be getting and non union terms are basically guaranteed to be the same or better than what the union can offer, because anything worse can be opted out of by joining the union. Therefore, the best possible case for unions is to get identical terms as non union workers, and really sell the idea that the union is the only possible way to get any future improvements.

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    And considering union dues, the salary for non-union members would be effectively higher than union even if it was the same outlay for employers
    – user4012
    Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 21:12

Because unions can't unilaterally negotiate terms and conditions for non-union members. It's an agreement between employer and organized workers, and with the addition of the employer setting the wage level of the non-negotiated employees. The employer would have to want to not match the pay for the other workers, which is not up to the union.

So, basically, the premise is that the unions would say "we're only requiring you to include our represented workers at this wage," AND the employer turning around and low-balling everyone else with compensation policy.

If the premise is that employers can save money by not paying union wages, then this is, interestingly enough, a self-destructive long-term strategy, to pay less to the non-union workers.

Scenario #1: Union wage is negotiated, non-union members get paid less. Results -

  1. Non-union members are unhappy with employer
  2. Non-union members see a very tangible benefit to union membership
  3. Formerly non-union members sign up to get those benefits
  4. With greater numbers and loyalty, the union is stronger
  5. The union has greater leverage with which to negotiate better deals
  6. Rinse and repeat until it is nearly an all-union shop, with much higher union pay levels than if they did not have the strength of membership they gained, and there is pretty much no one else for the employer to pay a lesser wage to.

Scenario #2 - Union gets wage levels set, employer matches the deals for non-union members.

  1. Non-union members, getting paid as much, see no benefit to joining the union, since they get the benefits for free.
  2. Less of the union membership sees a benefit to paying dues, since everyone gets the same wage.
  3. Union membership wanes at this company.
  4. Union has less leverage and clout with which to bargain.
  5. Subsequent deals see the employer being able to offer much less in compensation and other concessions than they might have with a stronger union.
  6. With smaller negotiated packages, union members see even less benefit to paying dues.
  7. A cycle sets in until the union is either toothless, or gone, entirely, with the employer getting to dictate wages as they please, saving huge money in worker compensation.

If a union negotiates for members only benefits, non-union workers doing the same job at the same place of employment would cost less. This creates an incentive for the business to hire non-union labor for those positions, arguing union members out of a job. While there is a loss because the non-union labor doesn't pay dues, the union still enjoys a net gain overall.


The appropriate law governing such things is the National Labor Relations act. The only provision of the entire Act that refers to majority representation is Section 9(a), which is a conditional provision that specifies that if and when a union represents a majority of the employees in an appropriate bargaining unit it automatically becomes the exclusive representative of ALL the employees in that unit.

Therefore "members only" agreements refer to "minority representation" or less than a majority of workers. Believe it or not unions would welcome such an occurrence. It is the companies that are steadfast against these agreements. First, since it involves less than a majority elections would not be required. Second, companies who do not wish a union presence fear this type of agreement because it establishes a union presence which could eventually lead to majority representation. Finally, although the Supreme Court and the Board long ago validated minority-union contracts that resulted from pre-majority collective bargaining, there has never been a case reviewing the enforceability of the right to engage in such bargaining.

While the concept of "members only" agreements has been established by legal precedent the implementation and enforceability in the real world is far from clear.


Philosophically, a members only contract doesn't mesh well with the union ideal of collective action in the workplace that benefits all workers. Practically, members only contracts are unlikely to gain much through collective bargaining as the leverage is so much less without a substantial portion of the workforce participating in the union and the economic disadvantages for dues paying members will probably outweigh the advantages under the contract, so few will be enticed to join.

It's a chicken and egg problem in that it takes a good existing contract to draw new members, but negotiating a strong contract takes a preponderance of support. Going with the traditional workplace-wide union benefits the most people, and the free rider problem can be combatted by making the connection directly with real contract gains made possible by strong union negotiation.

  • Philosophically, members of trade unions that are active (and assume the lost wages of strikes and the risk of employer reprisals) would grab all of those employees who play "hide and wait" while smiling at their boss, put those in a bag and toss the bag into a river. Those employees weaken the negotiating power of those workers who challenge the employers. Unfortunately, "members only" agreements will mean a competitive disavantage to union members and also would force to reveal union membership.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Sep 19, 2016 at 22:23
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    @SJuan76 "would force to reveal union membership" -- is union membership secret?
    – Carl G
    Commented Oct 19, 2016 at 1:38
  • @CarlG Absolutely. Think I am more focused in the European system, without union shops and the like. Union membership can mark you as a troublesome employee that might ask for his rights to be respected or even (shock!) use his rights of participate in strikes. In a work environment it is not that difficult to guess who is more active in defending his rights, but making union membership publicly available could mean discrimination to get hired. Union membership can only be recorded (e.g. database) if there is an absolute need to do so, and those records become automatically confidential.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Oct 19, 2016 at 7:41
  • @SJuan76 the European system? I believe a such doesn’t really exist - I think it is very individual from country to country how this works. In Denmark for example, no one hides their union memberships, because it is extremely common to be in one, almost regardless of your trade; where people traditionally are in a union that represents their trade (e.g. Nurses, Police, Finance, Electricians, Carpenters etc.). Some Unions are very broad in terms of who they represent, some are very narrow. It is very unlikely here to be discriminated because of union memberships.
    – ssn
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 20:53

Since unions are required to represent all employees, (including non-union workers), in right to work states, why can't the union negotiate terms that place non-members in a lower pay-scale than members of the bargaining unit? Example:

Union factory workers make $20/hr.

Non-union workers make $16/hr.

Susie Union makes more money than Johnny Nonunion doing the same job, but He still has the "right to work".

  • From the company’s point of view why bother paying non-union workers less, if they could just join the union and instantly increase their salaries? I is harder to administer and will in the end probably end up with the company having to pay equal salary regardless. Why not just do it from the beginning? The union cannot force the company to pay non-union workers less.
    – ssn
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 20:58
  • As an anecdote, I worked for a company that originally had several unions involved, depending on department. Overtime, the unions were voted out, as the benefits provided to the non-union employees were generally better than what the unions had bargained for. I believe one of the final straws was when all of the non-union employees (salary and hourly) were given a substantial productivity bonus. The company offered to grant the bonus to the union employees as well (even though not contractually obligated). The union declined the offer. Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 21:43

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