You can generally join a union in one of three ways: through your job, through a union-sponsored training or apprentice program, or through a union hiring hall. Union members receive benefits such as collectively bargained wages, insurance, paid time off, safety and health protections, and grievance procedures that help employees resolve disputes without fear of retribution from employers.
Through the Job
When you accept a job with a unionized workforce, and the job is covered by a collective bargaining agreement, or CBA, you're eligible to join the union.
In “Union Shop” States
Exactly half the states in the U.S., as well as the District of Columbia, permit unions to negotiate a union security clause in their CBAs. These clauses require that all employees in covered positions must join the union, generally after a specified probation period. Union members are entitled to all the benefits negotiated by the union and included in the CBA. As members, they also have the right to participate fully in all union meetings and other events and activities, and run for union leadership positions. Union members pay dues, usually on a weekly or monthly basis, which in most cases are deducted directly from the paycheck.
In “Right to Work” States
The other 25 states have enacted “Right to Work” legislation, which makes membership in the union voluntary. Union membership is also voluntary in the U.S. territory of Guam, and for federal government employees. After the probation period, a member of the union's leadership will approach you and ask you to join the union. Whether or not you join, you’re entitled to all the employment-related benefits of a union member, but you cannot participate in union events or activities or have any say in how the union operates, including its bargaining positions. If you don't join the union, you won't be required to pay dues, but you may be required to pay a fee to help cover the costs the union incurs in fulfilling its legal fair representation duty.
Some unions operate comprehensive training programs that lead to certification in specialized jobs in their industries. For example, prospective carpenters, plumbers and electricians can join a building trades apprenticeship program. There is no single construction union, but unions representing each of these tradesThose seeking employment as part of a ship's crew can take union-sponsored seamanship training. Graduates of these programs are generally enrolled in the union. This can greatly enhance their employment opportunities because employers in the industry value union training and certification, and find it easier to hire such people than try to recruit qualified people off the street.
In industries with seasonal or otherwise intermittent employment, many employers recruit workers through hiring halls, most of which are operated by labor unions. Longshoremen, for example, are often hired on a weekly, daily, or even on an hourly basis, depending on how much work the employer has. Many unions in the construction trades and maritime industries also operate hiring halls. Plumbers, electricians and carpenters, for example, may also get hired for a relatively short period during a construction project and are dismissed when the job is done. The same is true for ship crews.
Some employers hire exclusively from a hiring hall, while others recruit from multiple sources. In either case, they advise the hiring hall as to the number and qualifications of workers they need for a particular project, and the hiring hall will select from among the available workers. Union members are generally given preference according to their union seniority, but casual workers who aren’t union members may also apply for work through a union hiring hall.
Unions that operate hiring halls periodically accept new applications for membership. The more work a non-member has gotten through the hiring hall, the better his chance of being accepted to membership and building the seniority that improves the chances of being selected for jobs.