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Question of the Month

From the Catherwood Library reference librarians

April 2004

PLEASE NOTE: The Reference Question of the Month is kept current only during the month for which it was written. Archived questions will not be updated, and over time may contain inaccurate information or broken web links. We provide archived questions as a service, since much of the information will remain accurate and of continued interest to the ILR community.

Question: What's it like to work for a labor union?

Answer: In The Cowboy Mentality: Organizers and Occupational Commitment in the New Labor Movement (full citation), author Daisy Brooks lists working conditions of union organizers: extensive travel, long hours, social isolation, unpredictability, and campaign stress. However, graduates of the AFL-CIO's Organizing Institute, talk about the rewards of working for the union movement: helping people build power in their workplace, seeing people change because of their (the OI participants') influence, seeing the difference they make, and showing workers how to take power from their boss.

There are many images in the popular media about union organizers and this job holds a certain mystique, but what about other jobs with labor unions?

According to a U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, labor unions employ about 140,000 workers. Most labor union jobs are classified under business and financial operations or office and administrative support occupations.

The chart below lists the top ten union jobs.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2002 National Industry-Specific Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates

Unions employ an ample number of secretaries and clerks, but they also employ an increasing number of professional staff. Researcher Paul F. Clark has written about professional staff employees in Organizing the Organizers: Professional Staff Unionism in the American Labor Movement and Professional Staff in American Unions: Changes, trends, implications (full citations). In the latter article, written in 1992, he provides statistics for professional staff in 30 major unions.

A good source to check for jobs that are available now is the Union Jobs Clearinghouse. Under Staffing Positions, you will find jobs for attorneys, field representatives, public relations specialists, as well as for organizers and office workers.

In 2003, 8% of graduating seniors from the ILR School went to work for labor unions. Although statistics on career placement are not always consistent, last year's numbers are impressive. The chart below provides some comparison figures.

Year Union Employment of ILR Graduates
(Postgraduate and Alumni Surveys)
2% of all alumni
2% of all alumni
3.24% of all alumni
3.8% of graduating seniors (16.7% of the graduating seniors who entered the job market)
3% of graduating seniors (16.8% of the graduating seniors who entered the job market)
6% of graduating seniors
4% of graduating seniors
8% of graduating seniors

Source: Annual Report, New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, 1959-1989 and ILR Career Services

ILR students have also served as interns with labor unions during their Summer and Intersession breaks. Since 1996, the AFL-CIO has offered a Union Summer Internship for college students.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, pay in the labor union industry is comparable with the other industries surveyed. The average cross occupation annual salary for the labor union industry was $41,590 in 2002. The chart below illustrates industry annual wages of selected service industries.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2002 National Industry-Specific Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates

Pay for specific union job holders can be obtained by viewing a union's LM-2. Labor unions are required to file a form LM-2 if they have annual receipts of more than $250,000. Unions record pay and disbursements to employees who receive more that $10,000 annually. The U.S. Office of Labor Management Standards has made electronic copies of union reports available through its Internet Public Disclosure Room.

Labor unions are employers under the National Labor Relations Act and their employees have a right to unionize.

It is estimated that 75% of labor union employees are themselves members of a labor union. This means that labor unions is the most highly organized industry surveyed by the Current Population Survey.

The National Staff Organization, which represents employees of the National Education Association and other public sector unions, claims to be the "world's largest union of union employees" It has about 5,000 members. Other unions that represent significant numbers of labor union employees are the OPEIU, Ironworkers, Steelworkers, Sheet Metal Workers, Painters and Allied Trades, Bricklayers and SEIU.

Want to read more on this topic?

Bensinger, Richard. "Committed to organizing: An interview with Richard Bensinger, director, AFL-CIO Organizing Institute." Labor Research Review. 18: p82-91.

Carroll, Amy. Savvy Troublemaking: Politics for New Labor Activists. Solidarity Pamphlets. Available at <>.

Clark, Paul F., et al. "Union administrative practices: A comparative analysis." Journal of Labor Research 19.1 (1998): 189.

Clark, Paul F., and Kay Gilbert. "Personnel policies and practices in British trade unions: An exploratory study." Industrial Relations Journal 29.2 (1998): 162.

Clark, Paul F., and Lois Gray. "The union as employer." Industrial Relations (Quebec) 51.3 (1996): 488.

Clark, Paul F. "Organizing the Organizers: Professional Staff Unionism in the American Labor Movement." Industrial & labor relations review  42.4 (1989): 584.

---"Professional staff in American unions: Changes, trends, implications." Journal of Labor Research 13.4 (1992): 381.

Erem, Suzan. Labor pains: Inside America's new union movement. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001.

Feekin, Lynn, and Marcus Widenor. "Helping new organizers survive and thrive in the field: The essential role of training and mentoring." Labor Studies Journal. 28 Issue 3: p63-84.

Foerster, Amy. "Labor's youth brigade: What can the organizing institute and its graduates tell us about the future of organized labor?" Labor Studies Journal. 28 Issue 3: p1-32.

Franzway, Suzanne. "Women working in a greedy institution: Commitment and emotional labour in the union movement." Gender, Work and Organization . 7 Issue 4: p258-268.

Reed, T.E. "Do Union Organizers Matter? Individual Differences, Campaign Practices and Representation Election Outcomes." Industrial and Labor Relations Review . 43 Issue 1: p103-119.

Roby, P.A. "Becoming shop stewards: Perspectives on gender and race in ten trade unions." Labor Studies Journal. 20: p65-82.

Roby, Pamela, and Lynet Uttal. "Putting it all together: The dilemmas of rank-and-file union leaders." Women and unions : forging a partnership. Ed. Sue Cobble Dorothy. Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press, 1993.

Rooks, Daisy. "The Cowboy Mentality; Organizers and Occupational Commitment in the New Labor Movement." Labor Studies Journal 28.3 (2003): 33.