Unions first emerged in the 19th century as significant political movements. During a time when wages were low, hours were long and safety regulations were virtually non-existent, employees organized to address these issues. In short, unions enabled workers to gain input and decision-making power where management once held universal authority.

However, in the 21st century workforce, unions have become more of a luxury than a necessity. While the advantages remain, unions also can pose a problem for employees and managers alike.

Advantages for Employees

For employees, being unionized offers several advantages. Unionized workers experience much more job security than their non-unionized counterparts, because the union makes the final decision about disciplinary action or termination. They also can file grievances — complaints — with their union representatives, who then take them up with management on their behalf. Unions are meticulous when it comes to working conditions, in order to ensure a safe, friendly working environment.

Unionized employees also can expect steady raises and benefits, such as health coverage, sick leave and paid vacation time, to name a few. The exact nature of monetary compensation and coverage varies based on the collective agreement, which is reviewed and negotiated upon expiration.

Advantages for Management

A significant advantage for managers is that collective agreements with unions establish a set agreement that can not be disputed until the contract expires. This makes the costs associated with pay and benefits more predictable. Turnover is also less common, since employees generally enjoy the safety, security and lucrative compensation that unions bring. In turn, employee training is more likely to be a worthwhile investment.

Disadvantages for Employees

The disadvantages of labor unions for employees are fairly low compared to the benefits; however, the negative aspects can be serious. For example, if management and union representatives cannot reach an agreement, strike is a serious concern. Keep in mind that non-unionized workers can strike as well, but the lack of a collective bargaining stage can cause this to happen at any time, rather than during a negotiation. All employees must go on strike if the majority of employees vote in favor of it.

This can lead to serious financial hardship. Employees who express a desire to return to work or attempt to cross picket lines suffer social consequences, causing them to be ostracized as "scabs".

Disadvantages for Management

Unions can be frustrating for managers, especially if their relationship with the union is not amicable. This can result in an "us versus them" mentality, resulting in frivolous grievances or unreasonable resistance to management decisions, such as discipline or termination. Essentially, this aspect that is advantageous for employees is a serious obstacle for managers. Even when disciplining or terminating an employee is justifiable, her union will make every effort to prevent this.

Lockouts also are an issue of concern. Unlike strikes, lockouts are limited to unionized organizations and they are initiated by management. Their purpose is to force employees to agree with an offer. Naturally, employees will see this as coercion, further aggravating an already strained and volatile situation. Union contracts also make it difficult to make necessary adjustments when business conditions change, such as laying off workers or cutting hours when revenues fall.