Job satisfaction is organizational mortar; it’s the substance that stabilizes pieces of a whole. Just as weak mortar may lead to loose, crumbling bricks, employees held at their workstations by a meager amount of professional pride and enjoyment are susceptible to habits of low motivation and poor performance, while critically unsatisfied employees might abandon their job entirely.
On the other hand, many of today’s worker freedoms and benefits were won by unions, and it’s almost impossible to imagine the dissatisfaction today’s employees might’ve suffered, had unions never fought hard to improve working conditions. Today, companies have internalized the lessons unions have been trying to teach, and now, many companies realize that happy employees perform best.
Amid a workplace climate of cooperation rather than antagonism, it therefore becomes appropriate for workers and managers alike to question whether—among modern employees—belonging to a union really engenders job satisfaction in the same way it did several decades ago.
A few slightly dated studies suggest the opposite, finding that on average, workers who join unions are actually less professionally fulfilled than their non-unionized peers, but, surprisingly, also less likely to quit employment. Economist Richard B. Freeman posits that this contradiction exists only because such negative sentiment can be strategically cultivated by unions. Unionized employees’ workplace discontent, Freedman theorizes, may be stoked to a passionate uproar, and then wielded, as a rhetorical weapon, against any conditions unions find unfair.
Another theory stems from a meta analysis of 59 studies recently conducted by the Harvard Business Review, which acknowledges a link between worker dissatisfaction and union membership. However, nowhere does it claim that union membership directly causes worker malaise. Instead, the analysis indicates that employees most likely to join unions either already find some aspect of their job unpleasant, or sympathize with a particular union’s ideology.
If the Harvard Business Review’s interpretation is even partially correct, and a decline in job satisfaction cannot be attributed solely to employees’ participation in unions, companies must address their responsibility towards mitigating any discord. Fair grievances cannot be brushed aside if businesses would rather their employees remain independent of unions. A prime component of effective management–management that serves workers as well as companies by both raising productivity and reducing professional unfulfillment–is the ability to establish a channel through which employees see their interests represented, recognized, and, when appropriate, reciprocated.