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5 Union Jobs That Aren’t What You’d Expect

Topics: Career Profiles

When you think of “organized labor,” you might think of old news footage of steel workers — or at least an image of Sally Field as Norma Rae holding up her scrawled “UNION” sign on a loud textile factory floor.

But unions aren’t just for factory workers.


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Unions have a long history in the U.S. They were formed at the turn of the 20th century. Groups of workers were able to better bargain for fair wages, safe working conditions, and yes, even a few days off a year (you’re welcome, Labor Day lovers).

But how does the modern union affect your job today? You might be surprised what jobs still have common union representation.

If you want to work in these industries, you’ll likely have to at least deal with (if not also join) a union.

(Note: For the purposes of brevity, we’re looking at a few popular jobs that are represented by major unions — not, say, entities that are open for workers to join but do not engage in collective bargaining, like the Freelancers Union, for example. And, not all jobs or large unions are listed here.)

1. Teacher

Not all teachers are in a union, and in fact, the numbers of teachers represented by unions has fallen in recent years. Only about 50 percent of 5.2 million K-12 teachers were in a union in 2014. (At that time, 1.3 million college-level teachers were also in a union).

The largest national teachers’ unions include the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which has about 1.7 million members and the National Education Association (NEA), which has around 3 million members. Each union has at least one chapter in each of the 50 states. These unions organize members for sometimes very large teacher strikes for better wages and benefits. You might have read about recent strikes in Arizona or Chicago.

A June 2018 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court limited the way that teachers’ unions can collect dues from non-members.

“Until now, in nearly half of states (22), public employees who chose not to join the union still had to pay it something, because they’re still covered by unions’ collective-bargaining agreements,” write Anya Kamenetz and Cory Turner at NPR. “But some workers who oppose their unions’ politics, such as plaintiff Mark Janus, a state child-support specialist in Illinois, say that any payment infringes on their free speech rights.”

According to PayScale salary data, a high school teacher earns a median salary of $48,500 per year, depending on experience and location.

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2. Nurse

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is the country’s largest union for public service employees, which includes jobs from nurses, EMTs, sanitation workers, corrections officers and law enforcement. Created during the Great Depression, AFSCME’s membership currently has around 1.6 million active and retired workers.

Founded in Madison, Wisconsin, the union’s reach is now nationwide and even played a part in major events in American history, including the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, it was the AFSCME sanitation workers’ strike in 1968 that drew Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to travel to Memphis and deliver his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech the day before his assassination.

A registered nurse earns a median salary of $29/hour according to PayScale salary data.

3. Blackjack Dealer

At a casino, you might encounter many jobs that are represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW), a union not always recognized by its lengthy formal name: The International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America.

The UAW boasts around 400,000 active members in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico, and says it is the “one of the largest and most diverse unions in North America, with members in virtually every sector of the economy.” The union “represents autoworkers, health-care workers, academic student employees, postdoctoral scholars and workers in the casino gambling industry.”

In a casino, you might find a blackjack dealer earning a median salary of $9.30/hour and a casino pit manager earning a median salary of $59,000/year according to PayScale salary data.

4. Screenwriter

You might remember the writer’s guild strike 10 years ago this year. The strike has an impact on any show that employed writers to create film and television scripts for productions. That included animation, documentaries and even video games.

The Writers Guild of America West members mostly live on the west coast of the country and work in the film and television industry. WGAW provides benefits to members like healthcare and pensions, discounts and rights under the guild’s Minimum Basic Agreement.

A screenwriter earns a median salary of $70,000 per year, according to PayScale salary data.

5. Costume Designer

The United Scenic Artists Union (Local USA 829) represents not only those who design sets for television, film, and more, but also many others who work behind the scenes (see what I did there?) in the entertainment industry. That includes costume designers, lighting technicians and art department coordinators.

If you’re a costume designer, you likely work in environments like movie studios, opera houses or theaters and draw to design and also sew and create costumes for performers. You might just dabble in this industry and become a member of the USA, for example, as an artist who paints sets and scenery for television shows and opera productions.

PayScale salary data shows a median salary for a costume designer is around $36,000 per year, depending on location and career length.


Do you belong to a union for your job? We want to hear from you. Tell us your thoughts in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

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