Want a Healthier Workplace Culture? Unionize.

As a labor leader, I want professionals—and all workers—to understand the power of unions to check bosses, and build better workplaces.

Jennifer Dorning


A workplace’s culture is shaped by many factors. In my personal experience — as both a labor advocate and a manager —a positive workplace culture starts with employees knowing that their contributions are appreciated by management. Unfortunately, this is not the case for far too many working people who have no collective voice on the job. The exceptions are the 14.3 million workers — including more than six million professionals — in the United States who are represented by unions. These workers are able to secure respect by creating a healthy and collaborative workplace culture through negotiating with their employers. 

On May 6, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Washingtonian Media CEO Cathy Merrill on the risks” of workers not returning to the office as the Covid-19 pandemic abates. The article reveals the ways in which many corporate leaders view the conversation about the changing nature of work — namely, as a forum for unilateral decision making by bosses. Merrill’s piece was notable because she also threatened to misclassify Washingtonian employees who wish to continue working remotely as contractors. In response, the editorial staff of the magazine refused to publish any stories on the following day, May 7. I applaud these workers’ collective action, and encourage them and any other professionals who feel locked out of workplace decisions to organize a union.

In a union workplace, managers don’t dictate the workplace culture. Instead, the employees have a meaningful say. Joining together in union naturally fosters collaboration among workers. The process of organizing a union involves talking to coworkers, listening to their concerns and developing solutions to create a better workplace. After coming together in union, coworkers continue to build strong relationships through bargaining for pay increases and better benefits, standing with colleagues in challenging situations, and building relationships through regular meetings and social functions. These interactions create a sense of solidarity and culture where workers look out for one another and have each other’s backs.

Union members also have the power to influence the terms and conditions of their work. As more and more workers become vaccinated against Covid-19 and social distancing restrictions become relaxed, union members have the ability to negotiate with their employers on the terms of physically coming back to their workplaces. 

Throughout the pandemic, union professionals have exercised their right to bargain with their employers, winning flexible work-from-home schedules to account for caregiving responsibilities, health and safety measures to protect those who don’t have the option to work remotely, and solutions to avoid layoffs amid economic turmoil. This collaborative power has led many professionals who are fed up with the lack of transparency at their jobs and are interested in building more sustainable careers to form new unions. In the past year alone, digital journalists and content creators at American Public Media, WAMU and Financial Times, podcast professionals at Parcast, music company employees at Secretly Group, nonprofit professionals at EMILY’s List and the Brookings Institution, museum workers at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, and many others have unionized.

Union members across professions have achieved a great deal. For example, union doctors at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center in Oregon have negotiated to prevent outsourcing of jobs, for input in decisions related to work loads, and for wage increases. Digital journalists like those at Vox have negotiated for guaranteed minimum salaries and annual raises — Vox’s salary floor is $56,000 and annual raises are around 3 percent — as well as health insurance for part-time employees and generous paid parental leave. Racial equity is also a priority for union professionals. Nonprofit employees at the Center for American Progress and the Democracy Collaborative as well as digital journalists at The Intercept have used their collective bargaining rights to make improvements through pay equity reviews, salary history bans, trainings and diversity in hiring provisions.

Unwittingly, Merrill’s op-ed made the case for passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would strengthen the ability of professionals to come together to organize unions and give them bargaining power on the job. The my way or the highway” approach to reopening being taken up by CEOs and managers like Merrill is destined to create workplace conflict and toxic work cultures. Through organizing new unions, many professionals are already taking steps to build a new and positive work culture. Let’s hope that Washingtonian workers will be one of the next groups to take this step.

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Jennifer Dorning is president of the Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO, a coalition of 24 unions representing more than four million professional and technical union members.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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