Should you join a welding union? If you’re embarking on a career in welding, it’s a decision you’ll be confronted with pretty quickly, as many jobs specify they’re looking for union or non-union workers right off the bat.
But what exactly does being in a welding union entail? What’s the difference between union and non-union welding jobs? And more importantly, how does your union status affect your salary?
Here, we’ll cover the basics of the different kinds of welding unions and explain how union welder salaries differ from non-union pay depending on where you live and what you do.
Welding unions can be found all over the country and around the world. They’re incredibly common in many fields, including teaching, law enforcement and the skilled trades, like welding. According to the most recent trade union data, one in ten workers in the United States belongs to a union.
Unions are organized in a network of city-based or regional chapters, called ‘locals,’ that fall under the umbrella of a larger national or international organization. For example, United Association (UA) is a welding union based in the United States, Canada, Ireland and Australia, and ‘Local 5’ is UA’s affiliate chapter in the Washington, D.C. area.
The trade of welding can qualify you for membership into a variety of unions, including those for ironworkers, boilermakers and pipefitters. The skills of welders in these different unions may overlap, but the work environments will vary.
For example, if you want to work high above the ground building the steel framework for skyscrapers, you’d be more suited to an ironworkers union, where if you’re looking to weld pipes on an offshore oil rig, a steamfitters’ union would be better for you.
You can get a better idea of which union is the best option for your line of work by paying a visit to the websites and local chapters of unions that have a presence in your area.
Unions originated as a means for workers to protect themselves against predatory employers and market conditions like excessive work hours and unsafe workplace conditions. So, the first and foremost function of a welding union is to act as a collective association, known as a bargaining unit, that represents workers in legal matters.
Today, being in a welding union comes with a range of legal and employment-based protections like the guarantee of a safe workplace, a secure wage, and certain benefits like insurance, retirement or a pension.
The benefits of union membership have also expanded greatly in recent years to include things like training opportunities, social gatherings and mentorship programs.
Joining a welding union isn’t as simple as just signing up; you must meet a series of requirements that typically include certification through an organization like the American Welding Society (AWS) as well as an application process and in some cases, completion of an apprenticeship program.
To maintain your membership, you’ll need to pay dues and uphold your union’s bylaws.
Being in a welding union means the jobs you work come with certain guarantees, like predetermined shifts and overtime after a certain number of hours. These jobs have to meet a specified safety standard or risk the workers walking off the job.
If you’re looking for job security and guaranteed representation in legal matters, like legislation that affects your work, a union can be a great source for these protections.
However, there are certain aspects of being in a welding union that some would identify as downsides. Primarily, you have less freedom of choice over the jobs you work and the number of hours you work, whereas when you’re non-union you can pick and choose jobs that interest you and max out on as many hours as you choose.
Keep in mind, however, that government jobs generally require union workers on site.
As part of a union, you also lose some personal freedoms, like the ability to walk off a job site if you’re not happy with it; in a union you’ll be expected to stick with the group and take direction from the top or risk losing your membership.
Membership or non-membership in a welding union has the potential to affect your salary, but the exact impact will depend on where you live and the industry you work in. Generally speaking, union workers tend to earn more than their non-union counterparts.
Union workers in the United States earn an average of around 20% more than non-union employees working on comparable jobs.
Why do union workers tend to earn more? It’s about the collective and historic power of the group. Unions have deep and long-standing relationships with businesses and government agencies that they can leverage to win contracts.
Their large number of members means they can provide highly experienced labor quickly, which allows them to command higher rates than if a company had to source and hire nonunion workers one by one.
Unions can also contribute to higher salaries for groups that have traditionally been impacted by wage inequality, like women and minorities, since their contracts demand a consistent level of pay for all workers in the same skill level.
If you don’t have a college degree, which would typically hinder your earning potential, union membership can be an effective way to circumvent this barrier.
There are some ways that being in a union can put a ceiling on your earning potential. For example, most union workers are subject to limits on how many hours they can legally work per week.
If you’re someone who wants to hustle for 60 or 80 hours a week earning as much as you can, this usually won’t be an option as part of a union. The same goes for welders who want to work hard for several months of the year and take other months off; the consistency of a union job may not work with their preferred work-life balance.
Also, most union chapters don’t permit members to work side jobs, so something as simple as picking up small non-union gigs in your neighborhood to earn extra cash would be off limits.
According to data from Comparably, there’s a noteworthy difference between that average pay for union and nonunion welders at the national level. Whereas the average welder earns just under $40,000 a year, the average union welder earns $69,000 a year–a 72% increase.
It’s important to note that the disparity won’t be this great in many areas of the country. Select cities, like New York, Boston, and Chicago, however, contribute a great deal to influencing the wage difference because union welders are paid so highly there–more on this in a minute.
If you want to get a feel for the pay difference between union and nonunion welding jobs where you live, all it takes is a bit of legwork on Google. Many local welding union chapters share their hourly rates for members directly on their website.
A journeyman who’s part of Local 798 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for example, makes between $53 and $55 an hour. Comparable nonunion jobs posted online in the Tulsa area advertise an hourly rate of around $23 an hour.
As we mentioned earlier, there are some cities where you’ll make considerably more as a union welder thanks to the historic power of the union and the volume of available work. (Keep in mind that union dues vary, and will affect some of the salary differences mentioned here.)
Union welders who are part of Local 638 working on construction jobs in New York City and Long Island earn a base rate of $65 an hour, which equates to about $126,000 a year. In addition to this base pay, they receive compensation that contributes to a pension fund, vacation fund, and other benefits like an HRA plan.
Local 12 in the Boston area determines its wage rates based on the type of job and the contracting organization. One of the most lucrative wage rates for workers in this union comes on state and local contracts, which pay $68.25 an hour plus benefits.
Pipefitters who are part of Local 597 in Chicago earn a base rate of $49.60 an hour, which equates to around $98,000 a year. This is on top of benefits like access to a member welfare fund, health and vision coverage and an individual 401(k) plan.
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