Responsive Unions Help Make Work Feel More Meaningful

New research finds that the boons of union membership can extend beyond wages and benefits.
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Union members, activists, and their supporters march through Los Angeles during their annual May Day procession in support of workers' rights and immigrant freedom on May 1st, 2019.

Union members, activists, and their supporters march through Los Angeles during their annual May Day procession in support of workers' rights and immigrant freedom on May 1st, 2019.

For many of us, meaningful work is an essential component of a fulfilling life. But what, exactly, gives meaning to one's work?

A sense of vocation—an intuition that you were born to do this—can often do the trick. But what if you're not lucky enough to find a "calling"? What else can make you feel fulfilled at your job?

New research provides an unexpected answer: a smart, sympathetic labor union.

"We found that when employees perceive their union to be responsive and caring, work meaningfulness was enhanced," writes a research team led by M. Teresa Cardador of the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign. The right kind of union "helped fulfill workers' psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness," the team found.

Their study, published in the Labor Studies Journal, featured 109 members of a public-sector labor union in a large metropolitan area in the Midwest. Paper-and-pencil surveys were distributed during breaks at two union meetings. The workers, 72 percent of whom were male, came from 20 different city, county, and state agencies, ranging from the Department of Water to the Circuit Court.

The first survey measured each employee's perceived level of support from the agency that employed them, along with the length of their tenure with that organization. The second survey, which participants took three months later, asked them to respond to a series of union-related statements on a one-to-five, strongly-disagree-to-strongly-agree scale, including, "My union really cares about my well-being."

Participants also indicated their level of agreement with the assertion, "I know my work makes a positive difference in the world," as well as a series of statements measuring their feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness—all of which have been linked to higher levels of meaning at work.

These statements included, "My union helps me to have more choice about the way I do my work," "My union helps me to be better at my work," and "My union makes me feel more connected to others at work."

The researchers report that workers who viewed their unions as supportive were more likely to find their work meaningful. Further analysis revealed that these participants' unions, in their estimation, helped them fulfill those aforementioned psychological needs.

Given that a sense of meaning has been linked to greater worker engagement, motivation, and retention, these latest results suggest that supportive unions can benefit both workers and employers "by fostering positive employee attitudes toward their work."

"While it has long been suggested that the 'union premium' is a union's ability to provide increased wages and job security," Cardador and her colleagues write, this new research suggests that well-run unions can provide another benefit entirely, fulfilling certain of their members' psychological needs and thereby giving them a stronger sense of meaning at work. That's a rather good return on one's dues.

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