Machine Design

Union or not, engineers' salaries are about the same

Back in January, I wrote a commentary asking why the vast majority of engineers are dead set against joining or forming labor unions (“Time for engineers to think about unionizing? “Jan. 19). Most of the answers I received fell into three broad categories:
1.) We don’t need unions because we can negotiate compensation and working conditions for ourselves. And if we don’t like our current job/employer, we can easily go out and find another.
2.) Unions are selfish, don’t care about America, and are “destructive” to companies and the country. We’re above all that.
3.) And my favorite, paraphrased here: “You have to be a spineless wimp to consider letting a union do your bidding.”

All of these responses led me to conclude that engineers are fiercely independent, loyal to company and country, and insist on doing things themselves.

But then we got the results back from our annual salary survey. A section of it asks engineers about workplace gripes and what they don’t like about the profession. Almost a quarter of the respondents said their compensation packages were poor, 17% mentioned long hours with no provision for overtime pay, 33% said they were forced to do too much nonengineering work, and half saw their health-care costs climb.

These complaints sounded much like the issues unions try to address in their contracts when negotiating with management. And usually, unions get contracts giving them at least half of what they want, sometimes much more. This has become less common in the current economy where even unions have taken hits. However, it still seems as though unions get better deals from companies and employers than folks in nonunion shops.

But is this really true? Statistics can shed light on the situation. Specifically, the Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps figures on the weekly earnings of full-time and salaried workers broken down by occupation and whether or not workers are represented by a union (

Turns out that those in architecture and engineering occupations who are represented by unions earn a median salary of $1,325/week. Those not represented by unions pulled in a median of $1,314/week, or $11 less. (For comparison, the difference was $33 last year, still favoring those with union representation.) But when you add in the dues paid by union members (about $40 for SPEEA, the engineering union at Boeing), the result is a probably a wash.

The moral of the story: When it comes to salaries, engineers are like most other people, they want more. And with or without a union, you’re going to take home roughly the same amount.

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.

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