Construction unions are a hot-button issue for many contractors. Some contractors love them, feeling that unions help to ensure that workers are treated fairly across the industry and strengthening the position of both bosses and workers. Others hate them, as unions tend to consume profits by as much as 20% and some contractors feel that unionized workers aren’t worth the premium that they have to pay to retain them.

Regardless of your stance on the issue, unions aren’t going away… or are they?

While the nature of unions makes them seem like permanent fixtures in the workforce, the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics reports that union membership on the whole dropped by approximately 50% between 1983 and 2015. Looking at the construction industry specifically, union membership dropped around 4% between 2000 and 2015; this leaves just 13.2% of workers in the industry belonging to a union.

The benefits of construction unions

In general, unions are good for workers. In addition to ensuring that contractors and other employers pay their workers a decent wage, the unions also fight for benefits such as healthcare coverage and retirement packages for long-term employees. This costs more than hiring non-union workers, but the added benefits can be a strong incentive for workers to stay in one place rather than bouncing from job to job.

There’s something to be said for not having to train new workers every few months, and long-term employees can usually be trusted with tasks such as driving work trucks and overseeing a small crew – duties you may not feel comfortable trusting a new employee with. Some unions even provide workers with additional training themselves, especially in CAD and other technologies that your company can benefit from.

Even if there’s more cost associated with hiring union workers, the added trust these employees build and the reduction in training hours are definite benefits to having union workers on your payroll. The cost is also more than justified if hiring union workers qualifies you for large construction projects, particularly those in the public sector.

Downsides of construction unions

While it’s easy to rationalize the added expense of union workers, it can also be argued that they don’t bring much to the job site that you couldn’t secure on your own. In 2015, the average non-union construction worker earned around $743 per week; their union counterparts earned just under $1100 before benefits. The benefits fought for by unions aren’t as common in the construction industry as they once were, either, especially retirement benefits.

Hiring union employees can, in some cases, nearly double the amount you’re paying per employee once benefits are added to wages, and this is a direct hit to your company’s profits. While the average cut in profits is around 20%, some contractors may see profits drop by as much as 35%, depending on where they’re located and the number of workers in their employ. This can lead to very unfortunate circumstances, including layoffs or permanent workforce reductions.

Are the unions dying?

It’s hard to say if unions are actually dying or if they’re simply shrinking as a result of economic instability. The ups and downs of the economy in the 90s and 2000s certainly gave employers a bit more strength in the job market, as more workers are willing to take a position without benefits when the economy is down simply to keep money coming in.

The push for legislation to increase the minimum wage may also have an effect on unions, since legislation introducing a higher minimum wage more in touch with the cost of living could take the wind out of the sails of negotiations for higher worker wages. If unions aren’t able to offer workers a higher wage than those just entering the industry, a lot of the incentive for joining a union goes out the window.

One of the biggest things that will keep unions alive in the construction industry is the number of large companies and government subsidies that require unionized workers on the job site. Most of these still allow non-union workers so long as they’re paid well, however, so contractors who are willing to pay a higher wage could still strike a blow against unions here as well.

While union membership is still around 13% in the construction industry, if it slips much farther, then the drastic imbalance of union vs. non-union workers in the industry may become insurmountable. Even if unions do remain, if they can’t find a way to drive membership, their role in the construction industry (and the workforce in general) may change significantly in the years to come.