Want to join Trade Union, do not wish to participate in industrial action. How to resolve?

I’m in a bit of a quandary.

I’d like to join a trade union (this would be fully recognised by my employer), however, I do not believe that industrial action (esp. strike) is an ethical negotiation tool. I don’t wish to participate in a strike (extreme hypothetical circumstances excepted).

So my choices appear to consist of:

Join the union, enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining, etc, and if they ever call a strike, continue working regardless (and face derision and possible retaliation of some kind)
Stay out of the union** and avoid the ethical dilemma of breaking a strike, but forgo the benefits of membership.

Sounds like it should be a simple choice, but I can’t seem to resolve either option as satisfactory. What would you do? What do you think I should do?

I have known other union members to take leave on days when strike action is called - that way they are not partaking in the action but aren’t crossing a picket line either. Of course that won’t work during a period of prolong strike action.

Really, though, if you don’t want to be united with your fellow members in difficult times as well as good, don’t join a union!

So you want to have your cake and eat it too? That contradiction is never going to work itself out. If you want the benefits of a union, you’ll have to accept that those benefits exist because of ‘unethical’ behaviors like strikes.

Join the union, gain the benefits & go on strike if necessary. As a member, you will have a vote in determining what actions the union takes.

Or stay out. Even without joining, you will get some of the benefits the members fight for. If there is a strike & you choose to be a scab, at least you won’t be quite as hypocritical as if you’d joined.

I was a member of the PCS for a while when I worked for the DWP. I had grave misgivings about the civil service strikes last year and voted against them. It’s not that I think striking is “unethical” as such, just that people here in the UK have no sympathy whatsoever for civil servants. It seemed that it would not be effective to annoy folks further by cancelling all their driving tests, not paying their benefits etc.

Anyhow, in the end I resolved the issue by deciding that I would go in to work as normal but not cross any picket line. There were pickets, so I went home.

Some folk I know worked but donated a day’s pay to the strike fund. But in the end, I’m inclined to agree with others who say that it might be best to stay out of the union if you’re totally unwilling to strike. The union derives its power, in part at least, from the threat of strikes and other types of industrial action.

Striking, or the threat of striking, is one of the major tools used by unions to negotiate. It may be analogous to the Army. If you don’t want to fight, don’t join the Army.

Well, to be honest, I’ve never witnessed an effective strike, but I’ve seen a number that had adverse effects (plus a larger number that achieved nothing except lose everyone a portion of their pay), so I think your point is debatable.

You are incorrect that strikes are unethical. This isn’t something that’s controversial. The employment relationship is that capital/management provides wages to labor, and labor provides their, uh, labor. When labor decides that they aren’t getting an appropriate deal, they will stop providing their services and, in return, management stops providing wages. Nobody’s held hostage – management has the legal right to hire scabs; if they don’t do this it’s because they believe their business is better served by other actions.

Note also that there’s no lack of mutuality – management has the power to send people off on furloughs at any time, and they sometimes do. The reason it doesn’t happen all that often is that management is typically already getting what they consider a good deal from the wages for labor transaction – businesses don’t employ more people or more highly compensated people than they absolutely have to to generate profit; if they figure out a way to make their widget more cheaply, they just lay those people off. Why is it that management id (again, typically) so much more satisfied with their end of the deal than labor is? Is it because labor is antsy or flibberdigibbet? No, it’s because management has much, much more bargaining power and, so can set terms that aren’t fair but will still attract employees.

Finding strikes unethical is the same muddled thinking that says that it’s immoral to stop paying your mortgage on an underwater house (efficient breach – it’s cheaper to pay the penalty for breaking a contract than for performing), while businesses cause efficient breaches all the time and, in fact, management can be sued by stockholders by failing to so so in extreme circumstances. The other side sees your interactions in terms of dollars and cents – by refusing to see it the same way, all you’re doing is making it easier for them to screw you.

Anyway, your options as presented appear to be laboring under a different misapprehension. Assuming you’re in the U.S., if your job is covered by a union with a collective bargaining agreement, most likely you’re already receiving most of the benefits of the union’s work. I won’t say it’s unethical not to join – you have a legal right to stay away. But the fact that you’re wary of strikes shouldn’t be the ethical touchstone given that – in most situations – you’re already likely freeloading on union members.

One final point – if you’re afraid of being an object of derision as a union member who crosses the picket line, I wouldn’t worry. The derision will be about the same for any scab, whether he’s in the union or not.


Responding to your latter post – Tanaqui’s point that beneficial working conditions are the result of strikes (or the threat of strikes) is not, in fact, debatable. The history of the last couple centuries makes this plain.

That’s not inconsistent with your own observation that many strikes in recent years are counterproductive (fewer than you think, I’m sure, but maybe not). Your argument in that second post isn’t that strikes are unethical, but that they’re poor strategy. That is a whole different issue and – unlike the claim that they’re unethical – it is, as an empirical rather than moral claim, at least possible. But if so, your best bet is to join the union where you’ll have a voice in arguing against a strike should one be proposed. And, if necessary, you can resign in protest if the decision doesn’t go your way.


Seems to me that willingness to support the union in things like strikes is part and parcel of membership. The idea of breaking a strike line is simply antithetical to the operations of a union, like trying to identify yourself as a Catholic and yet not believing in God.

You do not have to freeload.

You have the right as an individual to donate to the union the cost of your collective bargaining responsibilities and withhold other union costs, like political costs. This was reaffirmed in the Beck Supreme Court decision in 1988.

Your union should be able to break down these costs for you. They are required to do so by federal law. Ask your local rep.

I don’t think Mangetout lives in the US.

If the OP were a US citizen.


Of course if he was determined not to freeload (speaking in the general case, regardless of what country he works in), then he’d also refuse to avail himself of any benefits negotiated by the union, and return whatever portion of his salary is due to union bargaining. Right?

I didn’t get the impression that the OP was worried about political campaigns or the like, but UK union members can opt out of paying political contributions if they wish.

Uh, no. For that matter taking advantage of the better working conditions and salaries in the workplace wouldn’t be a moral failing even if the person in question never contributed a dime to the union. Last I checked most unions claimed to fight for all working people, not just their members.

This is part of my dilemma - I feel morally indebted to the unions because I have enjoyed benefits of the collective bargaining that they make possible - and if it were possible, I would like to feel able to contribute to the effort by becoming a formal member, however (and I really don’t care if anyone thinks I’m wrong or stupid about this) my conscience will not permit me to take part in a strike (at least certainly not over a dipute of the ordinary kind).

I guess I may just have to live with the situation as it stands.

Maybe I used the wrong term. Suffice it to say that industrial action isn’t something I feel I could ever condone or take part in. I don’t care if you think I’m wrong.

Point taken - I guess it’s a very much more fundamental element of the deal than perhaps I had measured it to be. Not all organisations demand or expect 100% adherence to their principles, but I guess this one maybe isn’t even slightly optional.