Union or Non-Union Apprenticeship?

A woodworker starting out asks about the choice between union and non-union training employment. Lots of information and some opinions are supplied in the discussion that follows. November 11, 2005

I recently decided to pursue a career in cabinet making and have just completed two training courses to prepare me to enter an apprenticeship program. One program is offering me an opportunity to apply through the Union in NYC, and the other is offering an opportunity to apply to non-union apprenticeships.

Although I am aware of the benefits and security of working with the Union, I have been told that the Union shops are largely factory production lines, and there is little opportunity to see any of your work through to the end.

I am interested in spending the next 4 or 5 year getting hands on experience of as many skills, techniques and tools/machines as possible so that in the end, I am properly qualified. I am aware that the Union provides classes in the evenings, but I'm concerned that I'll be stuck doing one task at one machine for months at a time. I'd appreciate any advice or personal experiences on the difference between union and non-union apprenticeship programs.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor M:
It depends on the shop. In custom shops you do different things everyday. Union has better benefits, pension, 401K, and training. You make poor money in the beginning. Non-union depends on how fast you learn. You can learn fast and make good money. Every day you create something and its very rewarding. Its a tough choice.

From contributor P:
I think that you might learn more of the best practices in a union shop. But you are right it will be very repetitive; on the other hand repetition (within reason) is the best way to learn something well. But if it is only how to run boxes, then Im not sure how much there is to learn. There will be a lot more politics at the union shop.

What I would look at is if the shop does high end commercial or is it mostly boxes. Trade show houses are similar this way. If they are doing mostly boxes I would go with the custom shop, if there are some skilled people there.

I would just go look at the shops and see what sort of work they are doing and what sort of workers they have. See if it is the kind of work you want to do with the kind of people you want to work with. Also take a look at the people working there see if they look cheerful or not that will tell you something as well.

From contributor R:
It all depends on if you are planning to open you own shop. If I had no desire to open a cabinet business and was looking for a decent job then I would go union. If I was out to learn cabinets, I would go non union, and jump from shop to shop from coast to coast; it's very fun to learn.

From contributor D:
I went through an apprenticeship in early 90s. I worked in the custom shop and we did lots of round/elliptical work doors, windows, and yes, I did all laminate counter tops (cutting blanks and gluing, cutting sink holes and edging). I was tough after a while, but I really value my union education. Too many people enter this profession these days with no training and work at shops where they receive poor training.

From contributor E:
As others have said it all depends on your plans for the future. If you want benefits and higher wages the union will do you well, if you want satisfaction and creativity a custom shop will be your answer. Unions turn out machines - people with great skills to do one or two things well and zero imagination.

Custom shops lack formal training in many cases but offer you a chance to push your limits. If you are successful your rewards will far surpass monetary value. Whatever your choice is, make sure to get as much experience as you can. Far too many people come into this field with too little training.

From contributor K:
I would suggest going union. Your pay per hour even at first period level without experience will be slightly less than lead men make locally. Our contract is $20.90 per hour less 4% working dues. Your rate would be $10.45 per hour less working dues or approximately $10.03 per hour. Average lead men make $13.00 - $15.00 per hour with no expectation/guarantee of a wage increase and most with 10 plus years at the same shop. On a six month/1000 hour increment you will advance based on skills demonstrated. Earn while you learn. That is the money side.

Benefits are totally different. Most non-union shops do not have retirement, medical, dental or eye care for available for their employees or their family members. Retirement benefits of $2.75 per hour accrue after completion of 4 periods of apprenticeship - a person in their late 20's could have a lot of money set aside in a retirement account which you control how it is invested. Full medical, dental and eye care of $2.75 per hour is available to you and your family members at the completion of 390 hours and maintained by only working 130 hours per month. Your free training of $.29 per hour will be at one of the best apprenticeship facilities on the most current machinery using production/construction methods updated continually by the largest manufacturers available.

All of the above which is paid by signatory contractors like myself through administration of fringe benefit funds. Review - $20.90 per hour wages, $5.79 benefits = $26.69 per hour. Wages and benefits vary by region - in NYC probably double the above. There are various size union shops from the big exhibit companies to 1-2 man shops. Find the one you like. All shops have some sort of politics. The rewards of apprenticeship training are the good wages and benefits you receive while working in a shop under the protection of a union contract. In addition, you'll be a member of an organization with more than 650,000 members - the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America!

From contributor L:
Unions were started when worker safety was a big issue. Today with OSHA and suck folks are safe. Look at GM and the layoffs, why should anyone who makes cars for a living make as much as someone with a masters degree. If you value your freedom, ability to think on your own and not to be corrupted by politics, then dont join and remain free. As most folks have said the paying jobs are being outsourced and the ones left standing are custom shops, not production lines.

From contributor C:
I would suggest going for the non-union apprenticeship. Union shops will be more apt to close in a tight market because there is no way they can compete with the enormous compensation packages that they have to pay. It's not just wages and benefits. The union takes its chunk of the pie also.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor J:
It can work either way and I've done both. What you must enjoy is the craft. If it's a money/security thing then go with the union (non risk taker). Very good companies, generally not less than 30 employees can offer you more such as benefits, a 401K and etc. So it's really on what type of path you're interested in.