Small business owners, unite! An appeal for owner-operators to unionize
Owner-operators run a variety of businesses and trades, but they are also forced to compete against each other to lower the price for their skills. Unions could work for them too, just as they have for other workers. | AP

In the not-so-distant past, Meramec Street on St. Louis’s south side was lined with barbershops. All of them were members of the American Barbers Association, a union for those who cut or styled hair. Many of these barbers were “owner-operators,” meaning they both owned the shop and practiced their trade therein. Without a doubt, this is what most Americans visualize when they hear the term “small business owner.”

Owner-operators are common among the trades in which a single person is all that is needed to complete a scope of work: plumber, locksmith, piano tuner, trucker, etc. The commonly accepted perception of unions in America involves relations between the parties of employer and employees, the latter engaging collectively to bargain with the former over wages and working conditions.

This perception, often coupled with the misperception that an “independent contractor” is not classified as an employee, has caused many workers in the modern United States to ask, “What is the point of union membership for an owner-operator?” As an owner-operator myself, a printer with Communication Workers of America Local 6300, I hope to illustrate the value learned from my own experiences.

Culturally, we like the idea of “being our own boss,” a complicated concept that’s not as simple as it might sound. Historically, workers have “made their own way” by learning a trade and being responsible for facilitating the acquisition or creation of necessary materials while also supplying the labor. For example, an 18th century farming family would not only toil the earth, but also build a house and other structures, tailor their clothes, cook and preserve food, smith metal, and raise the animals needed to pull a plow or wagon. However, this romanticized vision of self-sustainability became less and less common as more and more workers entered the system of hourly wage-earning, often without a choice.

In modern times, it is no secret that many workers would like to swing a hammer or deliver produce without having to answer to a boss who takes a bite out of the fruits of their labor. Many of us strive for a chance to be self-employed. This is why such a high number of us fall for the traps of the gig economy (34% of workers in the country are involved in “gig economy” work, according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor).

Many of us who learn a trade, whether it be laying bricks or coding video games, yearn for the ability to break out and become owner-operators. My father, uncles, and both grandfathers were productivist cash crop farmers. The milestone for all of them was the day they purchased their first piece of arable land and were not solely held to splitting the profits with landlords. For those who have made that jump, please consider the following appeal for union membership.

First, let’s talk about scale. Workers covered by a union agreement (“contract”) have set wages, usually by seniority or experience, explicitly enshrined in that agreement. No matter the gender or color of the worker, workers’ wages in a union contract are paid evenly. Employer-supporting media coverage has spent decades trying to inculcate the idea that this arrangement can lead to a “loss of potential earnings,” even though data shows that, in reality, U.S. workers lower their own pay floor by competing against each other. Declining union membership relates directly to slowed across-the-board wage increases. Essentially, we have tried going it alone and failed economically.

Most owner-operators are still in that situation, competing against each other. Consider a business needing a sprinkler system updated. The manager will get several bids from different plumbers, always awarding the plumber with the lowest quote. The “winner” gets the work but works for less. Union plumbers who honor the union scale are no longer in competition with each other and therefore are paid more for their labor and expertise.

Second, consider the benefit of the union “hiring hall.” Union membership for the owner-operator brings a secondary source of jobs through a system of referrals. People needing services rendered call union offices for specialists who can handle what they cannot. Union office staff will call through their membership list to find owner-operators who can take on the caller’s work.

Employers with union recognition will often contact the union office when they need more workers, as well. This is a boon to the tradesperson, as work materializing in this manner is paid for by dues money—a tiny fraction of the expense of an office manager or sales representative. (Note: Hiring hall systems vary, and not all unions have a hiring hall.)

For some time, I was a member of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. Work always meant being hired for a project. Layoffs were inevitable and common. Instead of hitting the classifieds, I simply called the hiring hall.

Third, Education. Trades have apprenticeship programs and often a training center with regular classes. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters, for example, requires a week of classroom training per every six-month term of apprenticeship. The training center teaches labor history, safety, new equipment testing, and other useful techniques related to the job but not necessarily learned on the job. Again, this is paid for collectively by members’ dues money.

Fourth, union members have access to non-profit healthcare. Most, if not all, labor unions operate a health insurance company regularly referred to as a “Health and Welfare Fund.” What differentiates a Fund from a for-profit health insurance company is that if the Fund does not pay out the amount of projected claims in a year, it will most often not raise rates for the following year.

An additional benefit organized by many unions is the operation of a pension fund that is not connected to the employer. The employer cannot raid the pension; nor will the fund evaporate should the employer go out of business. In the U.S., the benefit of a pension has been reduced to the stuff of legend since the rise of the 401(k). Union pension funds are in most cases the only avenue.

For years, I was a rank-and-file member of the OPEIU Local 9, and our contract allowed for my entire family to have health insurance without any financial contribution from me. When I left that job to become an owner-operator, it was immediately obvious that without my new access to the Furniture Workers Union Insurance Fund, we were simply priced out of coverage.

The fifth advantage for the union owner-operator is representation. Organizations like the Teamsters, ILWU, OPEIU, American Barbers Association, AAOO, and various maritime unions specialize in not only providing benefits for owner-operators but also lobbying governments to promote pro-worker policy. Taken for granted today, benefits like the 40-hour workweek, days off work, overtime, workplace safety, etc. were demanded by unions until being solidified by law.

In 1980s Illinois, home care workers who had been considered “independent contractors” and even charity volunteers were organized by SEIU Local 880. These workers were not even covered by the NLRA (1935), so their union was not recognized as lawful at the time. SEIU 880 went from workers making as little as $1-per-hour to the largest local in the Midwest, making 20 times that amount with paid holidays and vacation time.

Lastly, and arguably the most important benefit is the sense of belonging. Look, we all need community. The experience of a mass meeting in the union hall or marching on Labor Day with 500 other plumbers is indescribable to the uninitiated. When union workers are hurt by closures or strikes, other union workers come to their aid, including workers from other unions.

The owner-operator works alone while humans are social creatures. Active membership in a labor union is different from a tavern, or a family get-together, or even a church because the group involved sweats over the same work. Most of us measure our worth by the manner in which we provide for those we love. Therefore, comradery with our workgroup is special.

My experiences gained as a member of both UBC and OPEIU in the past were priceless. When a non-union worker walks off the job, it is a resignation. When union workers walk off the job together, they return to work on their terms and with a little better life. The non-union worker asks for a raise. Union workers demand their conditions together, with dignity. When tragedy strikes, union workers suffer together. The detractor will say that “it is better to risk it alone and untethered,” but I can say that from experience this detractor is ignorant or disingenuous. History, social science, and the laws of economics prove that the owner-operator will benefit more from union membership.

The way for an owner-operator to join up is simple. Search “[whatever the trade is] + ‘union’ + [location]” and the organization with proper jurisdiction should pop up. Call the number provided and ask if they represent owner-operators. Whoever answers will get the caller in touch with whoever is responsible. The organizer or business agent will talk the caller through the process, answer questions, and send them a copy of the contract which spells out all the benefits explicitly. The owner-operator signs the contract or even just the “signature page” and sends it back to the union, becoming a member while staying a proud owner of a small business.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author. 


Nicholas James
Nicholas James

Nicholas James is a union rep living in St. Louis, Missouri. Political button and sticker maker. Speaks English, Spanish, German, and Croatian.