Some people have the unfortunate idea that unionism is somehow antithetical to or incompatible with being a professional. This notion is particularly salient within education circles, where phrases like “treat teachers like professionals” are often used as implicit arguments against policies associated with unions, such as salary schedules and tenure (examples here, here, here and here).
Let’s take a quick look at this "conflict," first by examining union membership rates among professionals versus workers in other types of occupations. As shown in the graph below, if union membership and professionalism don’t mix, we have a little problem: Almost one in five professionals is a union member. Actually, union membership is higher among professionals than among any other major occupational category except construction workers.
Needless to say, this high rate of membership is largely driven by teachers and other public sector employees such as nurses. For instance, if you remove teachers (K-12 and postsecondary), the membership rate decreases to around 8-10 percent, a bit higher than the national rate for private sector workers.
There are also plenty of unionized professionals in the private sector, including engineers, journalists, scientists and healthcare workers (and there would be more but for restrictive state laws). These workers, like their public sector counterparts who are also union members, are no less “professional” as a result. The very suggestion is absurd.
In fairness, though, the core issue among those who perceive a conflict is not with membership per se, but rather the policies often associated with unions, such as automatic raises and due process.
It's certainly true that unionized professionals have struggled to calibrate their role as knowledge workers who value the individual pursuit of excellence within the context of collective bargaining in a rapidly-changing labor market. But professionals - including "classical professions" such as physicians - are heavily unionized in many other nations, and their unions are often seen as partners.
Moreover, in these nations, the very practices some people find incompatible with professionalism, most notably job protections, are not at all unusual. For example, despite recent pressures, many European workers have strong protections against individual dismissal, as well as, on average, more job security in general than U.S. employees. In fact, U.S. workers have among the lowest levels of security of any OECD nation.
Everyone is entitled to their own conception of “professional," and there is no one universal definition. But, traditionally, professions establish “jurisdiction” over a specific set of complex tasks or knowledge, and they monitor the quality of entrants via means such as formal training regimens, professional associations and licensure. Incumbents of professional occupations typically have autonomy to practice their craft and police themselves.
By this standard, being “treated like a professional” is not really about how you get raises, and a worker's professionalism does not vary by how easily he or she can be fired. You need not agree with these policies, but professionals are what they do, and the fact that many millions of them belong to unions does not change that one bit.
- Matt Di Carlo