Why Would Anyone Want to be a Union Representative?

What makes a person want to be a union rep? The author shares some of his experiences based on his career in labor relations.

Over the course of my career, I have met hundreds of union representatives. I have always wondered why they became a union representative (union rep).

The vast majority of union reps in federal unions are volunteers. While there are some paid positions with the unions, such as union attorneys or paid national union reps, these do not make up the majority of federal sector union reps. Why would someone volunteer?

Based on the jobs I’ve held, I’ve never been in a bargaining unit position at any time in my career, so choosing to be a union rep was not a decision I had to make. I’m not sure what choice I would have made after a career investigating allegations of discrimination against union reps.

Over the years I have asked many union reps; why did you choose to be a union rep? The answers are varied. Also, from my own observations I have gleaned what I consider to be some of the reasons. Many managers have also felt free to express why they think individuals became a rep. Those are also interesting opinions. An amalgam of these viewpoints will be explored in trying to answer why anyone would become a union rep.

There are all types of people who become union reps. They are different sexes, different ethnicity, different races and different educational, occupational and vocational backgrounds. There is no one personality type which fits union reps. You have both introverts and extroverts. If you have ever been to a union conference you would see a potpourri of the type of people who make up the federal workforce and chose to be union reps. Essentially, the union reps are a good representation of the federal workforce as a whole.

Reasons Why Somebody Might Become a Union Rep


So, what are some of the considerations an individual may look at when deciding to be a union rep. Do they become a union rep for the money?

As noted above, a majority of them do not receive a salary from the union, however they receive their government salary in the form of official time. When union reps are on official time, they receive their salary as though they were doing their regular duties.

Under the Federal Service Labor Management Relations Statute (Statute) their union duties are government work. There are many detractors who believe union reps should not be paid.

Every Congressional session, a congressman submits a bill to do away with official time. Some of the most contentious issues in bargaining a federal sector collective bargaining agreement deal with official time. Some managers consider official time a cost of doing business while others push back against its use entirely. For some managers, losing an employee to official time is an overall loss in productivity with no corresponding benefit. Some union reps find themselves constantly fighting to get official time while others never have a problem. When signing up to be a rep, many unknowingly have signed themselves up for a continual struggle to get the time needed to do their representational duties. 


Do they become a union rep because it will help them to get promoted? Most union reps reading this are probably chuckling at that question. The vast majority of union reps believe that they have been passed over for promotion, more often than not, because they are a union rep.

Many union reps get labeled with a reputation as a trouble maker which they believe is simply because they stood up for employees who were treated unfairly. However, there have been some former union reps who go on to become labor relations specialists and represent management. In my experience, some, but definitely not all, appear to bend over backwards to represent management’s interests to alleviate any belief that they were favoring the union. Is being a union rep a good pathway to promotion? Probably not.

Have an Ax to Grind?

Do they become a union rep because they have an ax to grind?

Some employees become union reps because they believe they had been treated unfairly by management and may try to use this platform to get back at management. Others join because, at one time or another, they were helped by the union and they now want to helps others.

There are definitely a fair number of union reps who became reps because they believe they were personally treated unfairly by management but nowhere near a majority from my experience.

They Don’t Want to Do Their Jobs?

Do they become a union rep because they don’t want to do their job?

This is a commonly held belief by many managers. They believe employees become union reps simply because they are lazy or just don’t want to work.

Undoubtably, there are some reps that fall into this category. I have walked into union offices and seen people just sitting around with obviously no work to do but burning official time. They had official time so they were going to use it even if they had no representational duties.

In my estimation, most don’t become a rep not to do any work, however, some do try to stay a rep not to do any work. These are very few but enough to give union reps a bad name.

On the other hand, some people elect to become a union rep for the right reasons and to help, but stay so long in this role that they are no longer qualified for the government job they were hired to perform. I have seen a number of union reps who stayed on as union officials on 100 percent official time for so long that they could no longer do their job. If they lost a union election, they would have no place to go.

Raise Hell With Management?

Do they become a union rep because they like to raise hell with management?

Another belief of some managers is that reps just like to cause trouble. They have a fiendish delight in making a manager’s job harder.

I have met some who apparently like to stir things up because being in the union protects them in doing this. There are a very few in this category but there are enough to tarnish the image of good union reps.

Become Part of a Community?

Do they become a union rep because they like becoming part of a community?

In many unions, the union reps are a tight knit community. They look out for each other and they have a common bond. They tend to stick together. They are all “brothers and sisters”. To many this sense of community is very attractive. This doesn’t mean they don’t fight and have differences but being a union rep creates a stronger bond than they otherwise might have in the work place.

Help Others?

Do some become union reps because they want to help others?

Some are active in their churches and communities; being a union rep is another form of ministry for them. They truly believe in helping people who have been treated unfairly. The union gives them the tools to provide the help that is needed. There are many reps who believe they are there to balance the scales between employees and management.

The vast majority of reps I have met and dealt with fall into the last category; they want to help their fellow employees. There are also a number who should never have become reps to start with. The same can be said of some managers.

The majority of reps’ motives shall rarely be questioned. Some are real bull dogs who never let up even when it might be in their best interests to learn to compromise. It is not unusual to have heated exchanges between union reps and managers. These exchanges can leave bad feelings on both sides. Some managers treat union reps with disdain and are surprised when they receive push back. While some are much milder in their approach, they are no less focused on helping employees.


As one union president once told me, “Union reps are volunteers so you have to take what you can get and do the best you can with them.”

Are they all perfect? Decidedly, no would be the answer. However, in my experience good union reps who are there for the employees and have the skills and temperament to represent them are an advantage both to the members of the bargaining unit and also to the effectiveness and efficiency of the agency.

About the Author

Joe Swerdzewski, former General Counsel of the FLRA & owner of JSA LLC is the author of The Essential Guide to Federal Labor Relations, A Guide to Successful Federal Sector Collective Bargaining, etc. For more info on JSA’s services, email info@jsafed.com or subscribe to JSA’s newsletter.