It’s Complicated: The Relationship Between Unions, Job Satisfaction and Retention Rates

Not surprisingly, job satisfaction is an important predictor of staff retention among nurses. But what role does belonging to a union play in terms of job satisfaction and staff retention? Previous studies have revealed a puzzling relationship: unionized RNs reported lower job satisfaction, but their retention rate was higher. A new study has attempted to explain why.

Although factors influencing job satisfaction and retention rates among RNs are a keen topic of interest with nurse administrators, the relationship between job satisfaction and union membership remains unclear. Various studies have attempted to clarify the link. Now, a new study published in the Journal of Nursing Administration hopes to shed light on exactly how union membership influences job satisfaction. 

The study analyzed survey data from 10,648 RNs in 2004 and 10,291 RNs in 2008 and found that, from 2004 to 2008, the percentage of RNs who belonged to unions rose from 18.9% to 19.6%. During that same period, the average RN income increased from $56,400 to $60,400 while the percentage of RNs in this sample who reported being satisfied or very satisfied with their job increased from 74.2% to 78.1%.

During both years studied, the data reveal that union membership was associated with low job satisfaction scores even though, on average, unionized nurses earned more than nonunionized nurses. Nurses in unions had higher incomes but were less satisfied with their jobs—a key fact that obscures a discernable link between job satisfaction scores and income level.

So What’s the Explanation?

To explain this apparent contradiction, researchers have proposed that the low job satisfaction scores were not a direct result of union membership. Rather, job dissatisfaction led to unionization. It was only during the transition period between nonunionization and unionization that job satisfaction scores were lower. The researchers also suggest that unionized nurses may feel freer to express dissatisfaction than nonunion nurses and, hence, were more vocal. They caution against assuming that unions were a cause of job dissatisfaction, pointing out that unions also give nurses a stronger voice within their organizations.

Keys to Job Satisfaction and Improved Retention

In previous studies, researchers found that the factors that can contribute positively to job satisfaction among nurses include:

  • autonomy
  • decreased job stress
  • positive nurse-physician collaboration
  • strong nursing leadership
  • opportunities for self-growth and promotion

Other studies have found that nurse administrators can improve job satisfaction scores and hence retention rates by:

  • allowing nurses to be involved in decision-making processes
  • ensuring solution-oriented issues resolution to reduce grievances
  • engaging nurses and managers in collaborating to improve process and work environment issues

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