Closed Shop vs. Union Shop: Understanding the Difference

In the realm of labor relations, two terms often discussed are “closed shop” and “union shop.” These concepts define the relationship between labor unions and workers within a workplace and carry different implications for employee membership and rights. This article aims to clarify the distinctions between closed shops and union shops.

Closed Shop

A closed shop is a workplace arrangement in which an employer can only hire individuals who are already members of a specific labor union. In other words, prospective employees must join the union before they can be employed. Closed shops were relatively common in the early 20th century and were often associated with labor unions’ efforts to increase their membership.

Key Characteristics of a Closed Shop:

1. Mandatory Union Membership: Employees are required to join the union as a condition of employment.

2. Limited Employee Choice: Workers have little to no choice in the matter; if they want the job, they must become union members.

3. Strict Union Control: Unions typically have a significant say in the hiring process and workplace rules.

4. Potential for Reduced Employee Freedom: Critics argue that closed shops can infringe on individual freedom and the right to choose whether or not to join a union.

Union Shop

A union shop, on the other hand, is a workplace where employees have more flexibility when it comes to union membership. In a union shop, employees are not required to join the union when they are hired. However, they may be required to become union members or pay union dues after a certain period or as a condition of continued employment. This arrangement is often seen as a compromise between the interests of labor unions and employees’ freedom of choice.

Key Characteristics of a Union Shop:

1. Initial Freedom of Choice: Employees are not obliged to join the union when hired.

2. Union Membership Later On: At some point, usually after a probationary period, employees may be required to join the union or pay union dues.

3. Balanced Employee Rights: Union shops are seen as a balance between workers’ freedom to choose and unions’ need for financial support and bargaining power.

4. Common Compromise: Many workplaces, particularly in industries with strong union traditions, adopt union shop arrangements to accommodate both labor organizations and workers’ preferences.


In summary, the key difference between a closed shop and a union shop lies in the timing and compulsion of union membership. Closed shops require employees to join the union immediately upon hire, while union shops allow employees an initial period of choice before requiring union membership or the payment of union dues. These distinctions reflect the complex dynamics of labor relations and the effort to balance the interests of both labor unions and individual workers within the workplace.

See also – Has the American Government been a friend or foe to unionism?

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