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The Pros and Cons of Joining the Painters' Union

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Matt is a professional painter who owns and operates his own painting business, specializing in interior and exterior house painting.

Should I join the Painters' Union?

Should I join the Painters' Union?

The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), or Painters' Union for short, is a union with roughly 140,000 members in the United States and Canada. It consists of painters, glaziers, drywall finishers, and floor finishers.

Pros and Cons of Being a Union Painter

Members receive well-rounded training and earn significantly more per hour than a non-union painter. While the Painters Union' certainly provides a viable career opportunity for anyone who's willing to learn the trade, it isn't without its flaws.

Here are some of the pros and cons of becoming a union painter:

Pros of Being a Union Painter

  • It pays well. For example, a journeyman painter in Chicago, in 2021, earned nearly $49.30 per hour after completing a three-year apprentice program. Not bad. Union painter wages will vary though depending on where you live in the United States.
  • The Painters' Union provides a good pension plan for retirees.
  • Painters receive good health and dental insurance.
  • Union painting contractors must follow the collective bargaining agreement that guarantees the set hourly wage and prevents unfair working conditions. If a contractor violates the union constitution or collective bargaining agreement, you can report it to a union steward. If a contractor decides not to pay you, the union will make sure you get your money.
  • Apprentices get three years of free training through the mandatory apprentice program. In trade school, painters learn all aspects of the trade including color mixing, taping, spray painting, drywall, wood finishing, and wallpaper and industrial painting.
  • Apprentices begin working at a reasonable starting wage and receive steady wage increases as they progress through the trade school program. The wage is guaranteed no matter what contractor you work for. Upon graduation, the apprentice is awarded their journeyman card and begins earning the full wage.

Cons of Being a Union Painter

  • The insurance benefits and pension are great, but you won't receive them if you can't find steady work because a certain number of work hours are required each quarter to receive them.
  • Contractors can lay off apprentices after they complete their three-year apprentice program to avoid paying them journeyman wages when they graduate. This can happen because apprentice wages cost far less than journeyman wages.
  • A journeyman painter is expensive. With union benefits and hourly wages factored in, a journeyman painter costs a company $500 or more per day. These high costs can make it difficult for a seasoned painter to find steady work unless the painter is highly skilled or is related to someone at a painting company who can bring them in.
  • Payment of union dues must continue while you're unemployed, and failure to pay dues results in suspension. Dues must be paid every three months. In 2021, quarterly union dues in Chicago were $152.
  • There is no paid vacation or sick time.
  • All journeyman painters earn the same wage. For example, a residential journeyman painter working in air-conditioned homes every day earns the same money as an industrial painter working in a hazardous environment with toxic paint. The company itself can choose to pay a painter more, but the union pays the same wage for all journeyman painters.

Is the Painters' Union a Good Career?

The Painters' Union comes with excellent pay and benefits if you're fortunate enough to find work with a contractor who will keep you employed your whole career. Employment can, however, be very unstable unless you are a skilled painter who can do more than paint walls. Having multiple skills, which you learn at trade school, like paper hanging, sand blasting, faux finishing, and wood finishing, increase your chances of keeping steady employment during bad economic times.

Unfortunately, who you know in the painting industry plays a role too. While you can certainly not know anyone and end up working with one company your whole career, contractors do favor those who have relations with someone in the company who can speak for them and bring them in.

The union benefits are also very good if you meet the quarterly hour requirements. Working overtime accrues time and a half pay, as well as bonus hours for retirement and benefits. Additionally, you are protected if a company tries to cheat you out of your pay or work hours needed for benefits. All you have to do is call your steward and they will take care of you.

How to Join the Painters' Union

Search the Internet for a painters' union apprentice school in your area. If you live in a major city, there is probably an apprentice school or a district council office, depending on where you live in the United States. All apprentices must complete a three-year training program before obtaining a journeyman card and union wages.

Check online to see if there's an apprentice school in your area for the painters' union and find out if they're currently accepting new students. Another option is to visit a local union hall for painters and express your interest in joining. They will be able to tell you the process and where to get started.

The requirements for enrollment in the Painters' Union might be different in your area. You may want to contact the district council office if you have one in your area and ask about enrollment. Once enrolled in the union and apprentice school, you will be required to make your first payment for union dues.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: I have over 13,000 hours as a pro painter. Do I need to go through an apprenticeship to get into a union?

Answer: Yes, a three year apprenticeship.

Question: I am 58 years old can I still join the union?

Answer: Yes, as far as I know.

Question: I’m a taper and painter with remodeling experience. Do I still have to go through the apprenticeship to join the Painters' Union?

Answer: Yes.

Question: How many hours do I need to collect my pension?

Answer: You should contact your district council office. They can provide you with this information.

Question: I've been painting for 40+ yrs and think this would be a good time to join the union as there is a worker shortage right now. Can you accelerate through an apprenticeship program faster than 3 yrs with this much experience?

Answer: No, the 3 year apprenticeship is required to obtain a journeyman card in the painters union.

Question: I am a time served painter from the uk and moving to the USA. What paperwork would I need to bring to get recognised as a journeyman painter in the USA?

Answer: I recommend contacting the local union office in the town you're moving to. They'll be able to tell you their process and the paperwork you need to provide.

Question: I am a commercial painter and have been for 20 years or so. I am not a licensed contractor. If I joined the union, would I have to go into an apprentice program?

Answer: Yes, you have to complete the apprenticeship program to get your journeyman card. The apprentice school I went to was a three-year program. Contact your local district council office for the painters' union, or the apprentice school closest to you, and they can answer all of your questions.

© 2011 Matt G.


Matt G. (author) from United States on February 28, 2020:

Thanks for the feedback. It looks like a lot has changed. I've been out of the union for over ten years.

Jeff Frederick on February 28, 2020:

Good article, I am a 21st year journeyman painter in the Kansas City area. I noticed in your question and answer section you have some false information however. Several years ago many unions implemented a way for skilled tradesman to subvert the apprenticeship program. Coming in as a journeymen painter only requires you to pay for your initiation fees and working card. There is a probationary period where you will be evaluated based on performance.

Matt G. (author) from United States on January 13, 2020:

It sounds a lot different from when I was in the program many years ago.

charlie on January 13, 2020:

the apprenticeship is now a 4 year program which is a bunch of crap!!! You have to work 880 hours to even get benefits. they take out health benefits from day one, but then you dont even get the benefit of the health coverage. They dont pay you to go to aprrentice training. Your first raise is generally only 1.50 per hour, and from day. So far after seven months, I havent seen one benefit of being in a union

Matt G. (author) from United States on September 07, 2019:

Yes, you would work for a union painting contractor while attending the apprentice school. Your hourly pay increases as you advance through the three year program, until you're eventually earning the journeyman wage upon graduation.

Alex on September 07, 2019:

do you get paid while going to apprentice school?

Al on March 04, 2014:

I've worked union and non-union. I think this econony and our throw away culture has made union members that much more defensive in relation to their jobs. When I was non-union I made less money (mostly in the annuity/ins dept), but I was way happier. 75% of my union is over 50, and a lot of old timers really resent anyone new. Modern union painters/tapers/glaizers proudly shop at wall mart and dunkin donuts. They'd sooner see the union die before turn it over to a new generation. I felt way more brotherhood at non-union jobs! I believe in what the union represents, but I've never worked anywhere where I've felt so reluctant to complain for fear of losing my job. I just put up with ridiculous bs under the union because there is an atmosphere of complicity. If someone is related(which they all are), Italian, bff's, or powerful within the union they won't even try to conceal the nepotism they receive or dole out because the union is a breeding ground for a base mentality that resembles a jail mentality. The union literally recruits at prisons because they seem to hate workers who think and long for anything but being a " uniform" (and desperate career-wise) member who can't afford to challenge them.

dasmoozr49 on November 12, 2012:

I retired 5 years ago after 32 years as a union painter.I worked for only 3 companies in all that time ,and only missed about 3-4 months of work (for lack of)in 32 years.My pension is great and my medical Insurance carries until I turn 65.They did it right by me and it`s just a shame that the building trades came to a screeching halt during the recession.Hopefully it will get better,but this is not the time to try to find a union job in the painting field

MelloYelloMan on November 03, 2011:

I've never joined a union.. but I'm a painter and working for yourself is pretty much awesome. Nice hub man, I agree with pretty much everything :) keep it up bro!