Should Sign Language Interpreters Unionize?

January 24, 2012


Unionization of sign language interpreters continues to be a topic of discussion in our field. Author Anthony Goodwin presents some pros and cons on the impact of establishing a union for interpreters.

In today’s economic downturns and upswings, representation in the labor market is paramount to the success of any profession.  The profession of sign language interpreting is no different.  Without understanding the influence unity bears, sign language interpreters all over the country, dare I say the world, will not realize the import of their services as a group of professionals.  Individually, we who are in private practice or in some type of hybrid practice thereof, will always be on the weaker end of the negotiating table.

From negotiating with mega agencies to any type of employment negotiations, the individual sign language interpreter often lacks the leverage of any good negotiations:  information.  We keep quiet about our rates. We are afraid that someone will undercut our bids. We undercut other interpreters just to get the contract for that one day job.  Often, we are unaware and unconcerned about the greater repercussions of such actions:  how will our acceptance of lower rates and non-support during extensive interpreting assignments affect the industry, affect our colleagues, and even ourselves for the next assignment?

Time For a Union?

As I have traveled around the country, I’ve had the chance to work with a variety of sign language interpreters in a myriad of settings. Conversations about having a union that represents sign language interpreters in the labor market inevitably crop up.  I have yet to meet an interpreter who disagrees with the idea.  Does that mean we should rush out and establish a union? No.  But it does mean we should be having serious conversations about what it looks like to be represented in the labor market of sign language interpreters.

There are both pros and cons to forming a union.  On the surface it seems like a great idea, but what are the hidden pitfalls?  First, the cons.

The Cons

Unions often can become beasts in and of themselves.  Like any corporation, they intend to survive. Those who run the organizations seek to preserve their positions and jobs.  Self-preservation can very easily and inconspicuously become the driving factor.  If this happens, and it will, then professional concerns will take a back seat although any activity will be couched in terms of benefitting the constituency.

Second, unions can often demand salaries or rates that the market will not bear.  If that happens, then corporations that higher a significant number of sign language interpreters and doctors’ offices and other smaller venues may seek ways to avoid hiring interpreters.  Moreover, the deaf community may suffer adverse affects of such consequences.

Third, unions can have a polarizing affect within companies and workplaces.  They support an “us” versus “them” environment and often work best in adversarial environments.  For example, union members versus non-union members, or union members versus employers or management can be an adversarial environment.  Because unions work solely for their constituents, such an environment can create salary and pay discrepancies among other sign language interpreters in the same work place.  This dynamic can have negative affects on the working environment within the profession as well.

Fourth, there may be an argument for redundancy.  The work that our professional organizations such as the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), the National Alliance of Black Interpreters, Inc. (NAOBI, Inc.), and Mano a Mano are doing can be viewed as empowering sign language interpreters such that they feel that they are already represented in the labor market.

The Pros

Unions can provide representation in the labor market for sign language interpreters.  It allows professionals to be united in terms of fees, qualifications, labor standards for the sign language interpreting industry, and so on.  RID, NAOBI, Inc. and Mano a Mano already work toward influencing and establishing industry practices.  These organizations, however, are not labor market representatives.  All three organizations support industry standards related to certification and testing.  All three organizations weigh in on licensing as it relates to particular states where chapters of these respective organizations are established.  A union, however, takes up as its sole cause the proactive work of the protection of its constituency from unfair business practices, disadvantageous working environments and inequitable wages, fee schedules, and benefits. In fact, unions can be quite beneficial in establishing, maintaining and ensuring fair market value for services rendered.

Second, unions can be an additional source of pension security for sign language interpreters.  Currently, private practitioners (freelance) sign language interpreters can set up self-directed retirement accounts.  Those who also work in some capacity for corporations or for any type of government agency may have access to a 501K plan.

Last, unions have the potential for maximizing leverage within the sign language interpreting profession.  As sign language interpreters, we tend to be lone rangers.  Divided we fall.  A possible benefit of a union is that of agreement.  Sign language interpreters as a group have the unique ability to be able to provide direct work as well as the ability to sub-contract and/or to be employed.  This is a form of empowerment. Awareness and understanding of this fact means we are a strong professional group able to ensure the quality of our industry and the fairness of the market value for our services.

Conclusion of the Matter

Some thoughts to consider: how can dialoguing about unionizing increase awareness and understanding of our industry and of the service we provide? What types of workshops along these lines can initiate a dialogue about sign language interpreters understanding the power of their service?    What are the gaps in our profession that impede this type of dialogue?

Maybe we should consider the example of other organizations:  the Writers Guild of America; the Directors Guild of America; the Screen Actors Guild.  What about the history and functions of these organizations can we benefit from in the sign language interpreter profession?

My hope is that we can begin a national dialogue about how to foster agreement, unity, and empowerment within our profession so that we continue to ensure quality service and fair market value for services rendered.

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31 Comments on "Should Sign Language Interpreters Unionize?"

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Harrison Jones

I am curious as to how interpreters feel about agencies and their roles as a sort of labor market representative for the interpreters they employ. I feel like interpreting agencies are almost mini unions in their respective areas. I definitely agree that a more national conversation should take place and also that perhaps agencies could be key to this sort of discussion or a basis from which to grow should unionization be decided upon.

I think how much like mini unions agencies are may be vastly different by region. It would also depend upon who is running the show. In my neck of the woods, I most definitely do not see a parallel, not at all. If anything, should I desire a union i would want its agents to advocate on my behalf *between* myself and some of the agencies here. It is certainly not true for all agencies, or even for all agencies in my area, but it seems to me that the more credentials I have, the more experience, and the more… Read more »
I think for me the issue is about sign language interpreters recognizing strength in unity. Unions/Guilds have pros and cons. I’ve experienced being in a union as a sign language interpreter at several community colleges and at several universities. Several times, the union affiliation was quite beneficial as it related to receiving a pay check! Rather important, no? (smile) Notwithstanding both pros and cons, the important element is unity. Necessary change is always brought about by agreement. So, whatever changes sign language interpreters are seeing as needed in local areas, states, regions or the nation, they only happen in agreement… Read more »
I don’t think agencies can be representatives of sign language interpreters in the sign language interpreter market place. They can, however, represent agencies in the market place. Agencies have other types of overhead and situations that differ from the lone freelance interpreter, or an individual private practice interpreter. As stakeholders in the industry, however, it makes sense that agencies would want to be included in a conversation about the pros and cons of a union for their contractors and employees hired as sign language interpreters. These contractors and employees having representation in the labor market may affect their bottom line.… Read more »

Many years ago I was in a union and did not like it. I think that often unions can be a place people hide behind while complaining about everything. As well, I do not want a union telling me when I can or can’t work; in addition to paying them out of pocket to control my business.
Good topic to discuss.

It sounds like your leaning more toward the cons. (smile) During your time in the union, were there any pros to your experience that balances out the cons? Just curious! I’m also of the mindset of independence and the “right to work.” I do, however, like strength in numbers, unity and agreement. So, I can see how a union, or a guild like the Screen Actors’ Guild, or the Writers’ Guild of America, can protect and industry and individuals within that industry. Is there any need for that type of “protection” and representation in the labor market for sign language… Read more »
I am pro-unionization. As freelancers and independent contractors, many of us are not offered any kind of health insurance and with the high rate of repetitive motion injuries in our work I believe this is a real necessity. I’m a young interpreter with a family, and working the rest of my life without health insurance is a scary thought. A union would also help create standardized rates has already been mentioned. One of the community colleges I work at is at a pay freeze, while they are building new buildings and satellite campuses. This means that the rate I earn… Read more »

Hi, Daniel.

Thanks for your comments. Re: RID doing more union work, I’ve considered what that may look like. It seems that RID is doing exactly what it can and should do at this season of our organization: focusing on moving the field to higher standards and stronger professionalism. I don’t know if it can handle the work of a union. It’d definitely be an interesting topic for a forum!



Has anyone thought of a petition to stop the RID 2012 initive?
Perhaps a class action suit…
This 2012 seems more regulartory in nature and not a standard practice as it is touted. It seems to be forcasting the educational arena and in essence is to establish new jobs and maintain jobs for the Ph.D folks who want to teach at the University level.


Which initative are you talking about?

Kitty LaFountain

Hi Antonio!
with that smile I agree with whatever you wrote! You are truly a delight and my husband and I still talk about you. When we met at the Philly convention (waiting on a cab) you showed a real concern for us. Your genuine smile, laughter, and interest in folks makes you number ONE in my book.


Hi, Kitty!

Great to hear from you. What a great compliment..and a great memory! (smile)
It was great to meet you and the crew that time. Lots of fun during the wait!


Wanda Newman

Some interpreters working in the public sector have already been organized by labor unions such as the National Education Association, SEIU, AFSCME, and others. As the author indicated, there are pros and cons. Often time, “the needs of the many will outweigh the needs of the few.” Today, organized labor is facing many obstacle as states are weighing right to work legislation. Is it a good time to organize an interpreter’s union?

Wanda, Your bring up a great point: if one has worked for a college or university, often times the interpreter is already included in a union. I have heard, however, that more often than not — like our liability insurance used to be — unions and stewards of unions don’t know how to “deal with interpreters.” We are placed in the same category of nurses. I’ve also heard from at least 2 people, dealing with their college/university union was rather ineffective. That could be more related to that specific steward, location, or a number of variables. I agree, we have… Read more »

We are a part of a Union, but if there were an interpreters Union we would rather belong to that. I appreciated the Union we belong to now but, they have a hard time understanding all the interpreting issues that come up.

Aaron Brace
Thanks for opening up the discussion, Antonio! Wouldn’t it be great if RID could be proactive and devote a part of its website to this kind of free-flowing discussion on important issues? I don’t know much about the history or structure of unions, so my reticence to pursue that route for our profession is based on very limited information. How would we balance the need to defend our ability to earn a living wage with the choices we all face that require setting our financial self-interest aside in order to further the goals of a Deaf individual or our local… Read more »
Hi, Aaron. Great comments! I agree, we have lots of stakeholders involved in our profession. For me, the overall question in our dialogue is about fairness in the labor market and leverage. What leverage do we have in order to ensure our profession maintains a fair standard of pay and protection in the work place. It’s tough for a few interpreters to band together to say we get paid bupkis in this location and it’s time to raise the standard of pay for all. Maybe a union can be of benefit in that regard, a way of creating unity; a… Read more »
Antonio, I’m glad you wrote this article! I too have been wondering the very same thing…would interpreters be well represented in a union? Although my thoughts never went as far as hiring a union representative, I thought it more of a group of professionals who would collectively set rate and work condition standards that are appropriate for their area. I think it would be interesting to explore the idea of RID affiliate chapters taking on that role, advocating for the profession and professionals in this manner. That would add a whole other dimension to taking a board position though! Maybe… Read more »
Hi, Su. I like your comment re: free enterprise. I’m all for free enterprise and watching the market make winners and losers. Yet, somehow in the dynamic of free enterprise, I like having a cog in the wheel sometimes to ensure greater diversity, greater competition, greater creativity; to wrangle the juggernauts of the industry out of an illegal monopoly; and to help the sole private practitioner have a chance. Often times public mass thinking is bound by inertia – which may be in the wrong direction. So, maybe a union will keep the pot stirred up to ensure not just… Read more »

[…] e-group regarding price fixing. A few days after that an interesting post appeared from Street Leverage entitled: Should Sign Language Interpreters Unionize? Here follows a […]

Pamela Kiner
Antonio… I am a 32 year veteran educational interpreter in a consortium-based D/HH program. Obviously, the profession has evolved greatly over the decades and, fortunately, I’ve evolved as well! Five years ago, my colleagues and I unionized. We live in Ohio and the teaching staff we work with are Ohio Federation of Teacher (OFT) members. We organized our own union…the Beachwood Educational Interpreters Union (Local 6358), part of OFT. It has been life-changing! We are small (only ten of us), but we feel mighty! We are just beginning to negotiate our second Master Contract. With our first contract, we were… Read more »
Pamela, What a great story of empowerment. I love the fact that the interpreters in your group recognized the power of unity — the power of one voice. Would that interpreters in general, as a profession, see your story as a source of inspiration. It doesn’t have to be to unionize, but as a recognition of what the power of many becoming one can accomplish within the industry both locally, regionally, and nationally. Also, thanks for sharing in a balanced way, that although the Master Contract is not perfect, you still can celebrate having accomplished such a feat — being… Read more »
I found this an interesting topic but believe the blog was missing an option, what about the unionization of only one or two sectors of the field? What if, say, only legal interpreters unionized. The unionization said group may be able to provide them with some sort of additional legal protection for their work. On the other hand, perhaps only VRS interpreters unionize. In the second circumstance it may give said interpreters the power to push back against the mechanization of the interpreter, ever shrinking pay, and interpreting conditions which are from what is standard in other settings. Having worked… Read more »

I’d consider the Wobblies, especially if the 1st and 3rd of the possible cons are seen as important. That way corporate unionism is avoided, and also the IWW organizing model is focused more on building units of struggle in the workplace as a whole, no matter if you are non-union, a rebel inside a bigger corporate union or a member of a grassroots union like the IWW

When I think union for interpreters, I think yes in 2 different situations. I believe that all educational interpreters should be unionized to avoid abuse. I have experienced it; I admire those who can stick with it! The other environment I see a union is one in which the supply outdoes the demaind in terms of work. I live and work in a part of the country where demand exceeds supply for interpreting. A union protects the interpreter, then ultimately the consumers. There is a new paradigm arising in the interpreting world in the part of the country that I… Read more »
I grew up in a pro-union family. Dad worked in a field where the possibility of death and dismemberment were a real option. The union was necessary primarily for safety reasons. As an interpreter I can’t wrap my mind around the reason for a union. The two main reasons I’m hearing are bad work environment and money. I work in VRS, which seems to get the lion’s share of the workplace complaints, and I don’t see a bad environment. I work there almost 30 hours a week, every week. When I need a break, along with my mandatory breaks, I… Read more »
Antonio, Great article and great comments. I am currently in a Union (After 17 years not in one). While it is one of the Mega Unions, we have Interpreter representation in our Steward who is an Interpreter. While I like the benefits I have, I don’t always believe it is just the Union that brought them about. It is often that the complaints taken up by our Steward are considered “petty” by many but because one person has an issue the Union fights for it. Good? Bad? I am not sure yet. I do want to share that for many… Read more »
I am totally against a union. I have never seen (in the long term) anything good come out of a union. They become in powered then it becomes all about them (the union) and forgets who they are there for. (or supposed to be there for). It all looks nice at first especially if your are thinking about how it can help financially, because many of us are dealing with that; but don’t be deceived, unions are NOT out for YOUR best interest. You have the power, you have the skills and the talent. Interpreters run RID and other organizations.… Read more »
Cory Youngblood
Heya! I’ve often thought about this because frankly, after five years of interpreting full time, I’m burnt out and ready to leave the profession all together. The reason is this: I work at a community college. ROUTINELY professors show films that aren’t captioned and honestly don’t see why it’s a problem for me to convey several voices in a film that are overlapping, much less to do it for two hours without a break. Which brings me to the other issue. I’m physically sore now almost constantly. Believe me, I’m an in shape guy. I’m in my 40’s and people… Read more »
Milena Waldron

WA spoken language interpreters unionized under AFSCME as independent contractors working for the state. Read about our amazing journey at

California court interpreters also unionized. Read about their on going struggles at

Mark K. Riddle

It is time for a union or guild PERIOD.
Antonio, please feel free to contact me. 910 850 2017

American Sign Language Interpreters Guild

American Sign Language Interpreters Union

ASL Interpreters Guild

ASL Interpreters Union

How ever you say it, WE NEED IT!!!

Forward-looking organizations committed to retelling the story of the interpreter.



(New York)