Bridging social dominance theory and labour studies, this field study investigated the mechanisms underpinning the relationship between rejection of group-based domination and participation in union activities. Respondents (N = 135) were members of a public sector union in California, that is, a hierarchy-attenuating institution. Results revealed that union identification mediated the negative relationship between social dominance orientation and active union participation. Moreover, the mediational effect of union identification was moderated by perceived union instrumentality (i.e. outcome- and process-based benefits afforded by the union), indicating that the relationship between union identification and participation was stronger among those union members who consider that the union affects workplace justice. The findings reveal the importance of both identity-based and instrumental motivations underlying union participation. The novelty of applying social dominance theory to union behaviour is underscored. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.