6 Labor Relations Trends Heading into 2022

It’s hard to believe, but 2022 is only a few months away. It seems like we were just recently sharing the 2021 current trends in labor relations. Now 2022 is on the horizon, so it’s time to look ahead at emerging labor relations trends. The years 2020 and 2021 to date are best described as times of radical change and turmoil. A union supporting President, House of Representatives, new NLRB membership, and states legislating union wish lists means employers can expect continued empowerment of unions.  

Couple these factors with the ongoing pandemic, changing workforce demographics, and employees focusing on Corporate Social Responsibility, and it’s safe to say that 2022 will also be called tumultuous. Getting a handle on what we know now about labor relations trends in the coming year, and developing and implementing a strategic employee relations response, can mitigate some of the turmoil and reduce vulnerability to union organizing, so your business stays union-free.  

Following are six labor relations trends you can and should address now.  

Generational Makeup Changes Workplace Dynamics

There are some major labor force changes taking place in 2022. The labor force participation rate is declining, making the labor shortage even more challenging to overcome, and leadership training on positive employee relations to increase employee retention, even more critical than it already is now. 

Note the pandemic has distorted the 2020 statistics, making it difficult to compare year-over-year, so longer-term comparisons are of more value. Using estimates from the American Community Survey (ACS), the national labor force participation rate declined from 64.5 percent in 2010 to 63.6 percent in 2019. 

The Congressional Budget Office projects the labor participation rate will be 62.1 percent by the end of 2021 and remain there for years. One of the reasons for the low rate is the aging population, the increase in the percentage of people aged 65 years old or older. The Census found the 2019 labor force participation rate for the age groups were: 

  • 39.9 percent for ages 16-19 
  • 78.3 percent for ages 20-64 
  • 26.8 percent for ages 65-74 
  • 7.2 percent for ages 75 and older 

The demographic changes remain one of the labor relations trends. As the population ages, so will a larger percent of your retained employees. The youngest baby boomers will turn 58 years old in 2022, and most are likely to continue working at least (minimum) until the age of 62 when social security becomes available. However, the metrics indicate a large cohort of people are continuing to work past the age of 64, meaning you can retain their experience and knowledge.  

A More Age-Diverse Workforce

However, this labor relations trend of working longer means over a quarter of your workforce is aging. This impacts your healthcare costs, Human Resources policies, and labor relations efforts because the needs and expectations of baby boomers are different from those of the younger generations

There’s a lot of focus on millennials, of course, but addressing the aging workforce cohort is just as important. Boomers are planning for retirement, while millennials and Gen Z are planning careers. You have to structure your benefits and training to accommodate widely different needs, i.e., offering customized employee training on retirement planning and on career planning. One-size benefits no longer fit all – one of the labor union organizing themes. 

Take note, too, that studies have found that baby boomers are more pro-union than younger generations. So don’t minimize their needs because they could become internal advocates for unionizing and support millennials interested in unionizing

refresher labor relations training

White-Collar Workers Organize on Corporate Social Responsibility 

Another labor relations trend is that unions are feeling empowered for a lot of reasons discussed in many of our recent Projections blogs - the PRO Act, the Democratic party gaining a House majority, a pro-union National Labor Relations Board, states passing $15 an hour minimum wage laws, push for new employee classification rules that convert contracted workers to employees and more. 

However, employees also expect businesses to take Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) seriously, and when they don’t, employees use unions as platforms for change. Traditionally, unions have focused on economic issues, like wages and conditions. Though these remain important to unions, they are increasingly using technology to organize white-collar workers on social issues like racial justice, climate change, and harassment prevention.  

The tech company Glitch signed a collective bargaining agreement, represented by the Communications Workers of America, that went into effect in February 2021. It doesn’t include wage increases. It increases worker protections that include “just cause” for termination or discipline and recalls rights for laid-off employees. “We wanted to see ourselves as partners with management and codify the things that are important to us as a union,” said Sheridan Kates, a Glitch senior software engineer, and bargaining committee representative.

#Unions are increasingly using technology to organize  workers on social issues like racial justice, #climatechange, and #harassment prevention.  #unionorganizing #unionavoidance

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CSR is about values and their expression, a new arena for union organizing, and a strengthening labor relations trend of importance. New York Times tech workers formed a union in April 2021 consisting of mostly white-collar workers - designers, software engineers, product managers, and data analysts. Senior software engineer Nozlee Samadzadeh said she couldn’t work for a company focused on profit instead of social good. Engineer Shay Culpepper said, “I really like going to work every day and not having to sit and contemplate the ethics of the tech I am building." 

2022 is an election year 

The year 2022 is another election year and is shaping up as a fight for House control and a fight for a wider Republican majority in the Senate. Since it’s the House pushing an agenda that includes things like a national $15 an hour minimum wage and the pro-union PRO Act, your workforce is likely to experience some of the same political division it experienced during the 2020 presidential election year. 

At the same time, state and local governments are pushing their own and often similar agendas because political division at the federal level is preventing the passage of union-supported laws. The Biden administration 2022 fiscal year budget has $2.1 million in it for the NLRB to educate workers about their NLRA rights which is likely to mean an increase in employees protesting working conditions, including online, according to attorneys Barnes & Thornburg. 

These various employee relations trends create a situation ripe for increased engagement in protected concerted activity and union organizing, similar to what happened in 2019. Especially since the federal labor relations trend is to appoint one-time union lawyers to serve on federal labor agencies, like the NLRB and the FLRA. 

Remote Workers, Vaccines, and Other Pandemic-Driven Issues 

As the pandemic drags on into 2022, employers will continue to wrestle with some issues that are pandemic-driven. One of the top challenges is deciding whether to require some or all remote workers to return to onsite work. Depending on the study you read, there are workers adamant about remaining remote for one or more days. It’s a labor relations trend already causing employee-manager conflict. 

Vaccine availability for COVID has not solved the challenge of preventing virus spreading, and employees continue to demand safe working conditions. It’s a dilemma that will not be solved by 2022, so some companies, like the Ford Motor Co., are pushing the return-to-office mandate into 2022 while continuing to explore the hybrid workforce as a long-term setup. Lyft has decided workers won’t return to the headquarters until Feb 2022.  

For the first time, employers must develop adaptive and flexible HR policies based on virus-related conditions and government recommendations, both in a state of constant change. Leaders need to clearly communicate the policies and ensure employees understand they may change. Employers also need to consider to what extent they will adopt flexible work schedules.    

D&I, Equity, and Social Justice Expectations will Strengthen 

Just last April 2021, The New York Times published an article presenting the position that that “America needs a union revival if we’re ever to have any hope of reversing spiraling inequity.” The authors go on to declare that wage stagnation and rising inequality are due to workers losing bargaining power through weak antitrust policies that allow corporations to gain more power.  

One of the elements of turmoil in 2020 was employee, consumer, and community demands that businesses “walk the walk” of D&I, equity, and social justice. That movement will become stronger in 2021 as remote workers return in greater numbers to the workplace, diversity metrics indicate a lack of real effort, and the progress made doesn’t meet goals.

Your employees will expect a significant leadership effort to close gender pay gaps, voluntarily increase minimum wages or increase existing pay rates to recognize inflation, offer workforce training on the unconscious and implicit biases, offer equal opportunities for training and career advancement, and take claims of discrimination and harassment seriously and act on them to maintain a respectful workplace.  

They also expect stronger leadership accountability for bringing change. Though these factors have been in public discourse for several years, change remains slow, and there is great impatience developing among community members, job candidates, and stakeholders. 

Big Companies Seek to Hire More Underrepresented Groups

Google, with its nearly unlimited resources, announced a goal in 2018 to increase workforce diversity to match “market supply” and in 2020 is still pursuing it. Some believe adding the words “market supply” to its HR goal was a means of escaping should the company fail to meet its goals. So, in 2020 the company set a new goal to have 30 percent of its leaders come from underrepresented groups since 96 percent of Google’s U.S. leaders are white or Asian. The company had to change its HR policies.   

For example, “tailgaters” are people who sneak through doors behind another employee to escape the security system. Black employees said the practice is racial profiling, and Google admitted it was “susceptible to bias.”  

The lesson is that every HR policy and associated procedures need auditing through a D&I, equity, belonging, and social justice lens. Using an unbiased perspective is difficult but necessary to fully cleanse policies of discrimination.  

Globalization and Technology  

Technology has enabled employees to work remotely and employers to source labor globally. Technology also continues to fuel employee anxiety over issues like job security. The World Economic Forum surveyed businesses in 15 industry sectors and 26 advanced and emerging countries. Among those surveyed, 43 percent plan on reducing their workforce due to technology; 41 percent will increase the use of contractors for specialized work; and 34 percent will expand their workforce due to technology.  

Approximately 85 million jobs will be displaced, while 97 million new roles could emerge by 2025, a mere four years away. Approximately 40 percent of workers will require reskilling, and 94 percent of leaders expect employees to pick up new skills on the job. Expecting employees to learn new skills on the job while still being held accountable for the same productivity goals is likely to lead to employees who believe they are held to impossible job requirements. It’s a setup for damaging employee engagement 

This was one of the major grievances of the employees who tried to form a union at Amazon in Bessemer, AL. They believed job productivity goals were dehumanizing and impossible to meet. Technology is creating a lot of anxiety in the workforce because of the uncertainty of long-term employment and the new job responsibilities it adds. It’s a factor in the Resignation Nation

trends in labor relations

Preparing Ahead for 2022 Labor Relations Trends

There is a lot that can be done now to prepare for 2022 labor relations trends.  

  • Focus on strengthening positive employee relations (PERs). It’s the one overarching step your business will take to stay union-free. PERs include leadership training on a variety of topics – communication, leading with empathy, HR policies, feedback, organizational union philosophy, identifying signs of union activity, accessing leadership resources, and so much more. 
  • It’s crucial to regularly re-evaluate critical HR best practices to address the continued aging of a large segment of the workforce as one of the employee relations trends – recruiting, onboarding, employee training, diversity and inclusion (including equity and belonging), and retention. To stay union-free, your talent management practices must always be relevant and equitable, inclusive, and engaging for all employees. It’s also critical that your leaders continue to develop high-level skills in communicating and managing, with emotional intelligence, a multi-generational and multi-cultural workforce. 
  • Don’t just focus on economic issues or make assumptions about the employees who are likely to become union members. Employee engagement and voice are important to everyone without regard for pay or position.
  • Listen to all your employee concerns, whether or not they concern economic issues or workplace conditions. In fact, leadership communication training can help your managers and supervisors turn the concerns into opportunities through two-way employee-manager feedback. For example, your employees have an issue with products they believe are produced in an environmentally harmful way, and that leads to innovations, enabling your business to reach new markets. The concern becomes a shared value. 

Positive #employeerelations strategies includes training on leading with #empathy, delivering #feedback, and strong communication, among others. PERs are critical to remaining #unionfree.

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More Labor Relations Trends to Stay Ahead Of

  • Your leaders will make some tough decisions over the next 12 months, like requiring people to report to work onsite when they want to work remotely, managing changing threats to workplace safety, layoffs due to supply chain shortages, being unable to increase wages for financial reasons and so on. Developing positive employee relations now will help you stay union-free because it depends on leaders who can communicate clearly and know the best way to keep employees in the decision-making loop. 
  • The 2021 Littler Employer Survey points out that employers must address employee well-being while employees are experiencing “crisis fatigue.” Make employee mental health and well-being a priority for leadership focus during these ongoing crisis times.   
  • You know that a major need of employees is reskilling and upskilling due to technology. Offering the training is crucial, and equally important is effective leadership communication. Uncertainty breeds discontent, and that leads to unionization. If one-third to half of your workforce is worried about being pushed out of their jobs, there’s no doubt productivity will decline, and unhappiness will flourish. It’s a perfect employee motivation to talk to a union representative.  
  • Ensure your HR professionals are well-trained in all various areas of the employee relations trends and labor unions—the need to develop a proactive labor relations strategy for an intensifying pro-union environment. Unions are adapting to technology for recruiting potential members and are lobbying at federal and state levels for the requirements in the PRO Act. HR professionals must gain greater knowledge of labor relations to understand how to help managers and supervisors minimize the risk of unionization and deal with a union organizing campaign should they materialize.  

Be Proactive, Not Reactive in your Labor Relations Strategy

The year 2022 may still be four months away, but now is the time to strategically address the labor relations trends, establish shared goals and hold your leaders accountable to stay union-free. Our team of experts is always ready to provide critical leadership training resources, professional expertise, and employee-focused resources. We believe it is essential to provide your frontline supervisors with training resources that are critical for strengthening leadership skills in employee relations. 

We'd be happy to discuss what will specifically benefit your workplace. You can chat with our team of experts, here. Additionally, you can get access to the most effective online labor relations training for your leaders to stay proactive and remain union-free.

About the Author Jennifer Orechwa

In over 25 years of helping companies connect with their employees, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of engagement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.

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