10 Labor Relations Trends in 2023 to Watch For

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The year 2023 is shaping up to be another year of continuous disruption, aggressive labor union activity, and employee activism. It all adds up to a need for employers to reassess everything from Human Resources policies to employee engagement within the context of the labor relations trends. The trends include a new Congress beginning in January 2023, a continued pro-union push at the federal and many state levels, changing workforce demographics, increasing independent union organizing, and new labor union leadership, to name a few.  

As we do each year, IRI Consultants is sharing what its experts anticipate as the top 10 labor relations trends in 2023 to watch for that will guide the focus and efforts of employers to prevent union organizing in their respective companies. Some changes will happen quickly, like the changeover in Congress, and some will continue to unfold throughout the year.  

Top 10 Trends 

1. Increased focus on preparedness for more aggressive unionization efforts  

The federal fiscal year runs from October 1, 2021, to September 30, 2022. A few statistics demonstrate that more aggressive unionizing efforts are a trend. 

2,510 union representation petitions were filed with National Labor Relations Board's 48 Field Offices. This is a 53% increase from the 1,638 petitions filed in FY2021 with the NLRB and the highest number of union representation petitions filed since FY2016.  

  • 457 petitions were withdrawn, indicating that filing a union representation petition doesn't necessarily mean a union election will take place. 
  • 1,363 elections were held, and 1,041 were won by the union, a 76 percent win rate. 

Currently, if a union organizing campaign makes it to the election stage, there is a more than 75 percent chance your employees will vote to unionize.  

Labor resurgence at union and non-union companies 

The labor union aggressiveness is not only found in union petition filing. As Todd Vachon in Barron's explains, companies that are already unionized or facing unionization are finding the labor unions are:  

…demanding larger wage increases, better scheduling practices, stronger safety measures, the end of two-tier benefits and pay schemes, and more. In negotiations with John Deere, Kellogg's, and others, rank-and-file members have even voted down generally lucrative agreements, sending leaders back to the table to demand more. Those decisions won 10% pay increases and $8,500 ratification bonuses at John Deere and cost-of-living adjustments at Kellogg's.  

But contract campaigns and strikes are only part of the story. The labor resurgence is happening on a second front as well, among nonunionized workers in industries and occupations that have historically lacked measurable union representation due to high rates of turnover and part-time and temporary employees. Workers at Amazon, Starbucks, Chipotle, Apple, Trader Joe's, and in over 600 other workplaces have voted to form unions during the first six months of this year—up 80% percent from the same period last year.  

Change in labor union leadership 

The labor unions are experiencing a change in leadership. Sean O'Brien was sworn in as the General President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in 2022. He is focused on implementing strategies to unionize the transportation, warehousing, and shipping industries.  

On January 4, 2023, Lonnie Stephenson, President of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), is retiring and being replaced by the IBEW's current secretary-treasurer, Kenneth Cooper. Stephenson has played an active role in the IBEW's strategies already. He "built a historically close relationship with President Biden" and lobbied for the major pieces of legislation that passed and supported union job creation. 

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is considered the most controversial and politically involved labor union. It's closely tied to the Democratic party and donates to progressive liberal organizations. SEIU leadership has for years supported aggressive union organizing campaigns and campaigns like Fight for $15 and a Union

A defining change in labor unions that will accelerate in 2023 is that they support a Democratic union reformist movement and are finding success in local unions and small bargaining units and becoming more activist on online forums.  

What this means for employers 

Traditional union leadership will feel pressure from its own members to deliver upon the promises of the 2022 organizing activity. Represented employees may find new and emerging union leaders less willing to support the employer's values and business objectives. Employees will be encouraged to conduct short-term protests, walkouts, or strikes

2. Legislation will shape strategy 

Mike Lake, Managing Director at IRI Consultants, shared an in-depth analysis of the impact of the midterm election results on employers in the blog 2022 Midterm Elections: Lessons for the Workplace. He writes: 

When the 118th Congress comes to DC in January 2023, we will almost certainly see numerous investigations and aggressive scrutiny of the Biden administration's legislative and regulatory policy. House committees now chaired by Republicans will no doubt use their new power to scrutinize, modify, or change policies and directives such as National Labor Relations Board's (NLRB) guidance on secret ballot elections and issues surrounding free-speech meetings held by an employer. And, with a divided Congress gridlocked on the legislative front to be expected, and legislative victories on issues such as the PRO Act are dead, there will be no doubt the Biden Administration will turn their attention to advancing policy issues through the various federal cabinet agencies and looking to the states, at least the blue states, to move their priorities forward. 

In an interesting twist, President Biden (called 'Union Joe' by labor unions) called for congressional intervention in the rail workers' union contract negotiations because a strike would have brought the supply chain to a near halt again. He signed a bill on December 2, 2022, that makes a rail strike illegal and doesn't support the union workers' demands for seven more paid sick leave days. Four of the 12 rail unions rejected any proposal that didn't include the additional paid sick leave days.  

The new contract may not have the sick leave, but it does contain 24 percent in increases from 2020-2024, $5,000 in retroactive bonuses to 2020, one additional day of paid leave, and a 15 percent cap on the cost of insurance.  

Imposing a labor agreement is not a normal action and was unusual for a pro-union President who has previously argued that government intervention interferes with union bargaining rights. The labor unions, especially the four labor unions willing to strike, felt betrayed and called the bill anti-American. Tony Cardwell, national division president of the rail union Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said the failure to include sick leave "leaves me baffled, exasperated, and deeply saddened." The Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen issued a statement that said, "Almost every elected member of Congress campaigns on being 'for the working class," but "the actions of many today demonstrated they are for the corporate class." 

The Department of Labor is also pro-union and is implementing pro-union recommendations made by the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment. The federal agency has already developed the Worker Organizing Resource and Knowledge Center (WORK) website to help workers form unions.  

What this means for employers 

There are several implications for employers. 

  • The Biden administration has effectively said he will make it up to the labor unions for signing the bill to prove he is still pro-union and to help the unions maintain momentum. 
  • The NLRB will continue to change decades of labor law through Board decisions led by the pro-labor General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo. 
  • The actions of the 2023 Congress will be unpredictable with a Democrat-controlled Senate and a Republican-controlled House, but President Biden will support unions either by signing pro-union laws or issuing Executive Actions; you can expect much turmoil.  

Between now and January 3, 2023, when the new Congress begins, there will be a stalemate and a holiday interruption. Your organization will be well-served to use this time of stalemate in DC post-2022 midterm elections to strengthen engagement with employees, elected officials, and supporters. 

starbucks union campaign

3. Employers will emphasize preventive work over union campaign management  

The Starbucks Effect refers to, among other things, how Starbucks employees changed the perspective of many employers on preventing unionization. The best way to keep unions out is to make them unnecessary. Starbucks employees are unionizing store-by-store as Starbucks Workers United because they don't believe: 

  • They are true partners despite the company calling them "partners." 
  • Safety is a priority 
  • The workload is reasonable 
  • The company cares for its employees 
  • They have an employee voice that matters 

Starbucks employees inspired Amazon workers at some facilities to try unionizing, showed low-wage retail and higher-paid tech workers how they can gain a collective employee voice, and sent a message to employers that things like good wages and health benefits are not enough. Starbucks employees are averaging $17 per hour, and anyone working more than 20 hours can get healthcare coverage plus full tuition at Arizona State University. Starbucks is an employer of choice, yet, it's not enough.  

One of the most important lessons for employers is that all employees, including those in frontline jobs like baristas, fast food workers, and hospital aides, want to feel respected, valued, and heard. If they don't feel those things, they will listen to the union narrative and take action somehow.  

Avoiding unionization once a union campaign starts requires a significant management effort to communicate with employees. Leadership reacts to the situation. What if a fraction of that effort was put into preventing unionization rather than reacting to a union organizing campaign? Not only is unionization avoided, but you also develop positive personal relations that benefit your workforce and the bottom line. It's always better to prevent a problem than to solve it, and it's always better to act proactively.   

What this means for employers 

Employers realize they must adopt a preventive perspective rather than waiting for employees to form an independent union or join a traditional labor union. They need to make a union unnecessary, but they must do more than increase pay. IRI Consultants are seeing companies proactively: 

positive employee relations

Develop new strategies to develop positive employee relations 

Listening to employees and responding swiftly to the concerns that need addressing is crucial to successfully engaging employees today. The younger generations, in particular, are unwilling to be told things that aren't supported by employer actions.  

4. Renewed attention will be placed on digital engagement  

Changing workforce demographics have a profound influence on employee engagement and employee-management communication. Mike Lake at IRI Consultants explains: 

The changing workplace demographic to nearly 50% now being millennials and Gen Z will require an adjustment to how organizations are communicating with their workforce. While all channels are still important, adjusting engagement to ensure organization messaging is getting through to key stakeholders will require an adjustment of focus. These employees get almost all their information on a device. Integrating a consistent digital/social strategy is going to be critical. Also, they still trust their frontline leaders, so ensuring they are engaged, trained, and supported with appropriate tools will improve engagement and support efforts to demonstrate organizational commitment to well-being. 

Also significantly impacting organizational communication is the remote or hybrid workforce model. With effective digital engagement, you avoid excluding workforce segments from accessing information and other types of communication. 

The best employers will create a workplace where the organizational values are communicated often, widely, and in alignment with the business mission. The role of employee communications will be elevated as a business strategy and strength for those companies in competitive marketplaces. The emphasis on digital communication will become a necessity as the workforce of today becomes increasingly populated with digital nativists. 

Digital engagement is more than websites. It includes texting, apps, internal podcasts, social media, emails, and other digital tools. Digital engagement was addressed in the blog Digital Employee Engagement Beyond Your Campaign-Ready Website.  

What this means for employers 

As the mix of generations in the workforce changes, you may feel challenged about the best strategy for establishing a digital engagement process that meets the needs of all your employees. There is guidance in the IRI Consultants blog, What Does the Revolution of Digital Employee Engagement Mean in 2023? Keep in mind the following suggestions. 

  • Don't ignore the communication needs of older employees like baby boomers, many of whom are now digitally smart, but some may still prefer older communication methods like emails and phone calls. 
  • Coordinate the digital tools you choose, and don't simply add one tool on top of another. 
  • Include union campaign readiness planning in the digital engagement planning process. 
  • Consider the use of internal and external digital tools. 
  • Review the 2023 employee communication trends to stay ahead of employee needs and maximize the benefits of digital communication for employee engagement. 
  • Collect and analyze data to identify trends, unmet employee needs, patterns of internal collaboration, etc. 
The Art of Labor Relations CTA

5. Employers will realize they need to provide continuing education for HR, Labor Professionals, and Employees 

Active online communities are going to be an asset in 2023. Communities like the IRI Lab A Labor Relations Forum enable Human Resources and labor relations professionals to share their experiences, knowledge, and expertise. Even better, the professionals represent different industries. This is an excellent way to avoid getting locked into a single perspective and to identify new strategies, give each other a heads up on union organizing tactics, provide context, and share insights that only comes from real-world experiences.  

Post-pandemic organizations are also back to holding in-person events. As important as digital connecting is in today's business environment, in-person events remain essential. They provide direct interactions and can build rapport. In-person events enable socialization or community.  

In  What Leadership Development Should Look Like in the Hybrid Era, the authors propose a leadership development framework that emphasizes three actions. 

  • Sensemaking – how the business environment and organization work around the leader and how others relate to the leader 
  • Experimenting – testing ideas gathered from personal experience, colleagues, and classroom sessions 
  • Self-discovery – understanding personal identity in the workplace 

The focus is on the pathways between the three components of leadership development. Forums, collaborative eLearning, and in-person events offer the ability to use the pathways between the learning theory elements that say leadership learning happens through on-the-job learning (70 percent), feedback (20 percent), and formal training (10 percent). The authors give the example of learning a job through trial and error, but that learning is greatly enhanced when the leader reflects on what was learned with a colleague, linking on-the-job learning to feedback

Right now, there is so much for professionals to learn from one another! 2023 will be a year where HR and labor relations teams rethink everything. The best way to do that is to share information and strategies. 

Employees need continuing training also. One of the needs many employees express during union organizing campaigns is a need for more training on everything from benefits programs to job skills, especially upskilling to adapt to technology-driven changes.  

What this means for employers 

Now, more than ever, corporations will emphasize the development of their leaders, managers, and employees. As the economy shifts towards greater employment instability, workers will seek organizations willing to invest and train their leaders and employees. While investments in managerial training have always been significant, employees at all levels of the workforce will prompt the need for training leadership in the coming year. Employers will increasingly recognize the influence of their frontline supervisors. 

Worker training will also address the need for proactive approaches to preventing unionization. Lack of training is often one of the gaps employees express as a need during union organizing.   

6. Updating campaign readiness to include a robust labor campaign framework that allows flexibility based on real-time intelligence vs. a fixed "campaign-in-a-box" will be a necessity 

Having a campaign-ready website and union organizing strategy is a sound practice. However, given the continuous disruption, aggressive and changing union strategies and tactics, and a pro-union NLRB and administration, it's more important to have access to real-time intelligence that can be used to adapt the union organizing campaign to fit the particular union and its current strategies. For example, labor unions use social media and digital communications to organize employees. They continue to use union salting and virtual union organizing.  

There are also independent unions, like Starbucks Workers United and Trader's Joe United, formed by employees. The internal unions file formal petitions with the NLRB, or employees simply decide to have a collective voice for addressing concerns through an independent union process. Employee-led organizing is on the rise.  

What this means for employers 

A fixed campaign-in-a-box doesn't ensure your organization is ready to address the reality of the union organizing campaign. Some organizations create a rapid response team to address union organizing quickly, but that is not always the right approach for some companies. A better approach is to work with labor relations consultants to develop a labor campaign framework that is quickly adaptable to the union organizing effort.  

7. Employers will revise their positive employee relations strategy and training to account for internal organizing vs. only focusing on external unions  

The positive employee relations strategy is designed to develop good communication between employees and management, increase inclusiveness and belonging, motivate employees, and strengthen employee engagement. It is also a key strategy for preventing a union organizing campaign. But focusing only on the threats posed by external unions leaves your organization vulnerable to internal organizing. Your employees may have particular needs that traditional unions are not focused on because of unique working conditions in your organization. If you aren't addressing those needs and improving the employee experience, your employees could pursue internal organizing while your leaders are distracted by looking externally.  

What this means for employers 

Regularly conducting a union vulnerability assessment is always wise, but you also need to do regular employee engagement surveys to determine employee needs, attitudes, and areas of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. Your positive employee relations strategy needs to meet employee needs in your particular workplace setting. The external unions may be pushing for higher pay or more benefits, for example, when your employees are satisfied with both.  

An excellent example of how tricky it is to work with employees within the same company is to consider Trader Joe's experience. Workers at a Trader's Joe store in Minneapolis voted to unionize as Trader Joe's Independent Union in August 2022, the second store. One of the employee grievances was that the store is located in an area with a high rate of drug dependency and mental health challenges, and the store did not have protocols to handle emergencies.  

In October 2022, a Trader Joe's in Brooklyn voted against joining Trader Joe's Independent Union. Nakia Rhode, a company spokeswoman, said, "We are grateful that our crew members trust us to continue to do the work of listening and responding to their needs, as we always have." 

Adapt your employee relations strategy and leadership training for potential internal organizing at all your locations.  

media training for executives

8. Conducting media training for key leaders as organizing drives gain increasing coverage on social and traditional media becomes a key strategy 

Mike Lake explains in Media Training: What it Is and Why Your Executives Need It, "Media training is not about what color shirt or blouse to wear or how much make-up is necessary to prevent glare on the TV. Media training is specialized training that develops leadership skills for communicating and interacting with the media. Effective media training gives participants the tools and skills to deliver an organization's key messages to its stakeholders through traditional and non-traditional media." 

What this means for employers  

Your executives and manager can get inundated with media requests during a union organizing drive, so your organization must have a unified message that adheres to labor laws. Labor unions are always looking for an opportunity to file an Unfair Labor Practice charge, and it's easy to get rattled and respond inappropriately or post the wrong thing on social media. On the other hand, what your key leaders say to the media is an excellent means of getting the organization's story out to the public. All communication channels need monitoring, too, including traditional news sources like television and union press releases and online sources like social media and union websites.  

9. Organized employees are more disillusioned with the collective bargaining process

There is no lemon law for worker representation, and workers increasingly find dissatisfaction with laboratory conditions, unfulfilled expectations, and growing impatience with the collective bargaining process as regulated by the National Labor Relations Act. Union organizing campaigns are very emotional events. Employees get excited as they join together to 'take on management' only to discover after unionizing that: 

  • It can take more than a year to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement
  • They may not get what was expected. 
  • The payment of union dues is like a pay cut. 
  • They don't know where their union dues will be spent. 
  • The labor union is now the intermediary and has control over discussions with management concerning issues like pay and seniority. 
  • Management retains financial control, which can lead to facility closings, negotiations that lead to less-than-expected pay and benefits changes, etc.  

Bloomberg Law recently found that the time it takes to negotiate the first contract with a union has increased to 465 days. Approximately 47 percent sign a contract the first year and 39 percent the second year. The collective bargaining agreement can set off a whole new set of difficulties.  

For example, nearly a year after the Buffalo Starbucks workers voted to unionize, no contract was signed as of November 1, 2022. A negotiating meeting broke down over the use of technology too. Starbucks Workers United broadcast the bargaining meetings on Zoom without getting the mutual agreement. Starbucks management ended the session and filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the NLRB.  

What this means to employers 

Newly represented workers become dissatisfied with the realities of collective bargaining, creating new issues. To avoid sticker shock, employers should utilize a website to educate their employees on the realities of collective bargaining.  

10. A potential decrease in the valuation growth of companies will prompt an emphasis on cash flow management 

When cash flow becomes an issue, it's easy to let employee engagement efforts slip. People are stressed, there's no cash for employee-focused initiatives, layoffs and terminations become possibilities, and uncertainty pervades the workplace. A severe cash flow problem is a crisis calling for crisis management.  

What this means for employers 

According to Mark Codd at IRI, "In addition to reductions in force, employees will experience the possibility of smaller capital investment in equipment and facilities, decreased preventative maintenance, and less investment in labor availability through decreased hiring, training, and other workplace investments. The resulting lack of worker support will likely impact overall satisfaction in the workplace." 

With slower economic growth, employers will need to focus on internal nonmonetary cultural investments to maintain employee engagement. They include flexible working arrangements, giving employees opportunities to show appreciation for coworkers, adding a day of annual leave, offering eLearning training opportunities, and developing wellness events.  

It's also important to remember to communicate the issue to employees. Transparency is crucial to today's workers. Suppose you have successfully enabled an authentic employee voice by rethinking employee engagement in light of the 2023 trends and changing workforce demographics. In that case, your workers can help your leaders develop strategies for balancing workloads, maintaining safety standards, and overcoming other issues resulting from economic problems.  

2023 Will Be a Dynamic Year 

The 10 labor relations trends discussed don't mention the possibility of a recession in 2023. Labor unions recognize that a recession could slow their momentum as employees worry about layoffs and company downsizing. There are so many trends happening at once that it's almost overwhelming. Like 2022, you can expect a high level of union organizing activity in 2023. The AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer, Elizabeth Shuler, said there is a goal of organizing one million new workers over the next ten years. "This is the moment because we have so much momentum," We have the most pro-union administration in history, and we have working people standing up and taking risks." The labor unions realize there is a good chance the momentum will slow at some point, so they will push hard in 2023 to increase their membership.  

As 2023 approaches, remain vigilant and strive to develop the strongest employee engagement possible. IRI Consultants can help! Contact us, and let us help your organization ensure it has done everything possible to anticipate the impact of the 2023 trends and developed a proactive strategy to create an organization where unions are not necessary. 

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