The Future of Labor Unions

What is the future of labor unions? That's the million-dollar question because unions are having their day now, but there are also signs unions are losing some momentum. Are labor unions increasing or decreasing? The pandemic events, the pro-union Biden administration and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) changing workforce demographics, and the rise of worker-led internal unions generated more interest in organizing, so it's natural to now wonder if the future holds more or less unionization. The following is a review of the state of labor unionizing and its future in a changing country.

What Are the Trends in Unionization?

Until the last few years, union organizing was fairly predictable. There were steps to unionization that triggered an employer response. An employee contacts a union representative who trains the person on recruiting other employees interested in unionizing; a petition is filed with the NRLB; both sides conduct an organizing campaign, and an election is held.

Though this organizing model is still common among traditional labor unions, new organizing models and strategies have emerged that are changing how employers strive to prevent union organizing and respond to union organizing campaigns. Following are some trends that may define the future of labor unions. 

  • Grassroots organizing – Grassroots organizing is increasing. The Starbucks and Amazon union drives at local stores and distribution centers are grassroots labor activism. This has prompted labor unions to adopt a strategy focusing more on local unionizing. 
  • Focus on job upskilling and redesign – Labor unions are focusing on emerging issues like worker displacement due to technology. Technology is one of the biggest threats to future union growth because technology can make many of the jobs obsolete that are traditionally union. The labor union agenda includes job upskilling and redesign through employer training programs and labor union apprenticeship programs that "feed" union employees to employers.
  • Influence of international organizing efforts – The world is connected now through the internet. International union organizing inspires unionizing in the U.S. For example, on Black Friday in 2022, Amazon workers in 32 countries demonstrated against Amazon. U.S. Amazon workers protested outside various Amazon locations.
  • Strong NLRB support for unionizing – Though the NLRB is supposed to be neutral in assessing organizing petitions and establishing policies, the reality is just the opposite. General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo is aggressively moving ahead with a pro-union agenda that will make it much easier for employees to organize. This has made the NLRB a union advocate encouraging Unfair Labor Practice (ULPs) charges and union organizing.
  • Increased online organizing – Labor unions and employees are going online to organize via social media and are using mobile technology. Unions are using private Facebook groups, websites, Twitter, and YouTube. There is a growing number of mobile apps that are organizing platforms. For example, Mittee is an organizing platform for employees trying to organize and for union membership management. Employees and unions also use apps like Signal and Discord to organize, but these apps are not dedicated to union organizing.
  • Increasing unionization recruiting of non-traditional union employees – Unions are focusing on all industries now and on employees who haven't traditionally organized. The unions are organizing white-collar workers and gig workers in industries like gaming, entertainment, hospitality, academia, and others. This trend will continue as the labor unions strive to increase membership as the number of manufacturing jobs declines and younger employees avoid production and manual labor jobs. White-collar workers have the same needs as traditional union workers, like safe working conditions, equitable compensation, and job security.

Are Labor Unions Increasing or Decreasing?

The long-term trend to date is a decrease in the number of workers who belong to a union. Following are some statistics furnished by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

  • The downward trend in union membership is expected to continue despite periodic upticks; since 1983, the union membership rate has declined from 20.3 percent to 10.3 percent as of 2021.
  • Unionization rates declined from 10.8 percent in 2020 to 10.3 percent in 2021.
  • For 2021, 6.1 percent of employees in the private sector were union members, reflecting a continued downward trend; in 2011, the membership rate was 6.9 percent.
  • In 10 years, the total (public and private) union membership rate has declined from 11.8 percent to 10.3 percent. 

There are many more statistics confirming the trend. One issue with the statistics is that the two-year pandemic forced workforce changes that would not have occurred otherwise. For example, the number of union elections slowed down. Per the NLRB case activity reports, in 2020, there were 1,022 union elections, and in 2021, there were 954. A significant uptick occurred in 2022 with 1,522 elections, but how many would have taken place in 2020-2021 if not for the pandemic? Also, note that the number of employee-filed decertification petitions increased from 118 in 2020 and 143 in 2021 to 159 in 2022.

Analysts think the downward trend in union membership numbers will continue or, at a minimum, membership numbers will remain low. Ben Wigert, director of research and strategy, workplace management at Gallup, points out that the continued high interest in unionization is in the production and frontline positions, and labor unions are already present in many of these workplaces. This means that trying to project union membership in the future will need to assess potential continued interest in union membership beyond traditional union jobs. 

In August 2022, Gallup released the annual Work and Education Survey, which shows 71 percent of public approval of labor unions. Read further, and you learn that only 16 percent of those surveyed live in a house with a union member. The report says:

The low unemployment rate that developed during the pandemic altered the balance of power between employers and employees, creating an environment fostering union membership that has resulted in the formation of unions at several high-profile companies. It is a challenging environment for employers -- and many are pushing back against unionization efforts despite unions' improved public image. While most non-union workers are uninterested in joining a union, an increase in unionization efforts is still taking place, and employers of these unionized workers will need to find ways to improve their engagement.

These numbers show that taking statistics at face value can be deceptive. The numbers may indicate a flattening trend in membership numbers. Still, they don't reflect how employees are unionizing and the changes in unionization strategies that are increasing the number of workplaces becoming unionized.

A good example is Starbucks. More than 257 Starbucks stores voted to unionize during the past year, and another 57 have filed petitions with the NLRB. Each store has a small number of employees, so they don't change membership numbers significantly. The Starbucks workers also organized a multi-store strike in 25 states on November 17, 2022, which was the annual Red Cup Day. The stores give away reusable limited-edition red cups to customers to support environmental sustainability and attract new customers. The strike was carefully planned to hurt business which is a typical union tactic – do maximum harm to revenues to get management's attention.

starbucks labor unions

Are Labor Unions On the Rise?

Given the past year's performance, are labor unions on the rise in the future? This is a tricky question because four significant factors point to the future of traditional labor unions being one of growth but not only in the conventional way.

First is the pro-union NLRB. GC Abruzzo is doing everything she can to increase union membership. Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges are giving her and the NLRB opportunities to change labor laws that have served as precedents for decades. In addition, Abruzzo is also targeting some tactics employers use to prevent union organizing. One is the employer's "mandatory meetings" that give management the right to explain the company's perspective on labor unions. The more employers are prevented from responding to union organizing, the more likely labor unions will win.

Second, internal unionizing creates questions about the future of labor unions. Some worker-led unions are independent unions, and some affiliate with the major labor unions. Affiliation doesn't necessarily mean the employees pay the labor unions dues. It means the major labor unions like the AFL-CIO and Teamsters share their organizing expertise. Of course, they hope the internal unions eventually become dues-paying members and grow their membership.

Third, as discussed in Labor Relations Trends to Look For in 2023, new labor leaders will manage the largest labor unions in 2023, and they intend to put forth aggressive unionizing efforts. They include the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The new union leaders have made it abundantly clear that they intend to leverage the current pro-union environment.

Sean O'Brien, the new General President of the Teamsters, said, "Under this administration, we will be a bigger, faster, stronger union. By uniting Teamsters across the country, we will be a force to be reckoned with when it comes to organizing workers, negotiating strong contracts, and fighting back against those who seek to take away our hard-won rights," In July 2023, the Teamsters will begin negotiating a new 5-year collective bargaining agreement for 350,000 members at United Parcel Service 

Kenneth Cooper, the incoming new President of the IBEW beginning January 2023, said, "We are a bigger, stronger, and more diverse union than we were seven years ago. I am committed to building on that legacy as we work to fulfill our fundamental mission: 'to organize every worker in the electrical industry.'"

New executive positions were filled at the SEIU, reflecting changing population dynamics as next-generation young leaders assume leadership positions. April Verrett was appointed Secretary-Treasurer, and Joseph Bryant became Executive Vice President. SEIU's President said this about the appointments, "We've reached a moment of great reckoning in our country, where our communities are under constant attack from white supremacist violence, jobs that don't pay us enough to live, healthcare we can't access and can't afford, underfunded schools, and unaffordable housing., April and Joseph's rich life and professional experiences provide them with the foundation to be the next generation of leaders that help SEIU meet this moment and ensure we rewrite the rules that have been rigged against workers and people of color while billionaires and giant corporations do whatever they want." 

Saying it doesn't mean it will happen, of course. But what you can take away from the changes in labor union leadership is renewed unionizing efforts, increased political advocacy, and social justice agendas. The labor unions want to leverage the moment of a pro-union government, worker dissatisfaction, and economic turmoil. One of the questions is whether there will be a recession in 2023. If there is, employees will be terminated, reducing union membership. 

Fourth, new unionizing models are developing, adding an important caveat to the statistics. Employees are organizing in different ways to develop a collective voice. They may not formally join a labor union or even form a recognized worker-led union, but they can pressure employers to change in other ways. For example, creating an online website or social media account where employees can publicly discuss working conditions or having employees sign a petition for workplace and employment changes that are delivered directly to the CEO or Board of Directors and posted online. The impact of this virtual organizing strategy can be very effective.

Non-union employees are walking off the job for hours or days. They can do work slowdown campaigns, push for product boycotts, and publicly trash a company's reputation through traditional media or social media. Of course, you need to use social media during union organizing to ensure the facts are communicated. 

The Art of Labor Relations CTA

Are Labor Unions Still Effective Today?

Traditional and independent labor unions have successes in this period of employee empowerment. Some of the successes were especially important because they are in workplaces that have not been unionized in the past, and some of the employees are not traditional union members, like the production and frontline positions mentioned earlier. There were union victories at an Apple store in Maryland, a Trader's Joe's store in Massachusetts, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, the Mount Sinai School of Medicine (postdoctoral researchers), the University of Washington (researchers), Vigor Swan Island Shipyard (painters), Paumanok and Palmer Vineyards (farm workers), and many others.

Labor unions negotiated pay increases, compensation schedules, merit and bonus pay, seniority rules, health insurance cost-sharing, family medical coverage, layoff rules, pay equity for part-time employees, and safety policies. Some collective bargaining agreements negotiated the right of union representatives to participate in management decision-making.

Once a workplace has a collective bargaining agreement, and it expires, the NLRB says, "The parties' obligations do not end when the contract expires. They must bargain in good faith for a successor contract, or for the termination of the agreement, while the terms of the expired contract continue. A party wishing to end the contract must notify the other party in writing 60 days before the expiration date or 60 days before the proposed termination. The party must offer to meet and confer with the other party and notify the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service of the existence of a dispute if no agreement has been reached by that time."

There is a reason some employees choose to vote for a union decertification option or decide to terminate the agreement at the end of a contract. A common explanation is that the union collects dues and doesn't provide the representation promised. Another explanation is that their employer has strengthened employee engagement. Many things that drove employees to unions are no longer issues, like employee voice, pay raises, family leave coverage, etc. In other words, the employer took the proper steps to create positive employee relations, making the labor union unnecessary.

Labor unions are not as effective today, evidenced by the lack of growth in the percentage of unionized workers. This means you have an opportunity to prevent unionization because, frankly, why would employees pay union dues for something they can get without a union? The issues likely to attract new members are social responsibility, economic inequality, the inclusion of people of color, technology, and job skills upgrading and reskilling. 

Do Labor Unions Have a Future?

Labor unions do have a future but with certain conditions present. Labor unions were first recognized in the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and still represent over 14 million workers. Add to this number the members of independent worker unions not associated with traditional labor unions.

The pro-union Biden administration will continue to push labor unions through executive orders if unable to change employment laws through Congress. The NLRB is the most active pro-union voice of the administration. For example, GC Abruzzo issued a notice to rescind a 2020 rule called the "blocking charge" procedure. The rule allowed decertification elections to be conducted even if Unfair Labor Practice charges were filed. Filing ULPs is a common union practice used to try and block a decertification election. 

Rescinding the 2020 rule means the decertification election can't move forward as long as ULPs are unresolved. Clearly, the union will file numerous ULPs to prevent the decertification election. According to attorneys Foley & Lardner, "It will be much harder to remove a union that has lost the workforce's support. What does it mean for employers? Employers must remain diligent not to commit an unfair labor practice, as doing so will make it virtually impossible for a union decertification petition (even if supported by most of the workforce) to succeed." 

The rule change also eliminates the notice-and-election procedure initiated when an employer voluntarily recognizes a union based on the majority support of employees. The change would prevent challenges to the newly recognized union until a reasonable period for collective bargaining has passed. The NLRB writes that the rule change "better serves the policies of the National Labor Relations Act by vindicating employee free choice, encouraging collective bargaining, and preserving labor relations stability."

You can expect these kinds of NLRB decisions for the next few years, which are focused on making labor unions effective in the future. For example, Abruzzo wants to reinstate the Joy Silk doctrine, which would force employers to recognize a union when presented with union authorization cards signed by a majority of employees unless the employer can show good faith doubt that a majority exists. The net effect would be to tie employer hands to question the cards and union tactics. Employees would not get the opportunity to change their minds and vote against the union at an election.

IRI consultants believe the reinstatement of the Joy Silk doctrine would drastically impact unionization efforts in the future because unions could avoid elections in most cases when union authorization cards are presented.

The pro-union push by the Biden administration and the NLRB will help labor unions remain relevant, but their long-term future has many uncertainties at play. For example, many production workers are baby boomers retiring in large numbers each day. Also, unless labor law is changed, winning a union election doesn't mean the employer and employees will sign a union contract, leaving the union in limbo if an impasse is reached. A contract is never signed in approximately 30 percent of elections in which the union won. Harvard labor economist Lawrence Katz was asked about the future of unions. He said,

We're going to see whether there is a new wave of union representation elections and more union successes in elections and at getting contracts negotiated and signed, whether at more Starbucks or Amazon locations or more broadly. The degree of visible worker activism, NLRB representation election activity, and union election victories will be important indicators. But the other important thing is whether the unions at newly organized workplaces are successful at quickly getting contracts. Two other crucial issues will play an important role. The first is whether the current tight labor market persists or whether attempts to deal with high inflation or international shocks will send the U.S. economy into another recession.

The other is whether public opinion is going to turn less favorable to unions and worker activism, as we have seen in the past. In the past, attempts to blame high inflation, strikes, and slow productivity growth at least partially on unions and worker activism, in the U.S. with Ronald Reagan or in Britain with Margaret Thatcher, have been part of the political playbook. Has there been a real, lasting change in public opinion and worker attitudes about the need for a stronger worker voice with the pandemic, or is this a tight labor market situation that will disappear as the labor market weakens? 

Predicting the future of labor unions is not easy, but labor unions are likely to be active over the next 2-6 while President Biden is in office and the Senate has a Democratic majority. The increasing entrance of Gen Z into the workforce is adding even more uncertainty. The younger workers are more vocal activists and have prioritized fair treatment in the workplace as their agenda. Many Starbucks employees are Gen Z, and they triggered a wave of independent unionizing across industries. The future of labor unions may be independent organizing or, as mentioned earlier, employees organizing via social media without calling themselves a union.  

positive employee relations

What are the Implications for Employers?

The implication for employers is that they should develop a positive workplace culture with a strong employee voice and high employee engagement, whether or not they believe their organization is at risk of a labor union organizing campaign or internal organizing in any form. A proactive employee and labor relations strategy to create a workplace where unions are unnecessary is an approach all employers should adopt. You should start now because any union vulnerabilities discovered will take time and effort to correct. For example, a low employee engagement score is not quickly increased. A low score indicates employees don't trust leadership, and trust building takes time. 

There are so many factors influencing the rate of unionization in the future that there are no simple answers to questions about the future of labor unions. We can help your leaders sort through the many issues and develop a strategy to prevent unionization. IRI Consultants brings industry experts to the table who can provide the information and guidance to successfully address labor relations in 2023 and beyond.

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