Union Approval Ratings Update 2022

Towards the beginning of 2022, we discussed the increase in new petitions filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) through March 2022 and the reasons employees were giving for organizing. There was growing favor for unions at the time, urged on by the federal government's support for unions. The petitions, of course, request a union election, and employees organize for reasons beyond the traditional reasons of compensation, benefits, and working conditions. If they can't organize within the confines of the National Labor Relations Act's (NLRA) limitations, they are forming independent unions, which don't always show up in the statistics because they tend to be small. 

There is something unusual going on, though. There was a 58 percent increase in NLRB representation petitions for the first nine months of the federal fiscal year year-over-year. Yet, union employees accounted for only 10.3 percent of the workforce at the end of 2021, reflecting a continued decline in the union membership rate. But various surveys asking the general public or employees if they support unions and would join one are finding a large majority are saying "yes." What is going on? 

Following are three surveys showing labor union support is high.

Are unions "cool again"? As the Washington Post claims, is a "wave of labor activism sweeping the country"?

Should I Assume My Workforce Will Unionize?

Employers could be tempted to succumb to the headlines and stories about union organizing successes and start believing unionization is inevitable. Reading the Gallup headline "U.S. Approval of Labor Unions at Highest Point Since 1965," would make any employer believe an attempt at unionizing or unionization is almost inevitable. Should you assume your workforce will decide to unionize? The answer is still no, but with the caveat that you must maintain a well-organized strategy for staying a non-unionized company through a positive organizational culture, effective communication between your leaders and employees, and positive employee relations.

The high union approval rating percentages don't necessarily or automatically equate to a significant increase in people joining a union. Headlines and statistics can be deceiving because they are designed to grab the interest of average readers and, in this case, increase enthusiasm for labor unions. But how many employees are associated with the filing of the petitions? Many independent unions have a very small membership, but they get outsized media attention. Ten different Starbucks stores can file ten different petitions, and the total number of employees remains small, yet Starbucks is now often in the news.

Bloomberg Law analyzed the NLRB data for the first half of 2022. Unions won 641 NLRB elections in the first six months, making it the highest number of election wins for labor in 20 years. Out of the 641 elections, 200 were Starbucks workplaces. Starbucks accounted for 31 percent of the election wins and 12 percent of the total number of workers. But the Starbucks bargaining units are small, with an average of 27 workers per unit. Reading the headlines, you would believe Starbucks accounts for a much larger percentage of the total union numbers.

There were employers who had many more workers vote to unionize, and four companies accounted for 15,500 workers who did vote to unionize: Amazon (8,325), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (3,823), Kaiser Permanente (1,902), and Stanford Health Care (1,450). "Based on these findings," writes Robert Combs with Bloomberg Law, "it would be short-sighted for management lawyers to presume that labor's recent resurgence is limited to any one company—even one as high-profile as Starbucks."

Some surveys have a small sample size which increases the margin of statistical error. The Jobcase survey polled 518 U.S. workers, a very small sample for a workforce of 163.5 million. The way questions are asked will always influence the responses. The Jobcase survey asked if employees would join a union "if given the chance." Employees in any workforce can file an NLRB petition, but most will only join if someone else initiates the union organizing campaign.

That's the Way I Like It: Not Committed to or Interested in Unions

Digging deeper into the Gallup numbers, among employees already in a union, 40 percent said union membership is extremely important to them, 28 percent said important, and another 17 percent were at three on the 1-5 scale. 28 percent and 17 percent indicated there is not necessarily a strong commitment to labor unions. Keep reading, and you learn:

  • 58 percent of nonunion workers are not interested at all in joining a union
  • 11 percent are extremely interested in joining a union
  • 33 percent of nonunion members and 27 percent of union members are engaged
  • 17 percent of nonunion members are actively disengaged compared to 24 percent of union members 

Another key Gallup statistic is that 50 percent of nonunion members are actively looking/watching for a new job, and 43 percent of union members are doing so. This reflects the "I quit" workforce or the Resignation Nation. Gallup writes, "But for all the membership benefits they enjoy, this doesn't necessarily translate to employee engagement among unionized workers. It is not clear, however, whether lower engagement among unionized employees is a result of dissatisfaction they harbored before joining a union, or if joining a union foments tension between workers and their employers." 

union approval rating

The Jobcase survey is particularly interesting because it reports based on demographics. Who has a favorable opinion of unions?

  • 76 percent of millennials
  • 73 percent of Gen Z
  • 66 percent of Gen X
  • 62 percent of baby boomers

The Gallup survey and the Jobcase surveys asked participants to identify the benefits they believe a union has to offer or the reasons for joining a labor union. This is critical information because it helps you dig into the specific expectations of employees.

Gallup reported the following expectations:

  • Better pay and benefits (65 percent)
  • Employee representation and rights (employee voice) (57 percent)
  • Job security (42 percent)
  • Better pension/retirement (34 percent)
  • Improving the work environment (25 percent)
  • Fairness and equality at work (23 percent)
  • Health and safety (9 percent)
  • Positive effect on the country (5 percent)

Jobcase reported the following expectations:

  • Increased pay (57 percent)
  • Better benefits (56 percent)
  • Job protection (49 percent)
  • Desire for fewer hours and better work-life balance (44 percent Gen Z; 40 percent millennials; 28 percent Gen X and 28 percent baby boomers)
  • Better able to fight for more equitable treatment from management (67 percent)

You would expect anything to do with pay, benefits, job security, and the work environment to be reasons employees would consider joining a union. What is very important to note is that the lists of reasons include items not included in the NLRA. They reflect a modern workforce with new generations of workers with new perspectives about work and the role of unions in helping them achieve goals. Things like equality at work, positive effect on the country, flexible schedules, and work-life balance are almost as important to millennials and Gen Z as things like pay and benefits.

(The Pew Research survey focused on breaking down union support by political party affiliation and age/education/income.)

Takeaways From the Statistics

Funneling down a confusing set of statistics to glean information for avoiding unionization leads to the following takeaways.

  • Workforce size is not relevant to whether employees will choose to join a union
  • Many headlines are designed to gain support for unions in support of a pro-union Biden administration
  • The surge in NLRB petitions doesn't mean the labor force is returning to high unionization rates like those seen in the 50s
  • Those supporting unions are not necessarily interested in joining a labor
  • Employers have a prime opportunity to remain a non-unionized company by learning what the generations of employees want in the workplace and addressing those needs
  • The highest interest in joining a union is found among frontline workers, i.e., warehouse workers, retail workers, and healthcare workers.

The data is not indicating huge numbers of people holding jobs that are not traditionally union jobs are more interested in joining a union. That can change, though, which is why it's so important to invest in leadership development and labor wise leadership and to always be prepared for a union organizing campaign.

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Putting the Survey Information Learned into Practice

There are two sides to the union approval rating update. One side says the increase in union representation petitions is just the beginning of a larger movement of unionizing successes. The other side says to dig deeper into the statistics, and there is no proof that people supporting unions would choose to join one if given an opportunity.

This could make it difficult for employers to know how to respond to the statistics, except for one thing. It is a fact that a highly engaged workforce with a strong voice and good relationships with management is very unlikely to start a union organizing campaign. No matter how the union trends pan out, you can insulate your business from labor union organizing. The various union approval ratings and other information collected inform employers of some ways. 

  • Develop allies in the workforce – The people not too interested or not interested at all in joining a union can be important allies in keeping unions out. Cultivate them as allies for communicating to coworkers the reasons they are happy working for your managers and the company and the reasons that joining a union is not a good idea.
  • Find ways to strengthen employee engagement Employee engagement remains crucial for increasing employee retention and keeping unions away. As the surveys demonstrated, engaged employees don't believe unions have anything to offer that they don't already have.
  • Leverage generational differences - Recognize and address the fact that different generations of workers have different expectations about their jobs and the workforce. You can leverage generational differences to build engagement and give employees what they want. For example, younger workers want flexible work schedules and to work for companies that make the world a better place. These needs don't necessarily involve compensation increases. Instead, consider Human Resources policy changes that give your workforce schedule options and include employees in the development and execution of your Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives. 
  • Recognize different perspectives about joining a union – Who among your employees is most likely to be attracted to joining a union? The surveys found that hourly workers and frontline employees are mostly behind the current increase in union petitions. Make sure these employees have a voice in your organization and are able to express their needs. Too often, hourly and frontline workers are excluded from full participation in communication systems, ERGs, etc.
  • Review each reason for joining a union – Go through the list of reasons survey participants gave as reasons to join a union. Then assess the status of each in your company, looking for gaps or areas where you can improve your employee communication system. It doesn't mean you are forced to take steps like increasing pay or suddenly reducing the working hours of employees. The idea is to determine how you can address primary issues appearing in surveys through more engaging leadership, changing HR policies, and/or improving employee communication.

For example, are your compensation schedule and benefits competitive within the community and industry? Do your employees know they are? You can conduct an employee survey to learn what your employees consider priority needs. You might discover employees don't like the fact their work and personal lives are too integrated. Perhaps developing a policy that your managers can't contact employees during their off hours unless it's an emergency (and define the types of emergencies) would contribute to work-life balance.

  • Conduct a union vulnerability assessment – A union vulnerability assessment helps you identify areas where you are at risk for unionization. It includes internal and external factors, such as the unionization status of the industry and how well you explain the union philosophy to employees.
  • Give your employees a voice – In this time of high union approval ratings, giving your employees a voice is one of the most empowering steps you can take to avoid unionization. Employee voice is the degree to which employees can express concerns about the workplace, offer opinions about management decisions, and share innovative ideas. Technologies, like digital communication options, have opened up new avenues for employee voice expression.

You can assess the level and quality of employee voice in two ways. First, are employees encouraged to express themselves to managers? It doesn't do any good for senior managers to encourage employees to express themselves if lower-level managers discourage their workers through words or actions.

Second, do all employees have access to various communication channels that are appropriate for their work location, including digital communication systems and in-person communication opportunities? Are all of your remote workers, including deskless workers and field workers, included in the communication systems? Though in-person meetings are not always possible, there are numerous ways to hold online meetings through software programs like Zoom. Voiceless employees are usually the most disengaged employees and will find a voice through a union if a voice gap exists. The voice gap is a measure of the voice employees believe they have versus what they believe they should have. Develop an internal communications strategy that is based on developing a strong and empowering employee voice. 

Are your leaders mostly focused on things like compensation, benefits, and productivity but not the workplace culture? If so, you are increasing your vulnerability to unions. Most of the suggestions for putting survey information into practice will help your leaders build a positive workplace culture.  

union approval

Union Approval Ratings Send a Clear Message

People can approve of unions and not join one. There is little doubt that many people approved of unions in surveys because it was a form of activism to do so (support the downtrodden employees). The surveys need to be taken seriously, but they aren't proof that unionization is inevitable. They do provide information you can use as a guide for developing a forward-thinking strategy to keep employees engaged and unions away. If not sure how to proceed, work with a management consultant because now is the time to be fully prepared for the increasing efforts of labor unions to increase membership as much as possible while the Biden administration, the NLRB, and the union approval ratings are in their favor.

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