2021 – Current Trends in Labor Relations

2020 had it all - pandemic, social unrest, and a presidential election. Now, what can employers expect to deal with next year? What are some of the current trends in labor relations we can expect to encounter in 2021? What does the employment landscape look like? Where should employers focus their energy and their resources? What can employers expect from unions? Will the remote workforce remain viable after the pandemic? How will social unrest lead to new labor laws? What impact will the next President have on employers, the workforce, and unions? When the pandemic ends, what changes made to accommodate the crisis will remain in place?

There are so many questions, and these questions are difficult to answer at that. UnionProof and A Better Leader have addressed the 2020 topics throughout the year, and now it's time to look ahead to 2021 while inspecting current trends in labor relations.

The year 2020 has been one of upheaval, and quite frankly, the upheaval will not end any time soon. That's not meant to be discouraging, but it's meant to be encouraging. There is time to anticipate and prepare for the many dynamics that could or will impact employers. Of special importance is identifying the major trends for 2021 that will most likely impact decision-making concerning the workforce, strategy development for strengthening employer-employee relations and employee engagement, and managing the expected upswing in union activity.

Trying to function in an environment of continual uncertain change is challenging, but the good news is that many of the 2021 trends started forming in 2020. Employers are getting plenty of notice of what to expect in many areas, from union activity to workforce needs. It certainly makes it easier to plan ahead and prepare contingency responses. 

This is a time when you can look ahead to 2021 and strive to turn challenges into opportunities, and those are not just buzzwords either. Following are some of the major trends we anticipate for 2021 and suggestions to prepare you in advance.

The Art of Labor Relations CTA

Trend: Changing Makeup of the National Labor Relations Board

What's happening?

The National Labor Relations Board directly impacts employers through its case decisions and administrative rulemaking that set labor law policies. The way the NLRB is set up, members have staggered 5-year appointments with one member expiring each year. The Republicans will maintain a majority until at least August 2021, when one member appointment ends, so employers can expect continued pro-management decisions until then. 

However, the January 2021 Senate races in Georgia can quickly change the picture should the Republicans lose control of the Senate. The Senate confirms NLRB members, and there is currently one NLRB vacancy and one sitting Democrat. If Democrats fill the vacancy and appoint a replacement for the ending appointment, they will have a majority position. 

There are three possible scenarios, as explained by Bloomberg Law:

  • Republicans maintain Senate control and keep a Republican majority on the NLRB until late 2022, when enough Republican appointments end and Democrats can become the majority
  • Republicans work with the Biden administration to fill NLRB seats. Democrats become the majority in Fall 2021 by appointing two Democrats to make three when added to the one Democrat on the board (not likely to happen!)
  • Democrats take Senate control, overhaul the NLRA and make laws that enable them to control the NLRB for years to come

"It's the Black Tuesday trifecta from the management-employment perspective," said Roger King, senior labor and employment counsel at the HR Policy Association, which represents human resource chiefs at some of the country's largest employers. The current NLRB has reversed many Obama-era precedents and has some important union-related items on the agenda that it can still decide. They include giving employers less time to hold opposition campaigns and making it easier for micro-units of workers to unionize, to name a few.

What does it mean for employers?

What does this mean for employers? It means employers must stay on top of the issues the NLRB is considering, the board member makeup, and the potential impact of a return to Obama-ear precedents. Your labor law professional and the Projections, Inc. professionals will be closely watching the NLRB to keep employers informed and ensure our union-free strategies and resources remain relevant.

Trend: Return of Union Influence 

What's happening?

The events of 2020 played in favor of unions. For example, the pandemic brought employee health and safety to the forefront, and unions used it as an opportunity to pressure employees to unionize and encourage union employees to picket. Unions used the pandemic to their advantage to demand more benefits, more safety equipment, and more say in how employers respond to a crisis like the pandemic. Since the pandemic will continue well into 2021, their demands will continue. 

The growing use of social media and websites to organize employees has been a key strategy for unions. One of the things that make this approach more effective than a union working with a single business in a particular location is that unions can reach employees across the country, industries, and even globally. This intensifies the pressure placed on employers. They are getting more sophisticated in their use of technology for marketing and organizing union and non-union employees, like organizing virtual walkouts, and that trend will continue in 2021. 

Unions are likely to become more powerful and influential once again, though the exact path remains unknown for a couple of reasons. One is that the Senate control remains unknown. If the Republicans keep the Senate, President Biden will have to rely on Executive Orders to support unions. The second reason is that many labor laws supporting unionization are being made at the state and local levels, often due to the uncertainty at the federal level. They sometimes never mention collective bargaining or unions, but they have a real impact on unionizing.

A good example is California's Supreme Court 2018 decision in Dynamex Operations West v. Superior Court that changes the test for independent contractor status for certain types of workers. The decision greatly limits who can be classified as an independent contractor. Now business groups and even some worker groups have lobbied for exemptions. By increasing the number of people who must be classified as employees, the number of employees eligible to unionize increases too. California Prop 22 passed in November 2020, which exempted Uber and Lyft drivers as employees. But many other independent contractors must be classified as employees, so they are entitled to labor protections and benefits.

Limiting the number of people who can be called independent contractors is a trend that will continue into 2021. 

Unions also have a strong defender in Joe Biden, who has unabashedly shown support for labor unions and has signaled he will return to the Obama-era pro-union policies. 

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act) has passed the House of Representatives and may or may not get passed by the Senate. There is no doubt it will become law if Senate control goes to the Democrats. The key point is that the PRO Act makes it easier for employees to form and join a union. It also limits the employer's ability to ward of unionizing efforts. In addition, the Biden campaign platform for job creation across industries requires hiring union workers for federal contracts, which will filter down to private employers in the supply chain. 

What does this mean for employers? 

The growing strength of unions means employers that are not unionized need to prepare now for a potential union organizing campaign. 

  • If you don't have a live union-focused website explaining the company's perspective on unions, then it's important to build one now.
  • Prepare now in advance for a rapid response to signs of organizing by preparing employee resources, training leaders on topics like TIPS and FOE, and identifying members of a response team.
  • Strive to improve employee engagement now by identifying worker needs, evaluating Human Resources policies and procedures, building a stronger positive culture, and ensuring employees have a voice through effective feedback systems.
  • Ensure that inclusion is now a basic operating principle.

If your workforce is already unionized, it is imperative to work towards higher employee engagement. That could mean improving management-employee relations, resolving difficult employee issues, identifying unmet employee needs, and/or improving communication systems both online and offline. 

Whether or not a company is unionized, it's important to prepare now for things like the passage of the PRO Act or implementation of some elements through regulations and Executive Orders. If already unionized, the PRO Act gives employers insights into what unions will demand in 2021. 

Trend: Continued Remote Workforce Utilization

What's happening?

The pandemic caused a seismic shift to remote work for much of the workforce. Though this was not really a labor relations trend as much as it was a reaction, 2021 will see a permanent hybrid workplace trend for many companies. Companies like Capital One and Square have already announced they will continue to allow employees to work at home and the office. 

Willis Towers Watson surveyed 283 large employers across industries that employ 4.4 million workers to learn employer expectations for maintaining a remote workforce. The survey found that employers expect 19 percent of their workforce to be full-time remote employees after the COVID-19 pandemic ends. The survey also found that only 2 out of 10 respondents have provided tools and resources to employees who are likely to work remotely for the long-term. Only 1 out of 10 offered employees financial assistance to manage the costs of working remotely. 

In 2021, the remote workforce is likely to be at least 20 percent larger than it was before the pandemic. There is a good chance it could be even larger as managers adjust their policies and operational procedures to accommodate a permanent remote workforce.

What does this mean for employers? 

Though employers responded as best they could given the pandemic's suddenness, they need to bring legal, Human Resources, and IT teams together to ensure proper resources are provided to employees. Otherwise, unions will have another reason to approach employees about unionizing or claim employers don't care about their workers. 

If you plan on adapting to the trend towards a permanent remote workforce, it's important to ensure:

  • All employees have a voice in the workplace
  • Employees can easily communicate with managers and supervisors and not feel adrift in their homes
  • Adequate technology infrastructure is in place, and employees have the appropriate tools to do their work 
  • Remote workers have opportunities to meet with in-house employees either in-person or via online meeting platforms
  • Remote employees are included in as many culture-building activities as possible, meaning some may need to be virtual events
  • Employees working remotely are properly trained
  • Managers and supervisors are well-trained in managing a hybrid workforce
  • Issues like subsidies or reimbursements for work-from-home expenses that remote workers incur are directly addressed
  • Policies and procedures are reviewed and adapted to include remote workers

A hybrid workforce in 2021 requires new strategies to maintain the desired organizational culture, employee engagement level, and a union-free workplace. Remote employees need to be connected and engaged, and it will take some innovative approaches. 

Trend: Increasing Focus on Real Inclusion in the Workplace

What's happening?

Kantar created a benchmarking tool called The Inclusion Index. Organizations use the tool to understand, track, and measure their progress in developing a diverse and inclusive workplace. The data set includes data from 24 different industries, 18,000 respondents, and 14 countries. 

Creating an inclusive workforce and culture is crucial. The year 2020 was one of turmoil around issues like lack of social justice, racial inequality, and continued lack of true inclusion in organizations for diverse people. Many businesses have set goals for diversity and inclusion but made little progress. In many situations, they hired diverse people but never fully included them. 

Unions have adopted this issue to connect with disengaged employees and people who feel left out of opportunities.

The wealth of data that Kantar collects around diversity and inclusion offers a glimpse into 2021. The most recent benchmarking study found:

  • Only 52 percent of companies are working on D&I
  • 62 percent of employees feel a sense of belonging in their organization
  • 27 percent of those surveyed report the presence of demeaning behavior in the workplace – bullying, verbal harassment, physical harassment, etc.
  • 49 percent of employees believe they can speak out about demeaning behavior to top management and HR
  • 32 percent reported suffering from stress and anxiety
  • 55 percent don't feel their employer emotionally supports them

The feeling is that the time for talk is over. In 2021, employers are expected to make true progress in improving inclusion. If they don't, diversity and inclusion will become union issues.

What does this mean for employers? 

Bias is rampant in organizations, and it's proving difficult to eradicate. It can be done, and it must be done because it impacts organizational recruitment, hiring, retention, development, and promotion of diverse people and the culture people work in. The tech industry has become the "poster child" for talking the talk but not walking the walk, but it's certainly not alone. 

In 2021, social pressure will be intense for accountability across industries. People want action – not promises. To remain an employer of choice will depend on increasing accountability and transparency for diversity, developing a culture in which people are encouraged to speak up about bias and discrimination without fear of retribution, developing and monitoring HR technology systems to make sure bias does not creep in due to using historical data and involving managers and leaders in policy development. Change is needed to make a change.

Frank Dobbin, professor of sociology at Harvard University, and Alexandra Kaley, Associate Professor of Sociology at Tel Aviv University, have focused on helping organizations understand why they have been unsuccessful in reducing bias. What they found, as discussed in Why Diversity Programs Fail, is that organizations are using the same programs they used since the 1960s, and the tools like hiring tests and grievance systems make things worse. When it comes to grievance systems, which directly impact unions' ability to get a foothold, the sociologists suggest adopting some innovations, like using non-legalistic grievance processes. These include Employee Assistance Programs, alternative dispute resolution systems, and ombudsperson offices to drive change, provide employee support, and encourage people to speak up.

To stay union-free or move towards decertification, you should make sure the whole workforce is engaged and enjoys a great employee experience

Trend: Benefits are Adapting to Changing Labor Force Demographics

What's happening?

The workforce changes and labor force demographics are putting more pressure on employers to develop adaptive benefits packages. The changes include multi-generational makeup with groups of people at different stages of life, a global labor force; a more diverse workforce; employee expectations their employer will help them meet personal needs, like time for caregiving a family member, etc.

Benefits have been expanded to include more than health insurance, retirement plans, and paid sick and vacation leave time. It now embraces mental health programs, virtual care and telehealth, career pathing opportunities, flexible work arrangements, recognition and reward systems, and childcare assistance. 

There is also a trend to include part-time and seasonal employees in health insurance plans and reduce copays and deductibles. 

One of the most difficult trends to manage is the rising cost of healthcare premiums. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported the 2019 average annual premium for employers' health insurance for a family of four was 54 percent higher than a decade earlier. Health insurance costs are expected to continue rising through 2020 and beyond, even as businesses struggle to deal with lower revenues from pandemic shutdowns.

Most union contract negotiations include a push by the union to reduce employee shared costs, which means employers will pay more. 

What does this mean for employers?

The trend towards creating benefits programs that address a wide range of employee needs is an expensive proposition for employers. However, remaining competitive in the labor market means benefits programs need to adapt to some degree. Unions often focus on things like the employee's cost-sharing of health premiums, sick leave, and vacation leave. In 2021, you can expect their focus to expand as they push harder for benefits concerning safety, mental health, family accommodations, and well-being programs.

There is another current labor relations trend to consider. Many businesses are uncertain as to whether the employees laid off during the pandemic will be able to return to work due to organizational financial stress. Unions will be heavily involved in helping these employees get some benefits, like extended health benefits. For example, the Culinary Union reached an agreement with MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment to extend family health benefits to 36,000 workers until 2021. Given the pandemic will still be an issue through summer 2021, unions will be looking for ways to help their members that will cost employers.

Short-term fixes to increase copays and deductibles may reduce healthcare costs, but employees are less likely to seek preventive treatment. Health outcomes for employees will worsen, which has many consequences, from safety concerns to increasing health costs. Strategizing for the long-term is a better approach. Vivian Lee, MD, is President of Health Platforms at Verily and senior lecturer at Harvard Medical School. Her recommendations for longer-term solutions include:

  • Understand the health care benefits business - benchmark costs, identify deviations and gain a deep understanding of what is happening, i.e., is insurance paying for expensive procedures for treatment when lower-cost approaches are more likely to work
  • Leverage technology – use providers that include telehealth and offer virtual care solutions for employees with chronic conditions
  • Partner with physicians and hospitals providing employee healthcare – employers and health care systems can learn from each other in terms of providing more cost-efficient and efficient services 

In 2021, unions will continue pursuing a reduction in employee costs. Employers will need to pursue a reduction in healthcare costs at the same time. It's quite likely that employers could reach a point where they negotiate requirements like employees accessing telehealth first in non-life-threatening situations to reduce copays through the utilization of in-network providers. That is something for the lawyers to evaluate. 

Trend: Human Resources Team Upskilling

What's Happening?

The Human Resources function has been transforming, but much of the transformation to date for many companies has been automating routine tasks and developing employee self-service portals. This is despite the fact that many organizational leaders express a desire to make HR a more strategic function rather than an administrative one. 

As a strategic function, HR becomes a talent management system, aligning the function with the organization's mission, values, goals, and business strategies. To do so, the HR leader must develop new skills, including business expertise, change management, culture management, data analysis, relationship building, and inclusion.

What does this mean for employers?

UnionProof and A Better Leader frequently post about training leaders to be effective at employee engagement, but HR teams need training too. The upskilling of HR to develop strategic skills is directly related to the ability of the organization to stay union-free for many reasons. 

For example, the strategic HR leader works with managers to:

  • Help them develop inclusive best practices
  • Improve recruitment of talent who will support a positive culture
  • Ensure employees have a voice and that voice is heard
  • Deliver employee training and development opportunities
  • Develop employee career paths
  • Legally and appropriately respond to signs of unionization
  • Develop listening and feedback skills
  • Project future talent needs 
  • Utilize talent analytics
  • Ensure employee issues and formal grievances are managed well
  • Keeping employees safe

Another major role of the strategic HR leader is to ensure that policies and procedures adapt to rapidly changing laws and business conditions. Outdated employee policies leave your business vulnerable to employee grievances and, thus, unions.

HR must also collaborate with functions like IT to solve complex problems. One example is the use of virtual onboarding of new employees, which requires more structure. Employee onboarding is a key element of staying union-free when done correctly. 

Once a daylong session, the trend is developing a series of interactive video and phone sessions that provides an overview of the company mission and products/services, reviews benefits options, connects new employees with managers, and clearly lays out the corporate perspective on unions. Employees can ask questions, complete pulse surveys, and meet other employees. HR will only be successful by partnering with IT to ensure all employees – local and remote – have access to the tools and software that make this happen.

Connecting the Dots

Notice the current labor relations trends are interrelated. The makeup of the NLRB and social media will directly impact the ease of organizing in 2021. The 2021 trends in benefits, workforce demographics, and social justice may drive union membership increases and a continued uptick in protests and picketing. A pro-union President will directly impact it all – employee willingness to join a union, the union's ability to approach employees with limited employer response, the way union contracts are negotiated, and so on. 

It's a complex business environment, which is why Projections, Inc. offers the tools and resources needed to stay abreast of and respond to union activity and organizing, understand the changes in the laws impacting employers and unions, and train leaders in employee engagement and all things union. 

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About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is IRI's Director of Digital Solutions and the founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.

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