Trends in Unionization

            Last week the United States Department of Labor announced that the share of American workers who are members of labor unions dropped to an all-time low of 10.1%, even though union membership increased by 273,000 workers last year.

            The decline in membership rates was attributed to a boom in the job market as 5.3 million new jobs came on the books, and union membership could not keep pace.

            While there were lots of news reports last year about successful unionization efforts at national brands like Amazon and Starbucks, the latest figures show that unions still have lots of ground to cover to convince workers to join.

            At their high point, union workers made up a third of the entire workforce. But some experts have blamed the decline of unions on union advocates’ successes in pushing favorable legislation for workers at both the state and national levels.

            Still, with workers gaining so much leverage over employers in the red-hot labor market, it would make sense that they would turn to unions to improve their negotiating advantages. But instead, workers in low-wage jobs have been able to wring higher wages out of employers along with improved schedules and benefits without the need of union assistance. Employers are so invested in retaining their workers and attracting new ones that the market is forcing them to pay higher wages and provide added benefits.

            Workers seem to be saying, “I can do this on my own – I don’t need a union.”

            While workers would seem to have an advantage when it comes to unionizing, systemic factors are still favoring employers. Big firms and national brands are able to devote large amounts of resources to keep unions out of their businesses and laws at the federal level still work to hinder advancement of unionization in workplaces.

            The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has historically and notoriously been opposed to unionization, has argued that unions have failed to meet the needs of their members or to adjust their strategies to a changing workplace. And while the Chamber is one of labor’s greatest adversaries, it does have a point when it comes to changing the way unions do business.

            Gone are the days when workers would stick with a single employer for a career, earning valuable retirement benefits and higher rates of pay the longer they stayed. In today’s workplace the acquisition of transferable skills and the ease of movement from one firm to another for higher pay and better scheduling have made workers less likely to seek a union to help them improve their lives. The way to improvement is not through steady advancement at the same company, but rather by being mobile enough to build on what an employee has learned at one company and bringing it to the next company.

            Still, even with anemic numbers on union rolls, 71% of Americans have said they approve of unions in a recent Gallup poll. That means that if unions can offer workers a meaningful value proposition, workers are likely to join. And with such a high favorability, employers are likely to take note and consider that it might make sense to let workers decide whether a union is right for them.

            The next couple of  years could see an upswing in unionization if the favorability ratings hold steady.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: