With stories of union organization at even the biggest companies making headlines, you may be wondering if unionization is something your organization needs to be concerned about. “Concern” may not be the right word, but every business should be re-evaluating its employee experience and getting prepared to address more issues raised by their workers at all levels.

 

Who’s Unionizing Now?

Watching the news, one might get the impression that unionization efforts are primarily happening at enormous, household-name companies, with brands like Starbucks and Amazon getting the lion’s share of the headlines. This assumption (and this media coverage), however, overshadows the fact that unionization is far more widespread than a handful of big-name stories.

Although “common wisdom” has been that union membership is declining, that has been largely in the private sector. In 1983, approximately 20 percent of all employees belonged to a union, but by 2021, that number had fallen to just over 10 percent – and almost all of that decline came from the private sector. Union membership in the public sector has actually remained relatively steady since the 1970s, at around one-third of the workforce. On the other hand, union membership in the private sector fell to a low of around 6 percent in 2021, compared with 17 percent in 1983.

Private companies have traditionally had a very stern response to unionization efforts, with tactics often designed to undermine and intimidate as a means of avoiding unionization. Those tactics have generally eroded of the unionization rate over the years.

Interestingly, however, unions themselves are evolving. Manufacturing and similar industries are still “power players,” but they’re not the only ones. Women, previously underrepresented significantly in unions, are closing the gap. They now make up around 47% of union members, are getting involved in leadership, and so-called “pink collar” jobs such as nursing and teaching are becoming fields with higher-than-average unionization rates.

In general, unionization is enjoying a bigger boom simply because of social and economic factors that are unlike anything we’ve seen in some time. COVID, and all its accompanying challenges, has been a major motivating factor. Employees have seen that companies can choose a “different way” of working when there’s no other options, and they’re looking for that kind of flexibility and respect all the time. The dangers and pressures faced by frontline workers, combined with story after story of poor management response, have also galvanized organizing efforts. Times of upheaval lead to more change, and everyone needs to be ready.

 

Unions in the Public Eye

Public perception is half the battle, and it’s one that unions are increasingly learning to win. In 2021, Gallup reported public approval of labor unions reaching 68 percent — the highest approval rating since the late 1960s. Only 28 percent report disapproval of unions, which in turn is the lowest disapproval rate since 1999. Since 2017, confidence in labor unions (as depicted by survey participants saying they have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence) has hovered between 26 percent and 31 percent. In contrast, the years before that showed the confidence rate struggling to even hit 20 percent.

These struggles over perception have often been an uphill climb for labor unions, particularly in the U.S.-centric business culture that has traditionally not been union-friendly. Unlike similar countries in Europe and elsewhere, American business culture takes more of an individualistic approach. Management prefers a model where they deal directly with employees and focus on one-on-one communication. The union model, with its collective bargaining and placing a potential buffer between management and employees, is seen by these leaders as an interloping third party.

Public perceptions are changing, however, and companies must evolve along with it or risk negative perceptions of their own.

 

How Management Can Respond

For many organizations, the knee-jerk reaction to unionization efforts is to view it as an insult or a declaration of open hostilities. While that reaction may be understandable, it also tends to flatten the reality of the employees’ experiences and goals. Today’s organizers are generally valued, hard-working employees who simply believe that they deserve more of a say (and even more respect) in their workplaces.

Organizing isn’t just a labor union issue, either. Efforts may not be specifically about unions in the traditional sense, but more about collective action and advocacy around issues of equity, gender, and racial justice. Workers understand that they may struggle to be heard individually, but when they stand together, they can have a bigger voice and a bigger impact.

DEI concerns can also relate to more “traditional” union issues, such as work hours and pay. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, union expert Thomas Kochan, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, noted the outsize effect unionization can have on traditionally underrepresented groups: unions increase wages, on average, between 5 and 15 percent, but for low wage workers, women, and minorities, those percentages are higher. This is especially relevant for industries like healthcare, which employ a larger-than-average proportion of workers in those categories.

The key to a helpful response from management is simply a sense of understanding. Workers, whether unionized or not, are not looking for an adversarial relationship with leadership, nor are they blind to the issues in union culture that need resolving. Today’s organizers are just as likely to be working on concerns within unions, such as questions of seniority and concerns over “protection” of mediocre or poor workers, as they are to be addressing concerns with upper management.

The solution, for everyone, is shifting to a more cooperative model. Creating a respectful, trusting dialogue can avoid hostility between leadership and employees – and between companies and a union-sympathizing public. Union avoidance may have worked in the past, and it may even stymie or set back organizing efforts today. In the long run, however, the underlying issues still remain. Building a positive environment where workers want to work and stay long-term requires proving that their voices are valued, and that’s something that benefits everyone.

 

By Rose Dorta

Are you a high-performing leader or believe you have the potential to tackle a more challenging role? Would you be interested in career opportunities that are seeking these attributes?

I’d love to chat with you and answer any questions that you have. Email me, Rose Dorta, managing director of Kaizen HR Solutions, here.