I ran across an article by a long-time friend from Florida this week that I thought was interesting. Blogger Sharlyn Lauby who writes on the highly regarded HR Bartender blog shared her thoughts on the idea of a new employee-employer social contract developing in society and the potential role labor unions might play in that equation.
“A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I took a MOOC (massive open online course) from MIT on “Shaping Work of the Future”. One of the topics that I felt the course spent a lot of time on was the idea of a new employee-employer social contract. This totally makes sense to me.
As they were talking about the key stakeholders in the new social contract, they mentioned labor unions. It got me thinking. The latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show union participation at about 10.5 percent or roughly 14.7 million people. That’s a significant decrease from 1983 when the first union membership data was available, and the rate was 20.1% and 17.7 million workers.
I’m sure you’ve been paying attention to the recent autoworker strikes. Or the teacher strikes. On some level, these are classic labor-management disagreements about pay, benefits, and working conditions. Organizations have been showing healthy profit lines for a few years now (since the Great Recession). And we know from the monthly jobs reports that employee wages are not increasing at a comparable rate.
But as I’ve been reading about these labor and management challenges, it reminded me of this conversation about the new employee-employer contract and unions. Is it possible that labor unions can and will fin a way to reinvent themselves? Will labor unions become more than an organization that fights for employee pay and benefits?”
For those of us that follow labor unions regularly, we know that to a large extent, labor unions, worker centers, and social justice/activist groups have been acting as the voice of workers for several years, especially on issues like Fight for $15, paid leave and equitable work schedules.
The efforts of these groups have made serious inroads on these issues, especially at the state and municipal levels. They have been very effective at advocating on behalf of all employees, and especially those whom they refer to as “low wage employees”. The irony is that these efforts have not translated into a rise in union membership. Data shows that millennials and other new cohorts entering the labor market embrace the concept of labor unions as a force for improving the workplace, but they are not joining unions in droves except in very limited workspaces like adjunct faculty, or online digital media.
Millennials are more supportive of labor unions than generations before them. A 2018 Gallup poll showed that 66 percent of people ages 18 to 34 approve of labor unions, compared to 60 percent of people ages 35 to 54 and 62 percent of people ages 55 and older.
The potential for a rise in membership exists today, but unions still have much working against them, including their own leadership. Corruption scandals like those facing the UAW aren’t helping add credibility to the reputation or brand of organized labor.
All of this is interesting and definitely worth keeping an eye on. Right now, we are seeing what could the first serious formal union organizing efforts developing in New York City right now as SEIU takes aim at McDonald’s and Chipotle with wages and fair scheduling being two of their main issues.