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Next Stop for Big Labor: More Organizing

Man on a bullhorn

Union organizing will be a primary goal for big labor in 2024 following the recent deals between the United Auto Workers (UAW) and Ford, General Motors and Stellantis. While many employers don’t want unions, the threat of union organizing can help companies take employee concerns more seriously.

“I have always been glad there is some threat of unions,” said Phyllis Hartman, SHRM-SCP, president of the Pittsburgh HR consulting firm PGHR Consulting. “They prevent employers from getting lazy about employee satisfaction.”

However, she added that “having been an HR director in a union environment, I prefer a nonunion organization.”

Possible Springboard for Organizing

The key question to watch in the next year is whether the UAW’s deals with the automakers and the Teamsters’ agreement with UPS can be converted into organizing victories, said Martin Malin, founding director of Chicago-Kent College of Law’s Martin H. Malin Institute for Law and the Workplace in Chicago.

The Teamsters are trying to organize nonunion logistics companies and Amazon, while the UAW is attempting to unionize foreign car manufacturers with factories in the U.S., he said. In addition, the UAW is seeking to organize Tesla, reports The New York Times.

“Under its prior leadership, the UAW failed miserably in organizing the nonunionized auto sector,” he said. “We’ll see if [UAW President] Shawn Fain and his team can do better.”

The Kaiser Permanente workers’ organizing victory was “another big win for labor,” Malin said. “We’ll see if it is used as an organizing tool to unionize nonunion health care providers.”

Although the three-day strike by more than 75,000 employees in a coalition of unions was brief, it resulted in immediate disruption and pressure to the employer, said James Prozzi, an adjunct professor of law at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Fla.

Deals’ Importance Shouldn’t Be Overstated

While both the UAW and the Kaiser Permanente union coalition secured good deals, challenges remain for the labor movement, Prozzi said. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) “makes successful union organizing almost impossible,” he said. In addition, “there seems to be no political will to enact the changes to the NLRA [that] are sought by the labor movement.”

Although the increase of approximately 25 percent in wages over four and a half years was a step forward for UAW workers, it wasn’t the 40 percent the UAW initially had demanded.

“Like most strike stories, you have to dig deeper than the headlines to really understand the reality of what these strikes have delivered,” said Phillip Wilson, president and general counsel with Labor Relations Institute in Broken Arrow, Okla.

For example, the automakers had agreed to 5 percent per year pay increases over four years before the strike, he said. The 25 percent pay increase “is basically just another 5 percent pay increase in the fifth year of the agreement,” Wilson said.

Companies are offering record wage increases not due to union pressure but mostly due to labor market pressure impacting all industries, according to Wilson.

“At one time, union density in many industries was high enough that nonunion competitors had to meet or come close to union wages and benefits or end up being unionized,” Malin said. “As union density dropped, unions no longer controlled the market and employers gained competitive advantages by driving down labor costs, which in turn exerted downward pressure on unionized companies.”

Unions’ Ongoing Influence

However, unions shouldn’t be counted out. In 2022, union membership increased, even though union density dropped because the membership growth didn’t keep up with the number of jobs added.

Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 hasn’t decimated public-sector unions, despite predictions that it would. “There has been little fall-off in public-sector union membership,” Malin said.
Unions raise costs for companies not only because they often negotiate pay increases but also because everything takes longer with their involvement, Hartman said. Many aspects of work conditions must be negotiated with them, and the back-and-forth process takes time at the expense of flexibility, which is imperative in today’s ever-changing world, she added. With unions, all too often there’s an “us versus them” attitude rather than one of cooperation, Hartman said.

Unions can represent employees in communicating with employers but might not do it in a way that truly represents the wants and needs of all workers. “I remember during negotiation of a contract, the union leadership focused only on retirement and benefits and ignored the pay issues I knew were important to the employees,” she said. “Turns out, the leaders were all getting close to retirement and were negotiating for their own interests.”

On the other hand, labor unions have won hard-earned victories for employees through the years, and not just for autoworkers and health care workers. An eight-hour workday and five-day workweek for wage workers, equal employment opportunity, and safer workplaces all resulted from the labor movement, according to Time magazine. However, the UAW workers’ recent demand for a four-day workweek wasn’t adopted.

“It’s easy to forget how collective bargaining helped build a prosperous middle class in the industrial Midwest since plant shutdowns and intensified international competition have weakened labor’s position,” said David Jacobs, a professor at American University’s Kogod School of Business in Washington, D.C.

Public support for unions has enhanced labor’s power, he said. “Toyota’s and Honda’s decisions to raise wages is evidence of the impact of the UAW deal,” Jacobs added.

Lessons for HR

If employees are encouraged to organize because of the recent strikes, then “that may present HR with a great opportunity to educate management about the importance of making employees feel heard and considering their needs,” Hartman said. When managers are asked about unions, they should tread carefully to avoid an unfair labor practice charge but answer honestly that they would rather deal with each employee’s problems as individuals, she added.

“Employers need to make sure they are vigilant when it comes to what their employees are thinking,” Hartman said. “Dealing with complaints by listening, investigating and making changes when possible is the first line of defense against union organizing. If protests or strikes happen, it is too late.”


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