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Unions Struggle to Hold On

Workers are riled up. Will organized labor make a comeback?

​The numbers were small and the margin was slim, but the February vote to unionize at Kickstarter was notable. It made the Brooklyn-based fundraising platform the first tech company with a unionized workforce. And the catalyst for the organizing effort didn't involve traditional labor issues such as pay or benefits. It was triggered by company management's decision to remove a controversial fundraising campaign from the site last year—a move that employees said was politically motivated and that was later reversed.

The novelty created a wave of headlines, keeping a spotlight on unionization and employee activism that has been burning for two years. Employees were agitated in 2019. From auto workers in Detroit to teachers in Chicago to Wayfair employees in Boston, people poured onto the streets protesting everything from low pay to company sales policies. That followed a tumultuous 2018 punctuated by walkouts whose participants included nurses in Burlington, Vt., demanding better salaries and staffing levels and Google employees all over the globe decrying what they say was the company's inadequate response to sexual-harassment claims.

There were 25 work stoppages last year, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2017, there were only seven.

In 2018, 485,200 workers were involved in major work stoppages, followed in 2019 by 425,500 more. That's the largest two-year average in 35 years, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Those figures don't include actions by nonunionized workers such as those at Google and Wayfair. 

Workers haven't publicly demonstrated their anger like this in years, experts say, noting multiple trends are dovetailing and fueling their actions. Employees are bombarded with messages of a booming economy, corporate profits and, until recently, record stock market prices. But they see little evidence of such bounty in their own paychecks, even though the unemployment rate hasn't been this low in 50 years. And workers have visibility into how the C-suite is benefiting from strong corporate results, an issue stressed in political messaging from Bernie Sanders and other progressive candidates.

Union Support Soars, but Membership Slides

CEOs at America's top 350 companies earned an average of $17.2 million in 2018, including exercised stock options, according to EPI. That's 278 times what the average employee earned. That ratio was only 20 to 1 in 1965 and 58 to 1 in 1989. The widening chasm is increasingly frustrating workers, especially younger ones who don't see a path to the middle class, never mind a more lavish lifestyle.

"I think people are starting to realize that the only thing they have is themselves," says Geoconda Arguello-Kline, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in Las Vegas, which has 60,000 members. "People can see they have no job protection. People aren't fighting to be rich. They want their fair share."

Beyond Traditional Union Issues

What's distinct about recent labor unrest is that it often transcends traditional union issues such as wages and benefits as well as typical labor industry strongholds. For example, unions have established a toehold in digital media outlets such as Gawker, Vox, Slate, Refinery29 and HuffPost. They've also made progress organizing museum workers and university teaching assistants and adjunct professors.

Meanwhile, Wayfair workers walked off the job to protest the home goods company's decision to sell beds to federal detention centers holding migrants. Google employees' ire is the results of poorly handled sexual-harassment claims as well as other ethical issues, including the company's treatment of contract workers and its development of artificial intelligence for the defense department.

Published reports say Google fired four workers for attempting to unionize and hired anti-union firm IRI Consultants to help deal with employee unrest. Efforts to reach the four employees were unsuccessful. In a statement, a Google spokeswoman said four people were dismissed for repeatedly violating data-security policies and that no one was let go for simply raising concerns or debating company activities.

"People want a voice on the job, and they're becoming organized," says Jeffery Buchanan, policy director of Silicon Valley Rising, a coalition of unions, community groups, workers and religious organizations working to bolster conditions for the middle class in Silicon Valley. "Sometimes having a voice on the job is about how your company is acting on its mission and acting as a public citizen."Work Stoppages On the RiseThe union movement at Kickstarter began after management was pressured to take down a campaign to raise money for a satirical comic book, Always Punch Nazis (Pilot Studios, 2019). Conservative website Breitbart News had said the comic book encouraged violence and the company should stop the fundraising effort. Some Kickstarter employees objected, and management reversed its decision, though not before a controversy erupted. Two employees were fired for organizing efforts, according to published reports, and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a federal agency charged with protecting workers' right to organize, is reviewing the case.

In a statement, a Kickstarter spokeswoman said the friction over the comic book demonstrates employees' dedication to maintaining the platform's standards. She said the company respects its employees' right to unionize and added that the dismissal of the two employees was not tied to organizing efforts.

In Kickstarter's vote to unionize, 46 employees favored the idea while 37 opposed it. They will be affiliated with the Office and Professional Employees International Union. Whether Kickstarter will start an industry trend remains to be seen. It's certainly easier to unionize a staff of less than 90 employees than to corral much larger numbers of workers at behemoths like Google or Amazon. 

"Unions have never been good at organizing white-collar workers," says Alan Hyde, a professor at Rutgers Law School in Newark, N.J., who specializes in labor and immigration. Hyde says a hallmark of tech company management is a willingness to let employees speak their minds and blow off steam while finding ways to respond to concerns. He says tech companies could find themselves facing more union drives if they opt to take a more combative approach with employees voicing issues. 

Falling Membership

Despite growing popular support for unions and unrest among many employees, union ranks continue to thin.

Last year, union members accounted for 10.3 percent of workers, down slightly from 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Union membership totaled 14.6 million, down from 17.7 million in 1983, the first year with comparable data. Nearly 34 percent of public-sector workers are union members, compared with only 6.2 percent in the private sector. 

"The activity is more smoke than fire," says Phillip Wilson, president of the Labor Relations Institute, an employer consulting firm in Broken Arrow, Okla. "Unions are good at taking a smaller group of people and making them look large."

New and old headwinds facing unions lead many to say membership will continue dropping. Today's increasingly transient workforce makes it difficult for unions to develop relationships with workers and for employees to bond with one another. At the same time, many workers are part of a gig economy in which they work several jobs to make ends meet. Independent contractors are generally not allowed to unionize.

Legal decisions have added to union woes. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public-sector unions couldn't force nonunion workers to pay dues. It was widely seen as a blow to union budgets and prospects for growth.

Additionally, the NLRB issued decisions late last year that could hurt organizing efforts. For example, it reversed a previous ruling that allowed unions to use company e-mail for organizational efforts. Union organizers say President Donald Trump's appointments to the board hold anti-labor views and are intent on reversing decisions made by Obama-era appointees.

Public Support For Unions Surges

On top of that, unions are still dogged by a reputation for corruption. "The Irishman," one of last year's most popular movies, centers on the alleged relationship between former Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa and organized crime. Recent headlines reinforce unions' checkered relationship with the law. At least 13 United Automobile Workers officials and Fiat Chrysler executives have been charged with fraud, embezzlement and conspiracy in recent years, and the case is still unfolding.

Still, companies shouldn't ignore aggrieved employees if they want to avoid unionization, Wilson says. "It should be a wake-up call to take care of your people," he says. "The solution isn't that complicated. Listen when employees share concerns and act on what you hear. If people aren't being treated right and they complain and you do nothing, what do you expect?"

Union leaders insist the current environment, with its gulf between the haves and have-nots, provides fertile ground for organizing. Despite fading membership, they remain optimistic.

"The kind of work we do takes time," says Randi Weingarten, president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Federation of Teachers, which has 1.7 million members. "If we can't capitalize on this, shame on us."

Attempting a Comeback

Union leaders say they need to adopt new tactics to adjust to the new environment while still reinforcing the benefits of union membership. The culinary union has been especially adept at finding ways to grow participation; in the last five years, membership has increased 9 percent.

Arguello-Kline says her union has bucked the declining membership trend by keeping a strong presence in the hotels where it operates. She says 1,000 union reps are among the housekeepers, bartenders and waitstaff working in the hotels, reminding workers of union benefits, which include a homeownership loan program and robust job training that provides opportunities to prepare for different positions.

"We organize every single day," she says. "You have to constantly tell people what the union is about."

Jeff Farmer, director of the organizing department for the Washington, D.C.-based International Brotherhood of Teamsters, acknowledges that unions need to adjust their strategies to tackle the changing workplace. But he believes that laws need to change, too. For example, he says prohibiting contract workers from unionizing doesn't make sense in a gig economy. "These labor laws were written 50 years ago," Farmer says, "and they haven't kept up with all the different machinations of the workforce."

Unions have already started to adapt. The Teamsters has helped taxi drivers in several cities form associations to increase their clout and has organized shuttle bus drivers at Facebook. Meanwhile, other unions have put their heft behind campaigns to raise the hourly minimum wage to $15 and have won in states such as New York and Massachusetts. 

"We have to help workers," Farmer says. "It's the right thing to do."

Unions may get a boost from a new law in California called AB 5, which makes it harder for employers to classify workers as independent contractors. It not only gives employees such as construction workers and Uber and Lyft drivers the right to benefits like overtime and unemployment, it also provides them the right to join unions.

"It's a huge win for labor," says Shona Clarkson, lead organizer for Los Angeles-based Gig Workers Rising, a group that has been fighting for better pay and working conditions for Lyft and Uber drivers. "We spoke truth to power."

The law is controversial. Uber and delivery service Postmates have filed suit to halt its enforcement. Some workers want it blocked because they prefer to remain independent contractors.

Public Support Grows

But there's a significant bright spot for organized labor as it pushes to expand. Public support for unions is the highest it's been in nearly two decades. Last year, a Gallup poll found that 64 percent of Americans approved of labor unions—the third consecutive year in which favorability surpassed 60 percent and the largest majority of Americans in 17 years. Support was especially strong among those ages 18 to 34, reaching 67 percent.

That's not surprising. Millennials joined the workforce during the Great Recession when job prospects and pay were slim, and overcoming the slow start is still a struggle for many.

"Our generation has faced unprecedented levels of inequality, underemployment and mountains of college debt," says Kayla Blado, president of the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union in Washington, D.C. "Unions are one way to achieve economic security."

Blado says when unions dominated the workforce, employees enjoyed much better benefits, including generous vacation time and retirement plans. However, she adds that unions aren't a quick fix for the workplace's ills and that organized labor hasn't always acted in the best interest of its members. 

"Unions are what you put into them," Blado says. "Young people are coming together to take ownership." 

Theresa Agovino is the workplace editor for SHRM. 

Explore Further

SHRM provides advice and resources to help employers stay informed of their rights and obligations regarding organized labor.

Union membership overall in 2019 was stagnant, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows, but labor had gains in some industries.

What Can Management Do During a Union Campaign?
During a union campaign, employers are permitted to engage in activities that will not interfere with an employee's ability to make a free choice in a union election.

How Can We Prevent a Union from Organizing at Our Company?
Employees join unions because they're unhappy with management's treatment of them and they believe the union can make workplace conditions better. Employers that work to minimize employee dissatisfaction can also minimize employees' desire for union representation.

What Is an Unfair Labor Practice by Management?
There are five categories of unfair labor practices for employers that are prohibited under the National Labor Relations Act.

Are All Types of Strikes Protected Under the National Labor Relations Act?
An employee's right to strike is a critical component of the right to organize, but it is not without limitations.

What Information Are We Legally Required to Provide to the Union During the Collective Bargaining Process?
Once a union is elected as the exclusive bargaining representative, it has the right to request from the employer information to help it perform its bargaining duties.