As 2019 rapidly approaches, it’s a pivotal time for unions. They’ve experienced declining membership for decades, but 2017 showed stabilization of numbers from the prior year. Looking forward to unions in 2019, what can you expect? It’s a complicated question because there are so many opposing forces at work. For example, unions are focusing on employees who haven’t traditionally joined unions, while the Trump administration plans to continue dismantling President Obama’s union-friendly labor regulations.
The following sections review the current state of unions and present some predictions as to the expected to the behavior of unions in 2019. These predictions are based on statistics, workforce trends and union behaviors to date. Everything points to a re-energized union effort to increase membership through new approaches, making it critical for you to maintain a union-proofed business.
Technology is a Major Influence on the Workforce
Unions have seen declining membership numbers for many reasons with technology being at or near the top of the list. Sometimes, it’s a matter of robots literally doing the work of humans, like workers on production lines, and artificial intelligence replacing jobs like customer service representatives. In other cases, it’s the impact of the internet on industries, like the postal service and print media, as people use their computers to complete activities, like making payments and reading news. Technology is also improving the efficiency of some work, meaning fewer workers are needed in fields like fabrication and railroad workers.
The next technological wave is ready to hit, like Industry 4.0 which advances digitization of manufacturing and is most likely to once again reduce the need for front-line employees who are typical union members. Technology is a threat to union membership so you can expect unions to develop strategies to minimize technology’s impact on current employees and to attract the tech employees as new members.
Searching for New Labor Union Prospects
Can unions in 2019 expect membership to remain stable or continue declining? All things kept equal, the answer would be “yes.” However, the unions are big business and aren’t going to just sit back and watch their members drop out. They’ll target groups of employees in the emerging and expanding industries. Based on government projections, the fastest growing occupations for the 2016-2026 period are:
- Solar Photovoltaic Installers (105 percent)
- Wind Turbine Service Technicians (96 percent)
- Home Health Aides (41 percent)
- Nurse Practitioners (31 percent)
- Physical Therapist Assistants (30 percent)
- Medical Assistants (29 percent)
- Occupational Therapy Assistants (28 percent)
- Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers (16 percent)
- Chefs and Head Cooks (10 percent)
The pattern is clear. Union organizers are likely to target employees in the alternative energy industry and the health and wellness industry, and service workers. Chefs and head cooks are listed, but unions will enlist any interested group of service employees in any industry. Just recently, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union tried to create Target’s first unionized store in New York, but the union was voted down.
By the Numbers: Private versus Public Employees
For many decades, public employees had significantly higher rates of unionization than private employees, and one reason is that many were effectively forced to “join” by paying forced dues called agency fees. Per the Department of Labor, in 2017, public employees still had a membership rate that is five times the rate of private-sector employees – 34.4 percent to 6.5 percent, respectively. The full impact of the Supreme Court’s Janus decision has yet to be determined, but ending forced payment of agency fees to unions is almost certain to energize the unions in 2019 to re-focus their efforts to find new members in the private sector.
The 2017 breakdown of private sector industries with high membership rates were:
- Utilities (23 percent)
- Transportation and warehousing (17.3 percent)
- Telecommunications (16.1 percent)
- Construction (14.0 percent)
The 2017 breakdown of private sector industries with low membership rates were:
- Finance (1.1 percent)
- Food service and drinking places (1.4 percent)
- Professional and technical services (1.7 percent)
By occupation within the private sector, the low union membership rates were in:
- Sales and related occupations (3.2 percent)
- Farming, fishing and forestry occupations (3.4 percent)
- Food preparation and serving related occupations (3.8 percent)
- Computer and mathematical occupations (3.9 percent)
The 2017 breakdown of public sector industries with high membership rates were:
- Protective service employees – police officers, firefighters, correctional officers, fish and game wardens, TSA screeners, etc. (34.7 percent)
- Education, library and training occupations (33.5 percent)
It’s interesting to note that the rate of union membership for full-time workers (11.8 percent) is approximately twice that of part-time workers (5.7 percent). Also note that Black employees had higher rates of union membership (12.6 percent) compared to White employees (10.6 percent), Asians (8.9 percent) and Hispanics (9.3 percent).
Though it’s a lot of statistics to consume, they provide you insights about the direction unions will probably pursue. Unions are going to focus on service and technology employees (a process already well underway), part-time workers and professional employees. They’re also likely to focus on minority groups that feel excluded from the mainstream labor force or believe they are underpaid and treated poorly due to employer biases. It’s a good reminder that employee engagement across your organization, and at all employee levels, is crucial to staying union proofed.
Ageless Union Recruitment
Right now the highest membership rates are among older workers aged 45 to 64. However, the unions are making inroads in attracting younger employees. Many millennials are beginning to believe unions can help them overcome the financial struggles they continue to face as employers move towards using contracted and temporary labor in many industries, including healthcare and technology. Younger generations are also concerned about things like pensions or retirement plans that remain solvent over time.
In 2017, there were 858,000 net job additions for people younger than 35 years old. Twenty-three percent (23 percent) were union jobs. Total union membership increased in 2017 by 262,000 and three-fourths or 75 percent (198,000) were people less than 35 years old. This is a large number on its own, but especially when you consider that workers aged 34 years old or younger makeup less than 40 percent of the total workforce. Unions see millennials as the group of people who are most vulnerable in the workforce today, as the California Labor Federation discusses in one of their blogs.
Growing Public Support for Unions in 2019
Public support for unions is rising. After declining for years, union membership remained steady in 2017. One reason is that some of the causes of declining membership leveled out – like the number of manufacturing jobs as the U.S. economy expanded the services industries.
In 2017, a Gallup poll found that 61 percent of adults now approve of labor unions, and that’s a five percentage point increase from 2016 and significantly higher than the 48 percent approval rate in 2009. The same poll also found that 39 percent believe unions should have more influence in society, while 28 percent said the influence should be less.
The Pew Research Center approached public perception from a different angle. In 2017, their survey found that 51 percent of Americans believe the decline in union membership has not been good for workers. Fifty-six (56) percent of people younger than 30 years old were the only age group in which a majority believed the decline in union membership was not good.
A major reason for the improving public perception of unions is economics, like the domino financial impact of the past Great Recession on younger generations now and in the future. A whopping 68 percent of people aged 18-29 years old had a more favorable opinion of labor unions compared to corporations. For you as an employer, it means Gen Y (millennials) and Gen Z (now entering the workforce) support unions.
Convergence of Factors Point to Stronger Unions
There are so many factors influencing unions. The impact of the Janus case decision, mentioned earlier, is still unknown. However, it may not lead to major declines in union membership and union power in some states, as many hoped. For example, as of September 2018, Massachusetts unions say their members are remaining loyal. The powerful unions include the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the Service Employees International Union and the United Healthcare Workers East.
These unions are strongly positioned to follow the path to increasing private sector employee membership in healthcare and services industries as described earlier in this article. Though the Janus decision dealt a blow to the collection of agency (involuntary) fees, it also led to unions strengthening their efforts to find new members who voluntarily pay union dues. Unions are careful about timing union elections. This is seen in the fact that unions win 71 percent of the time. Just because you don’t see a lot of blatant union activity doesn’t mean the union is not actively pursuing your employees.
Don’t Become a Union Target
In the final analysis, you must continue to develop and maintain a positive business culture and not get complacent about the potential unionization of your employees, even if they’re part-time, contracted, salaried or temporary. Unions like businesses that have a disengaged workforce and supervisors who make inconsistent decisions concerning employees and aren’t informed about union tactics.
You can union proof your business by educating your employees – via custom video, web and eLearning solutions – on the negative impact of unions and the positive business factors of your company, like excellent benefits and competitive wages; training your leaders on strategies for engaging employees; and always being alert to signs a union is making overtures to your employees. Even if your business is already unionized, you can implement positive steps that lead to the employee realization they don’t need the union anymore and can hold a decertification election. If the 4,000 union members who voted out their unions in 2017 can do it, so can your employees – proving once again, that nothing in life and business is permanent.