#157995370@Erin Alexis Randolph|Dreamstime
Labor Unions Are Still Battling to Be More Relevant

Labor Unions Are Still Battling to Be More Relevant

March 20, 2024
Organized labor’s overall numbers fail to improve despite strenuous efforts and Biden’s support.


Over the last three years the American labor movement has expended massive resources and energy to help improve its position, enjoying the overwhelming support of the federal government (and some major state and city governments) for its efforts, only to find that while it has managed to add more members in the private sector, losses of members in the public sector means that in terms of the union membership total of the overall workforce, it has done nothing more than furiously tread water.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report issued in January, union membership shrank from 10.1% in 2022 to 10.0% of the national workforce last year. That may not seem like much of a decline, but it was a real step back from the previous year’s number, which represented a tiny improvement from organized labor’s decades-long slide in terms of its share of the overall workforce which until the decline began in the 1980s had been quite substantial.

“Unions have failed to augment their numbers, on a percentage basis, in the private sector. In fact, the latest numbers show unionization rates are at an all-time low among those workers, as a mere 6% belong to unions,” points out labor relations attorney David Pryzbylski. “While union election petitions (and wins) are up, they simply aren't enough to stem the losses from years of decline. We’ll see if some of the renewed attention over this past year helps reverse unions’ fortunes.”

A big part of the decline in overall union numbers in recent years has occurred because public sector unions, which used to account for the biggest proportion of union membership, dropped by 52,000 last year. This has been blamed in part on state and local government cutbacks in the wake of the COVID pandemic and a Supreme Court decision from 2018 that has allowed public employees to quit their unions if they wished.

From 2010 to this year, public employee unions have seen their total membership numbers drop by nearly 900,000. On the other hand, according to the BLS data, private sector unions actually added 200,000 members last year, although their total proportion of the workforce has declined, in part because of the economic recovery and also because of the Biden Administration’s strenuous efforts to help the unions to grow.

Some observers blame the fact that many of the new government jobs added since the end of the COVID pandemic are in areas unrepresented by public unions. In fact, the same seems to be true of the private sector, where many of the added jobs are part-time work or job categories that are traditionally not union jobs.

Although weaker now, the public unions have found a way to exercise political power and influence by spending on political contributions, lobbying and public advicacy, an effort that has been matched by their private sector union allies.

In fact. much of organized labor’s outsized presence in public life comes from the political clout they wield. Of course, that also has created a backlash among union members who disagree with their leaders’ controversial stances on issues dealing with environmental and immigration policies.

Follow the Money

It is no secret that the Democratic Party as currently constituted has been financially dependent for some time on the largess of unions when it comes to funding election campaigns. That is especially true when it comes to the amount of financial support the party receives from government workers and teachers unions, which also make up the bulk of any gains unions have made in building membership earlier in this century.

As we have pointed out in earlier stories, the Biden Administration has shaped its labor regulatory and legislative agenda to tightly match the needs and desires of labor union leadership, starting from the first day President Biden was in office when within minutes of being inaugurated he ordered the firing of the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), who had been nominated by President Trump and approved by the Senate to serve a five-year term in that office, something previously honored by new presidents.

It is hardly surprising that unions have contributed mightily to the coffers of the Democratic Party, which as a result enthusiastically promotes union priorities in every area of American public life. What is shocking is the enormous total of their members’ money unions have shoveled into these campaigns and causes in recent years.

A study last year found that during the 2022 election cycle public employee unions (including teachers unions) spent more than $700 million on Democratic causes and campaigns, according to a research report released last December by the Commonwealth Foundation. And that’s just the unions representing government employee and teachers unions; the total amount spent by private sector unions may not be known precisely but is huge as well.

The unions deploy this leverage to chip away at existing barriers that exist to getting what they want. The concept of card check is a perfect example. In 2009, during the initial year of Obama’s first term, legislation was introduced in Congress to establish card check, a process that allows union officials to coerce employees into signing cards in public saying that they want union representation, all done in front of other employees instead of allowing them to vote by secret ballot in a representation election, as has been required throughout history.

However, in 2009 the obviously coercive nature of card check led to it being soundly defeated by Congress even though union contributions and hard work had secured for Democrats a super majority in the Senate and had helped to elect President Obama to the presidency. Card check legislation failed during the same year that the Democratic supermajority managed to pass Obamacare, much to the consternation of the union leadership.

Contrast that to the fate of the labor legislation introduced by the Biden administration immediately following his inauguration, which would have established card check if it had been enacted by the then Democrat-dominated House and Senate, where only Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) opposeed it.

Ultimately riding to rescue has been the Biden-shaped NLRB, which last year managed to finally impose a form of card check through its exercise of regulatory legerdemain deployed in a decision where the board asserted that it has the power to simply decree that employees in a workplace will be represented by a union, even without a formal vote ever being taken (although this is being opposed in the courts).

In fact, it is the NLRB that has turned out to be the most potent weapon in the administration’s arsenal to wield in support of its union allies’ ambitious goals. Over the past three years, the Biden era board has handed down a series of decisions and rules to accomplish this. Some of the most far-reaching positions have been staked out by the NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo in enforcement guidance memos to her staff she makes public to inform employers about what they can expect to see coming their way.

But last year’s Cemex decision granting card check led to the board issuing orders requiring already closed businesses to reopen and then accept the unionization of their employees, including a strip club where exotic dancers had tried to organize a union and a Starbucks location near a university campus near where several others were already operating.

According to Cemex, the board can order that a union be accepted as the  representative of employees during an election campaign if it finds that the employer has committed an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP), which in most cases is more than likely under the current board’s criteria. It also is likely because the NLRB has made illegal many long-standing employer work rules that were previously deemed acceptable.

Making Progress or Treading Water?

The NLRB is not the only federal agency actively attempting to forward the unions’ agendas. Early in his administration President Biden created a high-level federal agency task force that developed a strategic plan to mount a concerted campaign to lend federal government support for organized labor’s efforts to expand and grow unionization of the workforce. These efforts continued through 2023 and can be expected to be pushed further this year after federal departments and agencies signed interagency agreements detailing how they intend to work together to achieve this goal.

Even the Biden appointees at the Federal Trade Commission got into the act by asserting that labor issues like a company’s use of independent contractors instead of employees should be taken into consideration as competitive factors when making decisions regarding acquisitions and mergers, a position never before contemplated by that agency.

All of this has fueled increased labor movement activity, ranging from pouring money into sputtering organizing campaigns to staking out more militant confrontational stances against employers. Last year saw record numbers of strikes and other disruptive labor actions take place.

At least 345 strikes were called in 2023, along with two employer-initiated lockouts, for a total of 347 work stoppages impacting more than a half-million workers, notes Daniel Pasternak, an attorney with the law firm of Squire Patton Boggs, who also points out that the last time there were that many strikes in a year was 2003. All indicators are that there will be just as much and possibly more such activity this year, he says.

The encouragement of the Biden administration fueled at least in part last year’s highly publicized battles over collective bargaining agreements in the entertainment industry with the actors and writers strike, longshoremen disrupting the West Coast ports, autoworkers pursuing nationwide labor stoppages, and a showdown between the nation’s largest freight railroads and their dozen unions.

However, in spite of their vast expenditure of sweat and treasure, the unions have made only minor inroads into several of their highest value targets like Amazon, Starbucks and McDonald’s restaurants. News reports have revealed that some union members are reconsidering being represented by unions at all. Employees at several of the earliest Starbucks locations to be organized already have filed decertification petitions, as have workers at a Dr. Pepper plant in Wisconsin who are trying to oust the Teamsters.

We are not aware of any in-depth research into why this is happening. Public attitudes regarding unions in general seem to have improved in recent years, according to polling organizations, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to the people the unions are trying to organize or who already are members and who have experienced what it means to be a union member.

It was recently reported that McDonald’s revenues have dropped because many of their customers can no longer afford the food they sell. It was suggested that contributing to this was a union-sponsored nationwide campaign to drive up state minimum wages, which has driven up costs for small businesses across the country as well.

Following the 2023 auto workers strike that secured a big jump in wages, some experts predicted that cost increases would put the auto companies in danger of pricing themselves out of a market where prices for basic automotive transportation have reached the level of luxury vehicles of just a few years ago.

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