- An increase in union activity. In 2022, union election petitions increased by 53% compared to the previous year.
- Employee leverage might change. A looming recession this year could lead employees to lose leverage and accept conditions they previously refused to accept.
- Companies should get ahead of issues. Reasonable pay and benefits, fair treatment and employers demonstrating that the company can do more than unions might reduce employees’ desire to seek union support.
Amid the tight labor markets of 2021 and 2022, power suddenly shifted to employees when it came to negotiating better pay and benefits. With that came a natural rise in union activity to support these efforts at larger companies.
According to the National Labor Relations Board, union election petitions increased 53% from the previous year — the highest number since 2016.
Why the increase in unionization? Several factors contributed to this change. According to Mark Neuberger, an employment law attorney at Foley & Lardner LLP, there are five primary causes:
- Chronic wage disparities.
- High inflation.
- General economic and political insecurity.
- Greater awareness of workers.
“Some unions are finally understanding how to use social media to effectively play on the above issues to their benefit,” he said.
But with the influx of layoffs and hiring freezes occurring so far this year, we’re not in the same job market, and the differences could impact unions. While the desire for changes remains the same, the International Labour Organization’s 2023 World Employment and Social Outlook Trends report believes the looming recession will force workers to accept jobs offering the same conditions they were protesting.
While this could be true to some degree, union support is still at a high, and recession or not, many employees will still expect employers to make and maintain changes.
Ken Jacobs, chair of the University of California, Berkeley, Labor Center, said that if a recession occurs, “...it increases the potential for some fairly intense labor conflicts” as employees continue fighting back. Time also reports that 2023 will be the year of worker strikes.
Which companies are more likely to see an impact from unions? Public companies see far more union members than privately owned companies. According to The Wall Street Journal, as of last year, just 6% of private-sector employees were in a union compared to 33% of public-sector employees.
So far, there have been significant union fluctuations with major retail companies and distribution centers. Employees at Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Starbucks are just some well-known companies with union activity. Outside of these industries, more educators across the country are taking a stand against working conditions in the school systems.
Companies can sit back and see if there will be fallout from employees or get ahead of the potential impact.
“If my company fit this profile, I would be reaching for the antacids, taking a survey of vulnerabilities and getting my management trained,” Neuberger said.
This approach allows companies to see what employees seek and take steps to meet their needs. The need for a union wanes if employees know their employers will treat them properly. Not having a union benefits the employer, so being proactive could be well worth the effort. Some companies will likely wait for a recession to hit and for employees to lose their leverage, but if the recession is mild or when the economy rebounds, the same internal issues will be present.
For organizations that want to ease tensions with employees, there are several strategies to consider. Neuberger offers three suggestions:
- Treat your employees well.
- Pay competitive wages and benefits.
- Help employees see the value of refraining from unionizing.
“Treat your workers fairly and honestly and communicate with them like they are people, not a fungible good or tool,” he said. “First- and second-line supervision are the weakest link in most companies. If that is true for your organization, fix it through proper training and recruitment.
“Remember, any union has to show workers they have something of value to offer in exchange for union dues. Make your employees see they are better off without a union.”
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