—“I was lookin’ for love in all the wrong places, lookin’ for love in too many faces, searchin’ their eyes and lookin’ for traces of what I’m dreamin’ of.”
The song “Looking for Love,” written by Wanda Mallette, aptly describes the circumstances of organized labor. Despite labor’s political expenditures and substantial support from the Obama administration, its membership rolls continue a precipitous decline. In essence, employees aren’t interested in labor’s message, which has been virtually unchanged since the turn of the century—the 20th century, that is.
Labor by the numbers
The labor movement has evolved from an equivalent of a “Walmart” influence on the marketplace to a “Trader Joe’s”—a much smaller operation but with a loyal group of customers. Approximately 32% of private-sector employees were union members 60 years ago. Today it’s only 6.4%.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), union membership in Alabama, where I live, dropped by 20% in one year alone—2015 to 2016—from 190,000 to 153,000 members, a decline from 10.2% of the total workforce to 8.1%. Alabama employees represented by unions declined dramatically—204,000 in 2015 to 170,000 in 2016, a 20% loss.
Since 1990, unions spent $4.4 billion on state and federal political campaigns, with 91% of the funds going to support Democrats and 8% of the funds going to support Republicans. During the 2016 presidential election, 43% of union households voted for Donald Trump, and he carried states with double-digit union membership—Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
During the past five years, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, West Virginia, and Wisconsin have joined South Carolina and the rest of the South to become right-to-work states. In a right-to-work state, it’s illegal for an employer and a union to agree to union security language, where employees must pay union dues and fees or else be terminated.
The right-to-work movement’s impact on unions is profound. For example, Michigan became a right-to-work state on March 8, 2013. The number of dues-paying union members in Michigan during the ensuing four years dropped from 671,000 to 605,000.
During the Obama administration, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election rules were changed to a process more favorable for unions, shortening the amount of time an employer can respond to a union request for an election and expanding the opportunity for unions to organize smaller groups of employees. Yet one year after these rules became effective, the number of elections filed by unions declined nationally from 1,490 to 1,299, although the union win rate in those elections rose from 69% to 72%.
Since January 1, 2016, unions won 13 out of 16 elections in Alabama, only one of which involved more than 50 employees. The United Auto Workers (UAW), for all of its focus on southern auto manufacturers, had no election in Alabama during this time.
Cause of labor’s decline
There are several reasons unions are seeing a continued decline in the labor movement:
An outdated “victims-and-villains” organizing approach. Labor’s effort to generate employee support is premised on a model of employers/villains and employees/victims. While it’s true that poor employee relations practices may lead to any number of problems, including unionization, the primary issues that concern employees today aren’t the fair treatment issues of 50 years ago.
Employees want to know that if they do a good job today, their jobs will be here tomorrow—or whether they will be outsourced, replaced by technology, or relocated. They want to know what they can do to increase their value to the company—how to become a more valued asset so that, in turn, they can receive more compensation.
The union model based on seniority doesn’t resonate with today’s employees. Rather, employees are more entrepreneurial. They don’t want to wait in the queue for their turn based on length of service. Historically, the argument for employment decisions based on seniority was that it’s objective and avoids favoritism. In today’s environment, employers can’t afford to play “favorites” unrelated to the job. Furthermore, an array of state and federal antidiscrimination statutes leads employers to focus on differences in treatment based on business reasons, not favoritism.
Legislative advances. Labor’s contributions to local, state, and federal legislative successes ironically result in employees concluding they don’t need unions. For example, labor strongly supports local “Fight-for-$15” ordinances to raise the minimum wage to $15. These ordinances nationally have been directed at the fast-food and hospitality industries.
Although those affected employees no doubt appreciate labor’s support for their raise, they aren’t interested in taking one week of their pay a year and giving it to the union in the form of dues. Thus, each legislative success to which unions contribute diminishes a need for employees to seek out a union.
Failure to play “small ball.” The smaller the group of employees—such as fewer than 50—the greater the opportunity for union success. A smaller group of employees tends to have more issues in common that drive the interest in unionization. Unions in Alabama have been successful with elections involving smaller employee groups. Since January 1, 2016, unions won 10 out of 11 elections involving fewer than 25 employees. If more unions nationwide adopted this small-ball approach, perhaps they wouldn’t continue to lose elections.
An example of learning this lesson involved the UAW and the Volkswagen (VW) facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee. On February 14, 2014, VW employees broke the UAW’s heart when they voted 626-712 against union representation. That was a “wall-to-wall” vote, covering all employees in the plant. On December 4, 2015, another vote occurred at the VW plant in Chattanooga, but only among the skilled trade employees. Those employees voted by more than a two-to-one margin for union representation, 108-44.
Rather than trying to hit the “long ball”—whether at Boeing, VW, or most recently Nissan in Canton, Mississippi—unions would be far more effective if they focused on discrete groups of employees with issues in common rather than the overall workforce.
Failure to project themselves as assets to business. In labor negotiations, the only time I’ve ever heard a union ask, “What can we do to help the company?” was when the company notified the union that it was closing or relocating its business. Unions don’t communicate a value proposition. They don’t take a position of what they can do to enhance an employer’s competitiveness or expand the employer’s brand.
Instead, unions focus on executive compensation and other class issues. Ultimately, whether employees decide to unionize depends on whether they think they’ll be better off with or without a union, not on how much executives are paid.
Male and stale union leadership. Although working one’s way from the shop floor to president of the union is admirable, unions need imaginative, aggressive, and shrewd CEOs—the type they belittle in the private sector. Unions are big business—they should be led by sophisticated businesspeople who adapt to the changing needs and wants of potential members.
Few businesses remain successful using a model that is the equivalent of trying to force a pill down a cat’s throat. Only when labor stops blaming employers and laws for why employees aren’t interested in unions will it be able to sing the joyous conclusion of “Looking for Love”:
No more lookin’ for love in all the wrong places, lookin’ for love in too many faces, searchin’ their eyes and lookin’ for traces of what I’m dreamin’ of.
Richard I. Lehr is a founding member at Lehr Middlebrooks Vreeland & Thompson, P.C. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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