Labor unions in the United States are fighting to remain relevant in the 21st Century, and in some areas they are succeeding, but in others they continue to struggle to attract new members.
Only 6.5% of private-sector workers were in unions in 2017, an increase of 0.1% over the previous year, so small a change that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said the numbers remained unchanged.
The number of workers belonging to unions totaled 14.8 million in 2017, edging up by 262,000 members from 2016. They now make up 10% of the national workforce – down substantially from the 20.1% workers who were represented by unions in 1983.
As has been the case in previous years, public-sector employees had a much higher union membership rate at 34.4%. By occupation, the highest unionization rates in 2017 were in protective service occupations (34.7%) and in education, training and library occupations
The lowest union participation rates were found to be in sales; farming, fishing and forestry; food preparation and serving-related occupations; and in computer and mathematical occupations, BLS reported.
Regarding the one-tenth of one percent increase in private sector union membership, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka declared that the “power of working people is on the rise,” citing “critical” organizing victories in several industries.
Trumka also asserted that the BLS statistics represent “more than numbers on a page, it’s a growing movement of working people that can’t be measured as easily.”
It’s not easy. Unions backed away from trying to unionize workers at Walmart after years of futile efforts and tens of millions of dollars wasted.
Among the unions working hard to build membership are the Teamsters, who after decades of effort have penetrated the ranks of the drayage industry at a number of ports, most successfully in Southern California but also in other ports on the East Coast.
On the other hand, they lost ground at FedEx Freight, where they backed away after workers rejected them in elections, including two terminal decertification votes.
Another area where the Teamsters union has been fighting hard is in trying to gather Uber and Lyft drivers under their wing.
In some cities in the West they have managed to create driver councils where they can help the independent contractor drivers discuss issues involving working conditions – but not compensation – with the two companies.
Unions also are facing headwinds generated by a Trump administration busily working to undo most of the pro-union actions taken during the Obama years, especially at the National Labor Relations Board (AA, 1-15-18, P. 1).
Union Worker Centers Grow
Gaining popularity among unions, the worker center concept is where organizers seek to reach out and recruit potential members outside of the workplace and formal organizing campaigns.
Worker centers are usually organized as nonprofit, charitable organizations, claiming to provide education or training services. Although they act like unions in many ways, their non-profit status allows them to harass employers while avoiding labor law restrictions on picketing and boycotts.
How much these centers have grown in importance is detailed in a recent report published by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, based on rigorous and through academic research.
The analysis shows that worker centers are an increasingly essential and well-funded element of organized labor’s strategy to advance its agenda, with tens of millions of dollars funneled into them by both unions and private foundations.
The report shows that in addition to funding and organizational expertise supplied by unions, social justice-oriented foundations gave a total of more than $106 million of direct and indirect grants supporting worker centers between 2013 and 2016.
Center efforts have ranged from direct support for union organizing to pursuing broader goals, such as the “Fight for 15” nationwide campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Worker centers don’t need much support within a workplace – all they need is to enlist a few disgruntled workers to launch a campaign against an employer or for a cause, the Chamber points out.
It is in their support activities for union organizing campaigns that these centers may run into legal difficulties, according to Sean Redmond, executive director of the Chamber’s Workforce Freedom Initiative, which commissioned the study.
“Either way, worker centers are a powerful force for organized labor worth watching closely,” he says.