An article several weeks ago from Business Journals, or Business First in Columbus, ran a headline that included this: “… Union Membership in Ohio Sinks…” The author was supposedly comparing data that had just been released from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to 2008 data. The problem with the headline, it’s not entirely true.
It is true union membership in Ohio has decreased since 2008 by almost two points but the problem is the headline is extremely misleading. To give the impression unions are on the decline, the author has emphasized that information not just in the headline but in bold print in the article. The author fails to mention the increase of union workers that has occurred in the last year in both Ohio and other states according to the same source he sites. In some cases, the increases were significant and that has helped to increase union membership nationally.
The increase in Ohio union membership was small, only about .1%, but when you consider what the author is trying to imply, this is very good news. In two states there was a substantial increase of almost 2% which also is good when you take in other negative influences unions have faced. New Hampshire and Hawaii each saw increases of 1.8% and 1.5% respectively. Instead of membership sinking as it was implied, it must mean New Hampshire and Hawaii membership is escalating! States that already had high union membership also saw increases in one year.
While it would be great to say everything is improving, and to counter the negative information the author proclaimed, there still appears to be some problems for unions. The rate of membership continues to decline since the first year data was collected in 1983 about union membership. At that time, union membership was about 20% compared to almost 11% today. The good news, though, is the decline in numbers is at a much slower pace. The other piece of good news is it appears there are two other specific groups of employees that are seeing steady increases in union membership.
The first of the two groups is the Millennial age group. They had the biggest increase among the age groups. Almost three-fourths of that employee population is unionized. According to a recent Pew Research poll, unions appeal to this group and there are a variety of reasons for it. One reason is the millennial group likes to have a voice in the workplace. They feel they have the greatest influence on customers since they work with them directly so unions provide them with an opportunity to be more involved with workplace decisions. Millennials also like unions in the traditional sense that they will help with job security, pay, benefits and other workplace issues. Another reason is unions are involved in social issues beyond the workplace and that appeals to millennials. They like unions because they work on legislative issues needing to be changed such as homelessness and poverty, healthcare, childcare and other needs. We’ve blogged before about the George Meany banquet that recognizes the achievements of young people working on community issues. There can be other reasons, too, this age group has greater union representation. It could be unions are able to organize workplaces where more millennials work or it could be more millennials are working in more unionized environments. Whatever the reason, this is a growth sector for unions.
The other group that’s gaining in union representation is the professional sector such as attorneys, engineers, teachers and nurses. Recently, media outlets have also seen more organizing drives as younger workers who work in these venues see unions as a means of help for the issues they are facing such as job security, pay and benefits and others. More professionals are joining unions for reasons like the other group. They want their voices heard. Some are concerned about quality of work issues, they want to make improvements to those they serve, and they want to address training issues that help maintain standards and credentials. Professionals associated with unions are seeing more of an increase than those who have not been associated with a union but even that is changing as others see the need for assistance on work related issues. Professionals, like the millennials, see unions as social change agents which again is exemplified at the George Meany Banquet with professionals either helping students or being involved with community needs.
The headline and the Business First article seemed to signal a death blow to unions. They linked two significant issues for unions that’s related to their ability to survive. One was membership levels and the other was a Supreme Court case that could also impact the financial resources of unions. It was almost as if everything had already been decided. That could be but looking further into that data from the author’s source gives a completely different picture. According to that data and other information, unions are still very much in demand. There may be shifts in membership such as age groups, locations, and professions but all indications are the same. It’s also backed up by a poll from Pew Research that shows a more favorable opinion of unions is growing among Americans. The challenge for unions is how to capture these shifts and the momentum that is occurring.
One thing that is particularly important for unions to do is counter negative and false messages such as that of the Business First headline and article. Union members are proud people but they also need to let everyone know about the great things they do.
Union membership is changing. It is much more diverse than in the past but according to The Department of Professional Employees(DPE), which is an arm of the AFL-CIO, the need is the same – increase for wages. No matter what the occupation is, EVERYONE has a basic need for economic well being. In a 2018 Guide To Organizing Professionals, the DPE suggests a different message focused around specific groups such as age, gender, or race; or to increase support for those already in a union; or to build an organizing drive around a specific issue. Some unions have said their best organizing strategy is to start with a social issue and others have said labor legislation needs to be updated. All of those are great ideas but it’s important to limit the negativity and focus on new ideas because it’s always tempting and easy to do things the same way they’ve always been done.