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Gallup Podcast
Are U.S. Labor Unions Making a Comeback?
Gallup Podcast

Are U.S. Labor Unions Making a Comeback?

Organized labor in the U.S. is having an "exciting and interesting moment." How much of a factor has the pandemic played in its resurgence? What factors should employees consider when voting to unionize? And how are companies reacting to labor organization efforts? Dr. Thomas A. Kochan, Post-Tenure George Maverick Bunker Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a faculty member in the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research, and Dr. Harry C. Katz, Jack Sheinkman Professor of Collective Bargaining and Director of the Scheinman Institute on Conflict Resolution at Cornell University, join the podcast to offer their expert insights.

Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.

Mohamed Younis 00:07

For Gallup, I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is The Gallup Podcast. This week, we explore the current state and future of labor unions. Are they a thing of the past or making a comeback? We asked two professors who have been studying the topic for decades. First we'll speak to Harry Katz, professor of collective bargaining at Cornell. And we'll also speak to Thomas Kochan, professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management. Professor Katz, welcome to the podcast.

Harry Katz 00:34
My pleasure.

Mohamed Younis 00:35
Much of the focus has been on unions that have been successfully formed lately. But we have some recent examples of rejections of union efforts, including Volkswagen in 2019, Boeing in 2017 and many other smaller examples. Are there any common threads that you see among places where union efforts have failed or been rejected?

Harry Katz 00:57
You're right that there have been a number of failures of union organizing, as well as the successes that are getting a lot of publicity. What you see is, many of those failures have occurred in, in Southern or rural locations. The ones you cited, I'd also add recent elections at Amazon's Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse, a large warehouse where there were multiple elections because the National Labor Relations Board found Amazon in violation of their behavior in the first election. Yet, yet the union trying to organize there lost in both those elections. And so what you see is in the South, there's a culture that's less receptive to unions. People have less familiarity with unions. They don't have as many relatives that have belonged to unions.

Harry Katz 01:45
And in addition, the other thing that's gone on in some of those campaigns is very strong resistance by politicians in the areas of those plants and organizations -- politicians saying, we don't, we don't want you to organize. It's a bad thing. And that's also led to some of the negative reaction we've seen. And, you know, as well, there's, it's the case that where employers take advantage of the fact that the U.S. labor law allows very aggressive behavior by employers, sometimes crossing over into illegal activities. Even the legal activities that are allowed allow employers to run very aggressive antiunion campaigns. And that's contributed to union losses.

Mohamed Younis 02:37
And it is really interesting that you mention that. We've been asking about unions really since the '40s. In terms of public opinion, public perception, they're doing pretty well. They actually hit a high a couple of years ago. So from the public perspective, they're still seen as a really a positive thing. I want to ask you, if you were an, an employee -- and you advise companies and unions all the time -- where a union is being formed or underway, what are the factors an employee should consider in joining, whether it's best for them or not?

Harry Katz 03:13
That's a great question. Well the first thing employees ought to keep in mind is, unions have been shown systematically, with very rare exception, to lead to substantial improvements in wages and benefits. Unionized workers earn, on average, 15%-20% more in their wages and even more so in the benefits that they get. So unions have been successful at raising earnings. People ought to think about that. Unions also bring, in the United States, a grievance procedure, a complaint procedure whereby the worker feels they've been unfairly punished, dismissed or penalized for some behavior, they can process a grievance that ultimately, it will be resolved through arbitration, with an outside, neutral third party making a decision about whether they've been treated fairly. That's an important plus.

Harry Katz 04:04
You know, at the same time, the employees ought to think about, do they feel a lot of affinity with the leaders who are either leading a campaign for a union or the current leaders in the union? Do the individual employees identify with what those leaders are articulating? Do they have confidence in them? And also, what kind of relationship does the employee have? What unions provide is collective voice, a mechanism for employees to, through a means, to voice their views as to what should happen and how they should be treated. Well, some employees feel more comfortable just pursuing their own channels of communication. They're satisfied with their relationship perhaps with their supervisor. They may well empathize substantially with the employer. They don't have many grievances, and so they may feel like they can do just as well or better speaking up on their own.

Harry Katz 05:00
The other thing that U.S. unions often bring is heavy reliance on seniority rights in promotions and layoffs and job assignments. Some workers feel they don't, they don't want to be bound by seniority; they want to get by through their own individual talents and initiative. They feel that they don't want to wait around to accumulate seniority, and that makes them less interested in unions. All those things should come into play as people consider whether or not to either join or support a union.

Mohamed Younis 05:30
Companies, of course, where unionization is being explored will often communicate to their employees the negative repercussions of the union. I want to ask really two questions: How factual are those representations? Usually they obviously have a vested interest. But on the other hand, how pure hands kind of clean at the table are unions? I mean, unions themselves have a lot of trouble, like any large political organization, particularly when they get really large. I hate to be the guy that references a movie, but the movie "Hoffa" is kind of like the quintessential example of unions doing good but also doing a lot of bad in trying to pursue the good that they're doing. How accurate is our perception of unions today in America, do you think?

Harry Katz 06:19
Well, first off, on the employer side, as you said, employers have an interest in sort of exaggerating the costs or difficulties that unions bring. I mean, what an employer emphasizes, oh, you'll have to pay dues. You, there may be a strike. Yeah, you do have to pay dues; there may be a strike. But again, the evidence is unions provide substantial improvements in pay to employees. The other thing to keep in mind is there's research data, extensive surveys that have been done of existing union members, and they show overwhelming support for the current unions that represent those employees. People are generally very satisfied with their union representation, not only because they get better pay, but they get a complaint procedure.

Harry Katz 07:07
Now, of course, there are always are exceptions. There's cases where there's corruption in unions, just as you said; there's cases where there's corruptions in in corporations. But there's, that's, the movie's portrayal, employees' portrayal of the extent of that corruption is incredibly exaggerated. Sure, there are some cases where union leaders are corrupt, but they're relatively rare. And again, workers overwhelmingly support their current unions. Our law allows workers, through a majority vote, to decertify -- to get rid of union representation. That in fact happens very, very rarely, reflecting the fact that most workers are satisfied with their union representation. And just workers ought to keep in mind they have that out. If they find that the union is corrupt, even through election processes, they can change the leadership in the union. And many unions are very democratic; there's high turnover among leaders, in response to what the workers feel. But as well, there's these procedures -- decertification, which allow employees, if they so choose, to get rid of a union representative if they're dissatisfied.

Mohamed Younis 08:14
I'm really happy you made that clarification because, you know, the news tends to focus on what's wrong in any case with any institution. And we tend to only really hear of the most egregious cases of, you know, misconduct, whether it's on the side of unions or employers or even employees. Unions have changed a lot over the years, but it seems like they're really maintaining momentum and gaining momentum. I wanted to get your take on sort of the future. Do you see unions continuing to gain momentum in the U.S. employment economy?

Harry Katz 08:47
Well, one thing to point out is, as you mentioned earlier, is that attitudes of workers have shifted to be substantially supportive of unions. Gallup polls and other polls show really substantial support among employees for unionization, and especially strong support among younger workers. One number I remember as showing kind of a question regarding, "Do you approve of unionization?" And I think it was, for young employees, something like 77% of those employees think favorably of unions -- much higher than was the case, you know, 5, 10, 20 years ago. So that bodes well for unionization.

Harry Katz 09:30
At the same time, I think -- and I've been saying this to many parties; my colleagues at times at the university get carried away in saying, you know, this is a revolution. We're going to see an enormous growth in unions. This is just the tip of the iceberg. It still very much remains to be seen, right. We've seen over 200 Starbucks cafes get unionized, but those cafes typically include 10 to 20 employees, right? It's not an enormous number. There's some unionization occurring in healthcare, in the hospitality sector with UNITE HERE! The SEIU is active organizing employees in a variety of occupations. But when you look at the data so far, we certainly see a blip up in worker militancy, interest in unions, and some successes -- again, fairly modest successes, when you add up the totals and Starbucks or even that large Amazon facility on Staten Island, when you include that; the total number of workers joining unions is still relatively modest. And unions are having a hard time even keeping up with the growth occurring in the workplace. Only 6% of employees in the private sector in the U.S. now belong to unions. The number of people who belong to unions has been growing, but so has the size of the workforce, the people who are eligible for unionization.

Harry Katz 10:54
So we haven't yet seen an amount of organizing that's led to a substantial increase in the share of employees in the private sector who are organized. Public sector is a different story; there, there's a much higher level of unionization, and it's hold, and it's been holding steady at more than a third of the workforce in the public sector organized. What's going to happen in the future? Again, I think we see signs that younger workers especially are demanding a seat at the table; that they want respect. They're concerned about how they're treated at the workplace. You know, they, they're upset about how they were treated during the pandemic. So there's definitely a feistiness among workers and especially younger workers. So I think there's signs of some momentum, as you suggested. There's momentum within the labor movement. But we still don't yet know if that's going to lead to a sizable increase in the share of the workforce that's represented by unions.

Mohamed Younis 11:53
What a great breakdown. And that 6% of the private sector, obviously the larger employer here in the U.S. economy is, really brings things into focus. On that note, that's Dr. Harry Katz of Cornell University. Dr. Katz, thanks for being with us.

Harry Katz 12:07
My pleasure.

Mohamed Younis 12:08
Next, we get another perspective from Dr. Thomas Kochan. He is a professor of industrial relations, work and employment at MIT's Sloan School of Management. Professor Kochan, welcome to the podcast.

Thomas Kochan 12:21
Thank you, Mohamed, I'm delighted to be here.

Mohamed Younis 12:23
You've been studying labor unionization for decades. I want to start by just asking you, how would you describe the current state of union efforts? How does it compare -- this moment -- to previous eras of America's workforce?

Thomas Kochan 12:37
Well this is a very, very exciting and interesting moment, because we haven't seen the type of upsurge in union organizing and collective actions and actions in different forms than, that go even beyond collective bargaining. For a very long time, probably the earliest example would have been the 1930s, when industrial unions were born and they were going on strike in large numbers from 1933 to 1935, led to the passage of our labor law. And then again in the early 1960s, when public-sector employees started to organize and really gain momentum. But we've seen a longstanding decline of, of unions, and now this, in this last year or two, a significant upsurge. In the last year, we've seen about a 57% increase in requests for union elections to the National Labor Relations Board compared to the prior year. So something is really going on here.

Mohamed Younis 13:41
It's fascinating that you kind of take us through the history. Although membership has, you know, declined and risen in those eras, the public perception of unions has stayed pretty strong; it's stayed pretty positive. The pandemic has changed everything in our world. How did the pandemic impact this recent burst of union activity? Is it at all related?

Thomas Kochan 14:04
Oh, it's very much related. The pent-up pressures that have led to this organizing have been there for a long time. The gap between productivity growth and wage growth -- meaning that wages were flatlined and productivity and profits were increasing, and more money was going to business and capital than to labor -- that had been going on since the 1980s and continued. But then along comes at, the pandemic, and there's really an acceleration and an amplification of all these pressures. And they kind of emerged and exploded, because workers felt that this was a time when they need to really think about their jobs, their families, what they're achieving, what they're not achieving. And then those who we labeled as "essential workers" have a special grievance because they bore the brunt of working during the pandemic and expected to be treated with more respect, and not enough of them see this.

Thomas Kochan 15:07
And so we saw those pent-up pressures, as you indicated. Your own polls at Gallup showed a bit of an increase in support for unions, up to the 86% or so. And our survey, a national survey, showed that there was a substantial increase in the percentage of workers who said they would join a union if given the chance. That's now about 50% of the nonunion workforce. Those same surveys asking that question decades ago, in the '70s and in the 1990s, were about one-third. So we're seeing a growth in interest in organizing, a growth in interest across the labor force, growth in different forms of organizing that workers are looking for today.

Mohamed Younis 15:53
Some of the biggest brand names in our modern era -- Apple, Amazon, Starbucks; it goes on and on -- they're now facing the reality of successful unionization efforts, to some degree, on a local level. Do you have a sense of how companies are reacting to these successes? But obviously not very happily, in that they have to deal with it. But more importantly, after a workforce is unionized in these environments, how does an employer and employee relationship continue? How does it, how does it grow? How does it continue to thrive?

Thomas Kochan 16:27
Well, that's a really, really important question, Mohamed. And I'm very, very disappointed in the response of most employers, not all. But most employers have followed a knee-jerk reaction of resisting unions, retaliating against people who try to organize. Some staying within our labor law, some clearly violating the labor law at will, because the penalties are so weak to enforce it that it may make sense for employers to fire workers or to retaliate. And so that knee-jerk reaction is carried over from the 20th century, but it doesn't work anymore today. Today, workers want respect. They expect that they should have a right to speak up and organize if they want to. And so while the resistance continues -- and the big companies have resources to resist very strongly and for a long time -- it's not having the same effect as it did in prior times.

Thomas Kochan 17:25
Now some companies, Microsoft for example, just recently announced that, you know, it, it's rethinking that approach and that it will not oppose or at least stay neutral and respect workers' rights to organize. And if they choose to do so, then they're going to go on and do what you suggested or asked about, and that is build a decent labor-management relation; build a productive one. And we have tools to do that. We have many organizations and have built positive labor-management relations, but it takes a different management strategy to work with unions than to oppose them. And so management has to go through a transition process here of learning what companies with unions have been able to do and to shape their labor-management relations in ways that meet the needs of their customers and their business and their investors and their workforce.

Thomas Kochan 18:20
Now that's not rocket science, but it is, requires listening to the employees, respecting them, negotiating with them with modern tools of negotiations -- not just, you know, the traditional arm's length, but really trying to get at the root causes of problems that are addressing, that are being addressed in negotiations. And engaging the union leadership as partners at the highest levels of the firm, so that union, unions and members understand the business challenges that the company is facing and can work with them -- as many did during the pandemic -- to adapt to the, to the need for flexible work systems and all of the other adjustments. So we know how to do this, and it's not rocket science, and we're teaching this now in more and more business schools. And so it's time for American management to get with it.

Mohamed Younis 19:15
I want to ask with a totally off-the-cuff question, but one that came to mind as you were talking: If I'm a worker, and people are, coworkers are trying to unionize where I work, is it always a good idea for me to join the union? What would be your advice, what is your advice to employees that find a unionization effort unfolding? How do they know if it's the right move for them or not?

Thomas Kochan 19:40
My advice to workers is to think hard about what their expectations and aspirations for their job and their career are. And if there are ways that those aspirations are not being met, and they can turn to a union or to their coworkers to form a union to address those issues, then by all means, they ought to do it. If they feel that there's not much more that a union could do, that's their choice. And I think the key thing is to get them to think about it, talk with their peers, work with their colleagues, listen to what others are saying. Protect each other if somebody is being attacked and stand in solidarity if they're being mistreated, because that's what is going to change things in this country. But make those decisions based on their pragmatic interests and their needs.

Thomas Kochan 20:37
Now, I think if most workers do that, they will come to the conclusion that yes, I may be reasonably satisfied or I have some concerns, but I do think if we work together and we work with our employer, we can improve operations to improve productivity, and we can improve our own situation and share in the gains of the profits or the performance that we generate. So I see it as a positive step. I don't want workers to have either a knee-jerk ideological reaction for or against unions but think hard, in terms of their situation. And then shape the union. That's the exciting thing that we're seeing right now. We're seeing so many young workers saying, look we want to join, we want to form a union, but we want to shape it. We want to lead it. We want it, want it to address the issues we are concerned about. And yes, we appreciate and need the support of existing trade unions, but we don't want to be controlled by them. And so we're seeing a realignment of how organizing is occurring that I think is very, very interesting and very healthy for the future of our labor-management relations.

Mohamed Younis 21:52
That's Thomas Kochan, professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management. Dr. Kochan, it was great to have you on. Thanks for making the time.

Thomas Kochan 22:01
Well, now, thank you Mohamed.

Mohamed Younis 22:03
That's our show. Thank you for tuning in. To subscribe and stay up to date with our latest conversations, just search for "The Gallup Podcast" wherever you podcast. And for more key findings from Gallup News, go to or follow us on Twitter @Gallupnews. If you have suggestions for the show, email The Gallup Podcast is directed by Curtis Grubb and produced by Justin McCarthy. I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is Gallup: reporting on the will of the people since the 1930s.

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