Don’t Discount Unions Yet—They Still Have Some Influence Over Your Employees

Trade unions are declining, according to The Economist, with U.S. ranks falling to 14.5 million in 2013 from a peak of 20 million in 1979, due to “structural changes in advanced economies such as a decline in unskilled factory workers and modern models of work organization in today’s factories.

However, CEOs should tread carefully right now, as union leaders and their allies have more reason for optimism about their ranks than they have had in years. New factors including the United Auto Workers’ successful defiance of Fiat Chrysler and a tightening labor market are breathing new life into the old model.

UAW workers rejected an initial tentative labor pact with the automaker, forcing the company to sweeten its offer significantly in its second bid for rank-and-file approval in a process that is still ongoing.

Nearly six in 10 Americans now have a positive view of labor unions, signifying support that has grown by five percentage points since its lowest ebb in 2009, according to a summer Gallup poll. Gallup found that 58% of Americans overall approve of labor unions, with 37% in favor of them having a stronger influence in U.S. politics, a big increase over six years ago, while 35% want unions to have less influence, a number that is down from 42% in 2009.

“58% of Americans overall approve of labor unions, with 37% in favor of them having a stronger influence in U.S. politics, a big increase over six years ago.”

The slowly improving economy and more rapidly improving labor market also has elevated workers’ regard for unions, observers said. A surge in labor unrest earlier in the year, including the dock-worker strike that embroiled West Coast ports, has demonstrated that unions still have economic leverage. And more Americans are riled about the issue of “income inequality,” pitting regular workers against highly paid executives—an issue that both union leaders and Democratic political candidates increasingly are exploiting.

As public momentum builds behind calls for a “living wage,” considered to be $15 an hour by many activists, unions’ association with the cause is gaining them allies and support.

Also, organized labor is feeling its oats in the success it enjoyed when the National Labor Relations Board recently ruled that waste processor Browning Ferris is a “joint employer” of workers for the contracting company it hired for some jobs. Unionists believe it’s easier to organize a workforce if it’s legally united in that way. A ruling by the NLRB on a similar case involving McDonald’s franchisees is being widely awaited.

It wasn’t long ago that many were ready to write off private-sector unions, as their numbers dwindled and as they dealt with setbacks such as the transformation of Michigan and Indiana into right-to-work states over the last few years.

The end goal is always to ensure that your workers feel valued and appreciated by your company and its executives, and have a clear path to growth. But while there are more and, some would say, better ways to do that than with union membership, CEOs should tread cautiously around this issue while it still matters to your staff.


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events