Predicting Union Activity in 2019

A Look at the Big Picture

Every year we attempt to predict where the labor movement is heading. 2018 was an explosive year for Labor; we heard more than a few times that unions and the labor movement had been dealt a major setback. Several times, we even heard that it had been dealt a death-blow, such as with the Supreme Court's Janus vs. AFSCME decision. However, much as Mark Twain wrote after rumors of his death, "this report of my death was an exaggeration," these reports are not entirely accurate.

Ricardo Torres President & CEO - PSLC


Global Worker Unrest

Despite recent reputational setbacks (think UAW scandals in 2017) and adverse court rulings (Janus vs. AFSCME), unions are carrying on. In fact, we have seen an increase in militant activity, not only in the US, but across the globe. This global action is something we should absolutely be paying attention to in the US. If we dig deeper into what is happening in the US and around the world, we can find indicators of what appears to be a brand-new movement in labor.

Many ask why management should be concerned with union, labor or social movements or strife in other countries. The answer is that behind most of these are various global labor federations. These federations exist around the globe, even in places where the government holds immense sway over the daily lives of its population. Several recent examples of this include:

High-ranking US union officials and labor federations work closely with these worldwide labor federations. The Teamsters are coordinating with the Iranian truck driver strikers and openly supporting them. The USW and AFL-CIO actively campaigned on behalf of Colombia S/A unions and labor federations in order to influence the Colombian government. The USW and ILRF investigated and sued US-based companies like Coca Cola for labor rights violations, including alleged kidnapping, torture and murder of Colombia and Guatemalan union organizers. I personally travelled to Paris twice to observe and learn how to best coordinate mass strikes.

The Arab Spring shook countries and brought down two regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. This was a powerful social movement partially inspired by and further empowering labor movements.

US labor organizations watch global social movements closely, and frequently participate in them. In some instances, US labor is even responsible for initiating the unrest (see the SEIU and airport worker strikes above). Especially with the advances in social media, the world watches the US, while labor watches the world. This is a primary reason that both our PSLaborNews feed and our weekly news update include both domestic and international labor news. When you watch both, it is easier to see the connections and understand why companies need to pay attention to the bigger picture.

Workers' Rights in the US vs. Globally

We often think that the US is among the top in workers' rights globally. This is not necessarily true. According to a 2010 study by Freedom House (The Global State of Workers' Rights: Free Labor in a Hostile World), the US only qualifies as "Mostly Free", along with Brazil, India, Jamaica, the Philippines, Romania, Turkey and others.

Population Breakdown by [Workers' Rights Rating] Score

The condition of workers' rights in the United States, which receives only a Mostly Free rating in this survey, is unique. On one hand, federal law guarantees workers the core rights enshrined in the ILO conventions. The country also has a rich history of labor activism marked by strong unions in the private sector, and a labor leadership that exerts significant influence over social and political affairs. Organized labor remains one of the most important constituencies in the Democratic Party coalition. On the other hand, the United States today has one of the weakest labor movements among advanced economies, has suffered a precipitous decline in private-sector union membership, and —unlike most European countries—features an overall political environment that is distinctly hostile to unions, collective bargaining, and labor protest.

In recent years, unions have been confronted with mounting resistance by employers...

Although I am a labor relations practitioner who does not see the need for unethical practices, I will not pretend that companies have not used a variety of tactics to prevent unionization or violated labor law if it would defeat a union organizing campaign. As courts or the NLRB have often failed to provide meaningful sanctions against companies who violate labor law, there has not been much discouragement of such behavior. However, as the aphorism states, "you catch more flies with honey than vinegar," positive employee relations will almost always provide better results than negative policies/actions.

As the Freedom House study indicates, the US is not the only country to have seen a significant drop in private-sector union participation over the previous four decades. We are joined by almost every other developed nation, including several that Freedom House rated "Free" (Germany and much of the Commonwealth). The study lists several possible causes for this decline, of which only the hiring of "scabs" to replace striking workers could be "blamed" on employers. The remaining causes should be celebrated by proponents of democracy, as they result from worker protection and antidiscrimination laws.

No matter where anyone stands regarding these causes, workers (especially those represented by unions) have begun taking more aggressive stands against their employers. This did not happen overnight or spring from a vacuum; it was heavily influenced by labor organizations.

In recent history, we can look to the global anti-WTO movement, including the "Battle in Seattle" protests in 1999, which I attended as a Union Official. This, in turn, helped spawn the Occupy Wall Street movement, which (in one form or another) spread across the globe. This was then followed by the #BLM and #MeToo movements. All of these have or had the open support of labor unions as unions know that latching onto such social issues will increase interest and support based on the "common interests" they share with the protesters. The Migrant Worker movement also had a big influence on how unions were shaping their organizing strategies and targets. From March through May of 2006, nearly 100 US cities witnessed marches of almost five million migrant workers and allies. The AFL-CIO and other federations, who were never able to gain this much support, were quick to inject themselves into the wave and started to introduce structure to the causes.

The labor industry's future survival is closely linked to riding the wave of these social movements, which is frequently like riding a bronco. When I was a Union Official, we knew that the old perception of labor unions as ineffective, complacent, and "establishment middle-class organizations" could be the true death-knell of our organized labor movement. To combat this, we were always looking for creative young people to bring into the labor cause and buoy our image. This inevitably puts labor on the knife-edge of attempting to not alienate their existing members, attaching themselves to the current emotionally-charged movements, and not set themselves so far from the mainstream that they lose popular support.

Hospitality Industry

In recent developments, the #MeToo movement has joined with the Fight for $15 to work with McDonald's workers across the nation to demand protection from sexual harassment from both employees and customers. McDonald's employees in Florida, in partnership with both the Fight for $15 and #BLM organizations, struck again this month demanding workplace violence training and protection from violence.

Hotel workers, and especially housekeepers, have won many victories over the past year, both with organizing wins and contract advances after strike actions.

Many of the issues addressed were basic needs, such as panic buttons, necessary to curb abuse from hotel guests. This has been an ongoing concern since I was still involved with the unions almost 20 years ago. Management's failure to provide panic buttons long ago was a serious mistake; it would have allowed them to build goodwill with their employees and avoid the "union mess" they are in now. When I was working as a National Union Organizing Director, my department won campaigns at many hotels with these same issues: on-the-job injuries and abuses by hotel guests. We fought for panic buttons and hotel client extraction for abusers who attacked housekeepers and other hotel staff decades ago. I am amazed that these same issues have not been addressed proactively and still exist today.

Last year's Marriot simultaneous strike in several cities was a wise strategy on the union's part. The union knew the hotel chain's weakness and exploited it; they hit some of the company's busiest hotels at the same time, appealed to public sentiments and published the locations of nearby hotels that were not on strike. The smartest move was to begin preparing the workers a year in advance for a long strike utilizing an "us against them" stance. They also provided strike line entertainment and meals, including Thanksgiving dinner for strikers and their families. This was critical in maintaining unity amongst the strikers and their families, as the families are the strikers' support base.

I served as an International Union Strike Director for years; my last strike was the Detroit Newspaper Strike of 2,600 strikers that began in 1995 and finally resulted in a contract in 2002. Most of those strikers never returned to their pre-strike jobs. I came into Detroit to manage the strike and, more importantly, the strikers. My biggest struggle was trying to keep the strikers from crossing the picket line, as the six unions involved failed to prepare the workers for the strike and failed to have any ideas on how to pressure the companies to return to the bargaining table. The newspapers' management had spent two years preparing strong strike contingency plans and was fully prepared to wait out the unions. All unionized companies should have such plans in place.

Teachers' Union Activity

Teachers have been in the forefront of the labor movement over the past two years. In my opinion, they have dispelled the fear of strikes for many workers by taking on their local governments and walking out, frequently in defiance of laws specifically forbidding them from striking. These teachers have shown that they will no longer simply follow the unions' lead.

Many years ago, I was speaking with Richard Trumka (the current AFL-CIO president) about his actions during the Pittston Coal Strike of 1989, during which the union was fined millions of dollars for violating injunctions. Trumka told me that his reasoning was that they would wallpaper the union hall with the injunctions, then when they won the strike the injuctions would go away. As we have seen with the teachers, they too turned the tables on the government.

Tech Industry

Unions have recent begun trying to make inroads into the tech industry. Unions have historically had a hard time with the industry; why have these organizing efforts fared so poorly? According to management, unionization is unpopular because tech workers enjoy a dazzling array of fringe benefits including flexible work schedules, attractive workplaces, job security, opportunities for advancement, and competitive wages and salaries. Unions have thus been intimidated into not aggressively organizing this field for years.

Given all that, unions have actually been chipping away at the high-tech wall for years. Starting as early as 1993, the Silicon Valley tech company Versatronex was organized. Versatronex' employees struck in late 1992 to force recognition, then filed a NLRB petition for an election. When the company knew they would lose the election, they decided to close the plant. This sent a clear message to unions to not attempt to organize high-tech workers. For years following Versatronex, neither the AFL-CIO nor the Change to Win Federation would risk the vast amount of resources necessary to organize the kind of social movement among workers in the tech industry that might prompt unionization.

However, tech companies are increasingly hiring contractors and temps and utilizing service vendors. As a result, some union victories have accrued among cafeteria workers, janitors, security guards and bus drivers at high-tech companies like Facebook, Cisco, Amazon and others. After security guards were unionized at Facebook, Ben Field, the executive officer at the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council said: "Silicon Valley, home to the world's most prosperous tech companies, suffers from a devastating level of income inequality and this organizing victory is key to closing that gap." The unions are continuing this push. A New York Times story from 2018, exposing how Google executives accused of sexual misconduct were protected, infuriated tech workers to the point that 20,000 Google employees walked out in protest in 5 cities across the globe. The Google Walkout demonstrates the increasing tech worker organizing taking place. Labor is also connecting the Google efforts with the #MeToo and #NoTechForIce movements. Labor organizers equate organizing the tech industry with the automotive organizing efforts of the early 20th century.

Retail Industry

Organizing retail has returned to many unions' radar screens. Big box stores like Target have been hit with petitions recently. IKEA has more than 15,000 employees and 39 stores in the US, and is growing; we predict more union activity at this predominantly non-union company (in the US).

IKEA has frequently been accused of implementing anti-union tactics across the globe, as alleged by UNI Global Union and US-based UFCW. IKEA has also stepped up captive-audience meetings in the US to mitigate union activity.

Amazon's fulfilment centers have also been getting a lot of attention from activists across the country, most recently in New York City, were Amazon is investing $2.5 billion and plans to hire 25,000 people over the next 15 years. The RWDSU has been making a strong push to organize Amazon's fulfilment center workers, going to so far as to issue a hyperbolic statement in response to a recent bear-spray leak, despite the fact that bear spray is significantly less incapacitating than self-defense pepper spray.

Transportation Industry

The trucking industry's shortage of drivers is making them a union target again. Many trucking companies are increasing their pay and signing bonuses and lowering their standards. The American Trucking Associations states that there is a shortage of over 51,000 drivers, which is leading to slow service, and is expected to worsen. Amazon and Walmart are the cause of much of the increased demand.

Deregulation in both the Carter and Reagan administrations made it easier for nonunion workers to get jobs in the trucking industry, especially after the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 hit the trucking industry head-on:

…This new competition sharply eroded the strength of the drivers' union, the International Brotherhood of Teamster. Before deregulation, ICC-regulated truckers paid unionized workers about 50 percent more than comparable workers in other industries. Although unionized drivers are still paid a premium, by 1985 unionized workers were only 28 percent of the trucking work force, down from around 60 percent in the late seventies.

Prior to deregulation, the Teamsters had 2.3 million members. However, as unionized trucking companies closed due to increased competition, the Teamsters have lost significant membership, reporting fewer than 1.28 million members in 2015.

According to recent studies, 71% of all freight is moved by trucks and grocery stores would run out of food in three days with substantial strike action from truckers. Trucker frustration is at a record high, so much so that independent driver groups like "Black Smoke Matters" have formed. The Black Smoke Matters group, which boasts 15,000+ members, are planning a strike on 4/12/2019 to bring their issues to light. This threat is one of the many reasons unions are paying more attention to truck drivers. If labor is not already looking at grassroots movements like the Black Smoke Matters movement and the core reasons why they are forming, it is only a matter of time before they do.

Current State of Organizing, by the Numbers

I believe that the diversity of the newer work force is the energy behind these organizing efforts; I also feel that the labor leaders are slow to respond to gain the full benefits of this new energy. For unions to truly engage with this new generation of potential members, they need to adapt from their current centralized power structure. However, as we can see from the TDU's (Teamsters for a Democratic Union) formation in the seventies, most union officials will probably be resistant to giving up their power, which explains their failure to adapt.

Stats – All RC Petition vs. Vote Results

Everything being equal, the current organizing levels are low, with a 21% reduction in petitions filed since 2016. Are unions losing their will to fight? That possibility is furthest from the truth. In 2016, the unions won 50% of the elections after an RC petition was filed. In 2018, the unions won 49% of the elections after an RC was filed. Compare those results to 2010, where unions won just 43% of the elections.

Stats – RC Petitions with Elections vs. Vote Results

Considering that not all RC petitions lead to an election (as some are dismissed by the NLRB and others withdrawn by the union), comparing the win rates versus actual elections is even more interesting. In 2010, unions won 1,036 of the 1,571 elections held, equating to a 66% victory rate. In 2016, unions won 1,014 of the 1,396 elections held, which is a 73% victory rate. In 2018, unions won 790 of the 1,120 elections held, resulting in a 71% victory rate.

Union RC Activity 2009 - 2018 with Union Win Rates NLRB
Year Petitions Filed Elections Held Won by Union Lost by Union Dismissed Withdrawn
Count Union Won Count Union Won
2009 2,082 43.9% 1,335 68.5% 915 420 46 657
2010 2,380 43.5% 1,571 65.9% 1,036 535 37 725
2011 2,108 44.4% 1,398 66.9% 935 463 43 667
2012 1,974 44.0% 1,348 64.4% 868 480 38 597
2013 1,986 42.9% 1,330 64.1% 852 478 27 607
2014 2,053 46.4% 1,407 67.7% 952 440 24 586
2015 2,198 51.0% 1,574 71.2% 1,120 480 39 663
2016 2,029 50.0% 1,396 72.6% 1,014 401 38 610
2017 1,854 50.7% 1,366 68.8% 940 375 29 493
2018 1,597 49.5% 1,120 70.5% 790 330 17 386
Union Success Rate Has Improved

It appears that the unions are strategically targeting where they put their organizing money and are not afraid to dip their toes in the water with RC petitions, as they know that they can withdraw before a stipulated election agreement is reached and come back later if they think they have a better chance. Overall, total win counts have been fluid, but the unions have improved their success rate as a percentage.

The question is: with a drop in RC petitions of 33% in 2018 as compared to the number of petitions filed in 2010, will the number of petitions continue to drop, or will we see a resurgence in organizing activity?

Be Ready for a Resurgence

With the increased merging of social and labor groups, I expect that union organizing campaigns are set for a turnaround. For instance, the National Women's March made workers' rights part of their agenda (pages 44-49) as inequality is triggering worker dissent.

The U.S. is more unequal than most of its developed-world peers. According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. ranked 10th out of 31 OECD countries in income inequality based on "market incomes" – that is, before taking into account the redistributive effects of tax policies and income-transfer programs such as Social Security and unemployment insurance. After accounting for taxes and transfers, the U.S. had the second-highest level of inequality after Chile.

Unions like the UAW have more than $760 million in its strike fund and can afford to either pay striking workers or loan/divert monies to organizing efforts. Strike activity and labor violence has increased across the globe, and some of these strikers have begun to receive government concessions. Will this be the future for US workers? With the increase in teachers strikes, including the recent UTLA teacher strike, Marriott workers on strike in eight cities, and grassroot movements like the Black Smoke Matters work stoppage planned, we are already seeing signs that US workers are more likely to vote for strike actions in 2019.

We are in a position, where no matter which side of the aisle you affiliate with, you must admit that we are very politically divided as a country. This is an enormous cause for concern when it comes to union activity predictions. Not only do we have a sense that union activity will see a resurgence in 2019, but we also need to start looking even further into the future. Depending on how aggressive the new House in D.C. acts, and pending the outcome of the 2020 election, the unions could have another president like President Obama leading the way and actively supporting causes and legislation that give the unions even more "gifts" than President Obama did with the "quickie elections" rule, amongst many other rules instituted by the NLRB during his two terms in office.

Eyes Wide Open in 2019

2019 is a time for business leaders to open their eyes and pay attention to the big picture. We have new industries that the unions are targeting. We have social movements springing up in the US and across the world that show no signs of slowing down. We have an uncertain political future that the unions are certain to take advantage of in 2019 and 2020. Finally, we have a huge potential for union resurgence not just in the US, but across the world.

The state of labor unions is very complicated but, rest assured, they are not going to just lay down their arms and go away any time soon. 2019 should be an active year for labor, and those wishing to maintain their union-free advantage should not only be aware of what is happening inside the labor movement, but also start budgeting for employee engagement programs that align with the concerns that people are taking to the streets and fighting for.

We are in a new era for employee engagement. Employees need to feel that they are being listened to as these social movements grip the nation and stir hearts and minds. If corporate leadership fails to listen to their employees, rest assured that the unions are only too happy to get involved and interfere with employers' ability to deal directly with workers.