Democrats in Congress have reintroduced the Richard L. Trumka Organizing Act (PRO), which would provide new protections for workers who want to unionize. Last week, witnesses testified before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, including AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler. In support of the PRO Act, Schuler called on workplace leaders: "Unions and the labor movement are ready and willing to work with businesses across the country to become more skilled and efficient and create better results." Everyone,” he said.
The need to organize job opportunities is growing in the country. In the year to 2022, according to the National Labor Relations Board, union election petitions increased by 53% and union membership increased by 200,000, even as the general non-union sector added more workers. According to Gallup, overall public approval of the union, at 71 percent, is the highest in more than half a century.
As the demand for unions grows among professionals and workers in the workplace, analyzing relations with organized workers is becoming an increasingly valuable skill for leaders in industries such as technology, media, and education. And amid this wave of unionization, Schuler said, employers have an opportunity to rewrite the adversarial relationship between workers and management.
We spoke with Schuler about what that change would look like. Excerpt from our talk, slightly edited for length and clarity.
Much of the coverage of labor organizing in recent months has focused on the contentious relationship between organized workers and management, such as Starbucks' unionization efforts, and responses from management, including CEO Howard Schultz. How is the collaborative relationship?
It shouldn't be competitive. And this is what I wish Howard Schultz understood: associations can add value to your business. It's about listening to your employees and listening to their experiences. They know this business better than anyone, having worked the front lines in a store or coffee shop. They know how much it costs to make a profit. Sitting at such a table not only gives you voice and prestige, but also helps improve business competitiveness and success.
Across industries – health, automotive, entertainment – we have many examples of companies saying, “Employees are my most valuable asset. Human capital matters. It is an investable asset, not a depreciable expense. For example, Microsoft noticed a trend where employees wanted more voice and seats, so they decided to go independent. They said, "If our union wants it, let's go." We accept" This is a company that sees potential in partnership. And few people know that Hollywood is one of the most integrated industries in the country, and they work with their unions. We have good salaries and benefits, and we have production how amazing.. In our film and television industry.. It's a win-win situation.. What it looks like: Workers can support their families through contracts, and unions add value by helping unions become more profitable.
The exact point where rubber met the road was when workers expressed their desire to form a union. For many managers, including middle managers, this can be a scary time when they perceive this as an attack on themselves and react badly. How can leaders fix this time themselves?
At the heart of all this dynamic is the concept of power. A lot of times companies think, "Oh, unions are going to interfere with my decision-making abilities." Yes, they ask for input, but they cannot unilaterally force them to do or not do something. It is about looking at interaction and relational processes from a value-added perspective, not just through competition. Leaders need to remember that it's not about you.
We are seeing an increase in unionization among blue-collar workers and professionals who do not align with traditional union workers. What is behind this?
It's mostly about salary, benefits and health care — a matter of your expected bread and butter — but also sitting at your boss's table and negotiating the intangibles. This could be a work environment or safety issue, or having a say in how technology is implemented in your workplace. For example, we are increasing workplace surveillance in the professional sector. Getting out of covid is the new time. People demand work from home and flexibility, and companies provide it, but with conditions. "We want you here right now. We want you working at your desk with no time off. We'll see you on camera, and we'll watch you measure the locks. Without unions, you have no say in the process. Or the ability to put up fences around it.”
Becoming a union helps employees gain the power to shape these policies, including how and when information is used for disciplinary purposes. At the AFL-CIO Institute of Technology, we put a lot of energy and focus on employee protections from how information is used and the necessary privacy protections for employees. This is the only unifying question asked by the work.
Read the full transcript of our talk, including the role of unions in building health care infrastructure and what recession means for organized labor.