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Why rising public support for labor doesn’t mean unions are winning

Amazon workers at the LDJ5 Amazon warehouse demonstrate in support of the union on April 24, 2022 in Staten Island, New York. The union vote at the LDJ5 was defeated on May 2, 2022.

Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images

As major US corporations from Amazon to Apple, Starbucks and Chipotle face a growing wave of alliances, one of the key questions among labor economists is whether headline attention will shift. into a substantial increase in union membership or not, which has declined in recent decades. A new poll from Gallup shows that this question remains difficult to answer, even as the union issue as a whole continues to gain momentum.

Follow a new Gallup poll released on Tuesday. But only 1 in 6 Americans live in a unionized household, and the majority of non-union workers in the US (58%) say they are “not interested at all” about joining the workforce. group.

“It is clear that there is growing general support for unions,” said Ben Wigert, director of research and strategy, workplace manager at Gallup. But it happened more because Americans wanted to put some power back in the hands of employees and improve the worker experience and work environment, than to join the ranks of unions themselves. .

Union members standing at 14 million workers in 2021accounts for about 10% of American workers, down from 20% in 1983.

Even as the pandemic has brought increased attention to workers’ conditions, Gallup noted that the real 16% figure for union households falls within the range (14% to 21%) it has tracked. on this data point since 2001.

According to Gallup, non-union members’ preference for union membership, at 20%, closely matches those of households with existing union membership (16%). And jobs and industries with a high interest in unions continue to be production and frontline roles, Wigert said, where unions are already more likely to exist. That means the data doesn’t show a renewed interest in union membership outside of traditional union jobs.

“That’s something we’re watching, and that could be the turning point,” Wigert said.

However, if the data were to stay the same, union membership would make up 10%-15% of the US workforce and be concentrated in union-heavy industries.

“But if we do see increased interest in ununionized jobs, that would be the leading indicator. But we really haven’t seen individual action change,” Wigert said. “We need to see an increase in interest among non-union members in non-traditional roles, or see union members become more engaged with their union. That would be a signal that we should see that.” A big change is coming, but we haven’t seen it yet.”

Recently CNBC poll shows higher interest in unity among employees In particular, more than a Gallup poll, with 59% of workers across the US and in all sectors saying they support increased unionization in their own workplaces. That survey also found that partisan divides toward unions were less than expected: 46 percent of Republicans supported increasing unionization in their work.

The partisan gap is also narrowing in the Gallup data, a sign that workers’ conditions and experiences are becoming more of a broader social issue than a political one in the minds of workers. American. General approval for political party-oriented unions is typically much higher among Democrats, and remains so, currently at 85%. But Wigert said for the GOP it was usually in the mid-40s, but has now risen to 56% support. Last year, it remained at 48%.

Another long-term study of workers’ attitudes toward unions shows a slightly better picture of union progress toward workers. For several decades starting in the late 1970s, according to research compiled by professor Thomas Kochan of the MIT Sloan School of Management, only a third of workers nationwide said they would vote “yes”. “with the union. But in 2017, that number skyrocketed to 48 percent. “It was the first sign of a major shift, and all the evidence since then has reinforced that,” Kochan told CNBC in June.

Kochan said Gallup’s new question of union concerns is different from that in his survey research. “When we ask how one would vote in a union election, we ask only those employed in the workforce, and we generally exclude senior executives and business owners. career,” he said. That study showed a support level of around 50%.

Gallup’s survey of union and non-union members found that workers in management roles, at 6%, were the least likely to join a union.

The ways that union workers are ‘stuck’

Gallup’s data on job satisfaction also complicates the union battle. Non-organizational workers show higher levels of job satisfaction than union members.

27% of workers who are union members say they are engaged, less than 33% of non-union members, and Gallup says that “the cohesion gap between union workers and non-union workers can be significant for employers”, because engaged employees tend to be more productive. Gallup also found that 24% of union members are “actively liberated” at work, compared with 17% of workers who are not. That means they are not only unhappy in their work, but also resentful.

For employers who are resisting consolidation efforts, engagement data can be used as one more reason to push back.

“Data on lower engagement among union members is not a positive development for union efforts. It flies in the face a bit,” Wigert said.

Part of this – as well as the reason he joined a union in the first place – can be explained by the hard work that union work is more focused on: the front lines and the production work. Gallup also suggests that tensions between workers and employers as a result of union activity may be partly responsible for this sentiment.

But the bigger problem for unions, according to Wigert, are the reasons given by members in a Gallup poll to support unions. They are more of a contractual nature than an overall sentiment that members feel the union is making their work life generally better. “Favourable pay and benefits, and good representation,” says Wigert. “But that doesn’t necessarily translate to a better workplace experience, and that’s why we don’t see a high desire for solidarity among non-organizational workers, or extreme commitment to union among its members.”

According to Gallup, 40% of current union members say unions are extremely important to them. Another 30% say unions are important, but not irreplaceable.

In a tight labor market, another Gallup finding may point to one way union membership can benefit companies: even though they are less involved in work, but union members are less likely to quit than non-union members, with 43% saying they are “actively looking” for a new job, compared with 50% of non-union employees.

Wigert said this reaction of union workers is tied to the feeling that they are receiving good benefits and being paid through union membership. “They don’t want to give up those basics, and they’re willing to accept those things as a trade-off for a better work environment,” he said. But he adds that there is also a negative factor to this feeling that unions need to acknowledge: another way to describe how employees who are less engaged but more likely to stay are “stuck,” he said.

As a result, the key lessons learned for employers, employees and unions from looking at Gallup’s data is that unions are not “the complete solution,” Wigert said. But he added, “if the goal is a more cohesive, productive workplace and a better employee experience, it’s really down to unions, management and employees working together.” .

Gallup data is clear that the American public favors anything that gives employees more choice, but is less clear about choosing to join a union and whether current members become engaged. than with their current union or not.

“You can’t just join a union and things will get better,” says Wigert. “It would be better for everyone if workers could not only have their basic needs met, but also be engaged, dedicated and effective at work and we won’t get there unless both the three sides listen to each other,” he added.

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