Are Unions Making a Comeback?

Are Unions Making a Comeback? was originally published on Firsthand.

The past couple of days have brought a rash of headlines about union victories at the National Labor Relations Board—most of which are based on decisions that the NLRB has made that theoretically make it easier for workers to form unions. And most of those articles have been accompanied by quotes from individuals and lobbyists on either side of the debate, touting the rulings either as spelling certain doom for businesses or a jolt in the arm for workers’ rights. (Nuanced discussion of the middle ground is a little harder to come by.)

So what do the rulings actually do, and are they going to remake the future of the American corporate landscape?

First up was a ruling made yesterday that gives employees the right to use corporate email to organize, on the grounds that union activities are related to workplace issues, and therefore within the realm of things that should be permissible to discuss via work email. As noted by Fortune, the ruling overturned a 2007 NLRB decision that had prevented employees from using work email to discuss compensation or workplace issues.

That ruling was followed by another pro-union decision from the NLRB earlier today, in which some of the restrictions to organizing were swept away. According to Bizjournals’ Washington Bureau, the change “speeds up union representation elections at workplaces once a petition is filed, and requires employers to provide organizers with the emails and home telephone numbers of their employees.” Almost immediately, opposition groups such as the National Retail Federation denounced the decision, stating that it will lead to “ambush elections” and that “[t]he only winners here are union organizers.”


So are unions making a comeback?

If your frame of reference is as short as the past couple of news cycles, it would certainly appear that unions are on something of a tear—especially given the increasing rhetoric on pay inequality and workers’ rights in recent months.

But zoom out a bit, and the situation starts to look rather different. At the start of this year, union membership stood at 14.5 million workers—11.3 percent of the working population—according to the BLS. To put that number in context, the BLS also notes that “In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers.”

While the BLS doesn’t have comparable data before the 1980s, other organizations have tried to supply it. A Cornell research paper from 2004, for example, noted that Union membership in the United States has declined significantly in recent decades. The number of union members peaked in 1979 at an estimated 21.0 million. In 2003, an estimated 15.8 million workers were union members. As a percent of employed workers, union membership peaked in 1954 at 28.3%. In 2003, 11.5% of employed workers were union members.”

Put those two data sets together, and here’s what the decline looks like on a chart (via Wikipedia):

Union Membership

While the reasons for that fall are almost as contentious as the concept of unions themselves, it’s undeniable that a number of factors are responsible for it—including a general upturn in working conditions, as well as a concerted campaign to discourage unionization.

On their face, it’s unlikely that the NLRB decisions from the past couple of days will turn a half-century tide of movement against workplace unionization. Indeed, of the two rulings, only the second one is likely to have any practical effect at all. (Who in their right mind would use email that their employer has a right to read to organize and prepare for a negotiation with that employer?)

Of course, it’s possible that decreasing the obstacles to unionization could lead to an explosion of organization, but the trend in the chart above is clear: unions simply aren’t a part of workplace culture in a way that they were 30 years ago. And with successive generations of employees becoming ever more used to the concept of switching jobs and companies every few years, it’s difficult to envision a way back to even the union membership levels of the 1980s, let alone the kind of numbers they enjoyed in their heyday.

By Firsthand
We help applicants, students, job-seekers and professionals like you find the right career path using the power of firsthand experiences.