Labor Unions: The Rise of Unionization & Future of Work

Organized labor is increasingly gaining support in the US and around the world, with public approval for labor unions at 71%—its highest since 1965.

Today, 16% of Americans live in a household where at least one resident is a union member.  

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and National Labor Relations Board showed there was an increase of 200,000 union workers in the US between 2021-2022.

Evidence also suggests that 60 million workers wanted to join a union, but were not able to.

After a long decline in union membership, due to employer-friendly policy change, and an increase in right-to-work laws, it seems that today interest in union membership is slowly growing once again, and a new labor movement is being born. 

americans labor union membership

What’s more, membership is at its highest among frontline and production workers: of this group 20% are union members, while those in management positions are the least likely (6%) to be members of unions.

Employer responses are varied. It is unsurprising that most are union-skeptic, pushing back against unionization efforts.

However, employers must be wary of equating the New Unionization movement with previous models, which form the basis of many assumptions about unions today. 

In this article, we’re going to address questions about union workers, separating fact from fiction as we debunk common myths.

Today’s Labor Unions: Everything you need to know

Today’s labor movement is being reimagined, with an emphasis on reform, education, and upskilling in the workplace.

Unions are often well-placed to identify reskilling needs and support training programs—the current climate offers an opportunity for employers and union workers to work together, rather than against each other. 

Another key issue often addressed by unions is the compensation model, which is often based exclusively on seniority.

Collaborating with unions is therefore a way to stay in touch with the current and future realities of work from the bottom up.

Contrary to entrenched assumptions about unions, a huge amount of impactful work can be accomplished by working together to create a more engaged and productive labor force. 

Let’s have a look at some common misconceptions about labor unions, many of which still persist today.

Busting myths about union workers

There are plenty of myths surrounding labor unions and union workers. Here are the most common misconceptions, debunked. 

Myth 1: Unions just want workers’ dues.

Fact: Unions aren’t for-profit organizations, so all the money they receive goes into running costs. Union organizers emphasize that paying into a union will put money back into your pocket by giving you bargaining power.

Farhan Siraj

“Preconceived notions often create misunderstandings between unions and management. The union sees management as a group of soulless individuals who prioritize profit over employee wellbeing while the management sees union as an unnecessary source of disruption. 

If both parties look beyond these notions, they will find themselves having more common ground than differences. 

For instance, worker safety is something both the management and union want to ensure. Safe working conditions not only protect employees but also boost productivity and lower costs associated with accidents.

It is by finding shared goals like these, that unions and management can overcome their differences and develop a productive relationship.”

Farhan Siraj, CEO of OSHA Outreach Courses

Myth 2: Corruption is a big problem in unions. 

Fact: You’ll find corruption in any industry, and unfortunately there have been cases of corruption in unions, but that is not to say that it is a widespread problem.

In fact, corruption cases in unions are decreasing, and are now relatively rare

Myth 3: Unions shield ‘lazy’ workers.

Jamie Frew

“There are real-life examples like Saturn’s decision to make decisions with the UAW together, which increased both efficiency and employee happiness. This goes against the idea that profit and fair labor are incompatible. 

In the same way, Unilever’s global worker rights agreement with UNI and Southwest Airlines’ profit-sharing with the IAMAW show that open conversation and common goals can allow both companies and employees to succeed.”

Jamie Frew, Co-Founder of Carepatron

Fact: The idea that unions protect lazy workers at the expense of a workplace’s highest achievers is a common misconception. 

Myth 4: Unions are only for blue-collar workers.

Fact: Workers can be vulnerable to their boss’s whims in any industry. Unionization helps keep employers accountable, regardless of the sector.

It is particularly common for managers of small companies to push back against employee unionization. 

Myth 5: Union membership decreases productivity in the labor force. 

Fact: The impact of unions on productivity levels is a hotly contested subject.

However, it is untrue that unionization necessarily decreases productivity in the workplace, with many studies even suggesting that unions boost productivity in some sectors, such as education and construction.

“One of the interesting case studies of the collaboration between unions and management is Ford and the United Auto Workers (UAW) union. Back when UAW was first formed, Ford was one of the auto manufacturers that were most hostile towards the union. 

However, throughout the years, both parties worked together to ensure a fair and safe work environment. During the pandemic, UAW and Ford worked together to combat the shortage of PPE in workplaces.

This demonstrates how unions and management can become effective partners once they look past misconceptions and distrust.”

Farhan Siraj

What is a union and how do they help workers?

A union is a democratic, voluntary association of working people.

The benefits of unionization are well-documented, helping close unfair wage gaps and creating better working conditions, for example protections against sexual harassment or any workplace discrimination.

Employees join unions for many reasons, including improved pay and benefits, and increased worker rights and representation. 

Before the existence of unions, employees were much more susceptible to unsafe working conditions, job insecurity, child labor, and discrimination.

In fact, much government regulation in force today is the result of pressure from unions, in areas such as maternity leave, sick pay, and the minimum wage.

“From my perspective a zero-sum mindset, mistrust, and a focus on the short term make people think that management and unions are at odds with each other. 

Organizations can close this gap by focusing on common goals, encouraging open communication, working together to solve problems, putting long-term survival first, and promoting mutual respect.

Both sides can maximize profits while maintaining fair working conditions by switching from adversarial to collaborative.

 It makes the workplace more peaceful and productive for everyone.”

—Jamie Frew

Who are union workers?

Union workers are groups of employees organized together to negotiate with employers in order to improve pay and working conditions.

How are unions divided?

Unions are categorized by their membership. There are generally three types of union: 

  1. Craft unionism: a specific section of skilled or unskilled workers, for example carpenters or bakers. 
  2. General unionism: a cross-section of workers from general trades, representing workers from all industries and companies.  
  3. Industrial unionism: brings together workers from across the same industry, for example the American Railway Union.

Why does management dislike unions?

This is a generalization, but often true. The reason is that the two groups often work against each other due to conflicting goals.

Professional management focuses on maximizing profit, while unions exist to create fairer working conditions—unfortunately, many companies don’t consider the two coming hand in hand. 

The two objectives do not have to be mutually exclusive, which is where labor unions come in.

Not every employer opposes unions: in fact, many are pro-union collaborations.

George Yang

“A common fallacy is the idea that management aims, especially when it comes to profit maximization, are at odds with union aspirations. This perspective ignores the synergy that results from working together. 

Fostering a collaborative approach requires open communication, acknowledging common aims, and appreciating the importance that unions contribute to workplace justice.”

George Yang, founder at Yanre Fitness and OxygenArk

Are union workers paid during a strike?

Employers are not obligated to pay any worker on strike. Workers who strike do not usually receive their pay, or other benefits such as pension contributions.

However, many unions give out ‘strike pay’. This is a payment made by labor unions to workers on strike, to help meet their basic needs while they are taking action. 

At the time of writing this article, only workers in two states (New York and New Jersey) are eligible to collect unemployment benefits when they miss work specifically because they are taking part in a strike. 

However, most states offer benefits to workers who cannot work due to a lockout—when workers want to resume work but cannot, because the employer is either refusing to allow them back or offering them the same job with diminished compensation.

Can union workers be fired?

Union workers can be dismissed if there is a ‘just cause’, but they may not be unjustly dismissed for union membership or activity.

Unfortunately, many employers illegally fire workers for organizing union activity: the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) investigates hundreds of cases of illegal firings every year.

In 2018, the NLRB obtained as many as 1,270 reinstatement orders.

Can union workers be fired for striking?

No. Any worker, whether a member of a union or not, is entitled to legal protection from unfair dismissal if they participated in official action.

Non-union members who participate in legal industrial action hold the same rights as union workers not to be dismissed as a result.

Union membership vs. union representation

If a workplace is unionized, all workers in the bargaining unit receive the benefits of being represented by the union, whether or not they are union members. 

Therefore, the share of workers represented by a union is much higher than those who are active members of a union.

For example, in 2022, workers represented by a union include both union members (14.3 million) and workers whose jobs are covered by a union contract (1.7 million), despite having no official union affiliation. 

You’ll likely see more references to union representation—as the more relevant statistic when considering the impact of unionization on labor market outcomes.

Where is unionization heading?

There was a lot of hype about the so-called “union boom” in 2022, focused on high-profile labor effects in industry leaders like Amazon and Starbucks.

Even the White House claimed that “organized labor appears to be having a moment” and the BBC reported on a “Gen Z pro-union push”.

It is advisable to take this with a pinch of salt. Union activity is increasing, and the numbers are rising, but only recently—and very gradually.

Statistic: Number of union members in the United States from 2000 to 2022 (in millions) | Statista

So, why are union membership rates rising?

There are many possible reasons for this, but many argue that the pandemic’s low unemployment rate altered the balance of power between employers and employees, fostering a pro-union environment and encouraging union membership. 

If a “union boom” is coming, it’s likely to be concentrated among younger and more educated workers in industries such as media and tech, which have historically resisted organized labor movements, for reasons including industry tradition, employee demands, and labor regulations. 

Looking toward the future of unionization for employers, it’s helpful to let go of any preconceptions that might be tied to older notions of labor unions.

Union membership peaked in the 1950s, and the union activity of today is a new, evolved breed of what many presume.

Managing unionization as a future employer

If your employees vote for union recognition, as an employer you are legally required to recognize the union and engage in collective bargaining with them.

This may involve negotiating with the union and tackling key issues such as pay, working conditions, and job security. 

Bear in mind that unionization campaigns are often the last resort after they’ve tried other tactics.

Also remember that many workers might be satisfied with the existing pay and conditions, and are simply seeking a voice, and the power to hold their company accountable to its stated values.

“One way to collaborate with unions more effectively is to involve mediators. In the United States, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) provides free mediation services to assist in resolving labor-management disputes.

Having government agencies involved can instill a sense of legitimacy and trust in the negotiation process and create a structure for future collaborations.”

—Farhan Siraj

Be authentic, and don’t fire the organizers, or make empty statements or promises. If your workers do unionize then communication is key.

Listen to the demands before you react, and prioritize constructive conversation and collaboration.

Trade unions may have peaked in the 1950s, but they’re still very much alive and kicking. 

Many employers still wonder how to manage union membership in their company, so it’s worth reading up and equipping yourself with the tools to address any issues in a constructive way.

Remember, dialogue is the way forward.

Olivia Millard is a writer and assistant editor at DSLX, with two years’ experience in B2B SaaS, having previously worked as an SEO writer for SaaS company Opportunity Network. When Olivia is not writing or editing for SEO, she’s doing it for newspapers and magazines.