The Changing Faces of Unions


While union membership has declined precipitously over the last few decades, union activity is now popping up in many new sectors.  From 1983 to 2013, according to the Department of Labor, union membership dropped from over 20% of the U.S. workforce to a little more than 11%. The public sector, particularly in the areas of education and protective services, still has the highest unionization rate.  In the private sector, the areas of utilities, transportation, and telecommunications represent the highest rates of unionization.

In recent years and months, however, we’ve seen a growth in union organizing in formerly non-unionized sectors.  In March, football players at the University of Northwestern were found to be eligible to unionize, and, a month ago, the players voted on whether to unionize. Charter school unionization rates have increased roughly 400% from the 1990s.  In addition, adjunct faculty unionization is rising significantly across the country.  Other sectors experiencing unionizing efforts include music video dancers, video game designers, and fast-food workers.

Because of this renewed union activity, both public and private employers in any industry should take seriously the tips set out below.  These tips are aimed at ensuring workplace policies do not violate labor law and that employees are successful and satisfied, decreasing the chance of interest in joining a union.  Keep in mind that labor law does not just apply to employers that already have a union – many of the labor law protections also prohibit non-union employers from interfering with non-management employees’ rights under labor law.

Handbook and Employment Policies Tips:

  • Make sure that employment policies, particularly social media, confidentiality and nondisparagement policies, do not violate non-management employees’ right to engage in concerted efforts to improve working conditions, including collective bargaining.
  • Social media policies should not contain language discouraging employees’ right to organize or to openly discuss terms and conditions of employment.
  • Confidentiality policies should not preclude employees from discussing wages, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment.
  • Nondisparagement policies should not include any language that limits employees’ ability to freely discuss the employer with coworkers.

Good Practices:

  • Have clear written policies and enforce them consistently.
  • Strive to be fair, respectful, and even-handed.
  • Recognize and appreciate employees.
  • Communicate clearly with employees regarding performance and any company changes.
  • Establish a clear process to ensure employees’ complaints are heard and dealt with in a timely manner.

As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  As it turns out, the best prevention techniques for unionization are the same things that can help you run an effective business with a happy workforce.


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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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