Democrats in Congress have reintroduced the Richard L. Trumka Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a bill that would create new protections for workers seeking to unionize. Last week, witnesses appeared to testify to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, including Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO. Speaking in favor of the PRO Act, Shuler’s testimony also included an invitation to workplace leaders: “Unions and the labor movement stand ready and willing to work together with businesses all across this country: innovating together, becoming more skilled and efficient, and creating better outcomes for everyone,” she said.
Nationally, interest in labor organizing is increasing. In 2022, the number of union-election petitions grew by 53%, as reported by the National Labor Relations Board, and the total number of union members increased by 200,000, even while the overall rate of unionization fell slightly as non-union sectors added a greater number of jobs. In the public at large, the approval ratings for unions, 71%, is higher than it has been in more than half a century, according to Gallup.
As interest in unions among professional and desk-based workers continues to rise, navigating the relationship with organized labor is an increasingly important skill for leaders in industries like tech, media, and education. And amidst this groundswell of union organizing, employers have an opportunity to rewrite the traditionally adversarial relationship between labor and management, argues Shuler
We spoke with Shuler about what that shift might look like. Here are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Much of the coverage of labor organizing in recent months has been on adversarial relationships between organized labor and management, like the unionization efforts of Starbucks workers and the response of management, including CEO Howard Schultz. What would a more collaborative relationship look like?
It doesn’t have to be adversarial. And that’s what I wish Howard Schultz would understand: unions can add value to your business. It’s about listening to your workers and listening to the expertise they have. Having worked on the front lines, either on the shop floor or in the coffee shop, they know the work better than anyone. They know what is going to bring value to the bottom line. Having a seat at that table not only gives them a voice and a measure of respect, but it also helps improve the competitiveness and the success of the business.
We have lots of examples all across different industries—healthcare, auto, entertainment—where companies have said: ‘Workers are my most precious asset. Human capital matters. It is not a cost to be cut, it is an asset to be invested in.’ Microsoft, for example, noticed the trend of workers wanting more of a voice and a seat at the table, so they decided to be neutral. They said, ‘If our workforce wants to unionize, go for it. We’ll support that.’ That’s a company that sees the potential in the partnership. And not many people know that Hollywood is one of the most highly unionized industries in the country, and they work collaboratively with their unions. We have a decent pay and benefits, and we have an incredible product in our movies and television industry. That’s what a win-win situation looks like: through the contract, workers can support their families, and the union brings added value because they’re helping make the company more profitable.
A specific moment where the rubber meets the road is when workers first announce their intention to form a union. For a lot of leaders, including middle managers, it becomes a really scary moment, where they perceive it as an attack on themselves and react poorly. How can leaders reframe this moment for themselves?
At the center of all this dynamic is the notion of this being about power. Often businesses think, ‘Oh, unions are going to inhibit my ability to make decisions.’ Well, yes, they’re going to ask for the ability to have input, but they’re not going to be able to unilaterally force you to do or not do something. It’s about a process of give and take, and seeing the relationship through the lens of a value-add instead of just adversarial. Leaders have to remember that it’s not about you.
We’re seeing a growth in union activity among desk-based and professional workers, who don’t fit the mold of the traditional union worker. What’s behind that?
For the most part, it is about wages, benefits, and healthcare—the sort of bread and butter issues that you would expect—but it’s also about having that seat at the table across from the employer to negotiate over the intangibles. That could be work environment, or safety issues, or the ability to have a voice in how technology is implemented in your workplace. For example, in the professional sector, we’re seeing an increasing amount of surveillance going on in the workplace. Coming out of Covid, there’s a new time clock. People are asking for work from home and flexibility, and companies grant that but with conditions. ‘We want you punching in at this hour. We want you working without time away from your desk. We’re going to monitor you with your camera, and we’re going to monitor you by measuring your keystrokes.’ Without a union, you don’t have a voice in that process or the ability to put some guardrails around it.
Having a union helps the worker build power and leverage in shaping these policies, including how that data is used for disciplinary purposes and the use of that data. At the AFL-CIO’s technology institute, we’re putting a lot of energy and focus on worker protections related to how data can be used and the necessary privacy guardrails for workers. That’s a unifying issue that cuts across all work.
Read a full transcript of our conversation, including the role of unions in building care infrastructure and what an economic downturn means for organized labor.