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Labor Relations Insight – February 2017

By Phil Wilson

Is there a “Trump Effect” on Union Organizing?

Just about every call I’ve had since Donald Trump’s November surprise gets around to THE question. Will Donald Trump’s election mean the end for labor unions? Or will unions rise like a phoenix from the ashes and organize like never before as a reaction to the new administration? Or maybe something in between?

I’ve mostly answered this question the way lawyers tend to answer questions (sorry): “It depends.” But we are now beginning to get some data that is shedding light on the “Trump Effect” on labor unions. And for unions the data is not looking good.

First, we got the overall union membership numbers. Membership dropped by nearly a quarter-million people – an astounding number. Private sector membership dropped (again) to an all-time low of 6.4%. Ouch.

But you can afford to lose members if you are organizing new ones. How did unions do on that front? Last week we released our latest LRI Rightnow annual elections review. If you haven’t picked up a copy yet let me give you a taste of what you’re missing. Here is the chart from page 1:

Double ouch. Total RC elections resolved in 2016 were down 17%. Unions organized just over 50,000 new workers. Remember, those folks don’t turn into a revenue stream – err, dues-paying members – until a union negotiates a contract. That only happens around half the time. But even giving union negotiators  a big benefit of the doubt, unions are probably down around 200,000 workers just last year.

What impact will Donald Trump’s election have on these numbers. Early results are not promising for unions.  Since the election we are adding right to work states at a rate of about one per month. Traditionally strong union states like West Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri have passed right to work laws since the election, and there are at least a couple of more strong possibilities for 2017. That will cut union membership even further because when workers get a choice about paying for union representation usually around half of them don’t think it’s worth the investment.

Here is an even bigger problem. Since the election unions seem to have put the brakes on organizing new members. Take a look at this chart from the annual election review:

Unions basically took the month of December off. The total elections resolved for December 2016 were down 43% compared to December 2015. There can be a few anomalies in end of year data, so this number may adjust slightly. But it is a – dare I say – huge drop in organizing activity.

You may be tempted to conclude based on this data that unions are in a death spiral. There is certainly evidence for that view. But I’d challenge you to think about a few other data points.

While traditional organizing certainly appears to be in a decline (or perhaps a lull) Trump looks like he is triangulating to make deals with unions in areas of mutual benefit. His second oval office meeting was with a small army of union officials. He is promoting issues that at least some in the labor movement (especially unions focused in the construction trades and manufacturing) are vocally supporting.

Whatever you think about Trump, he identifies himself most as a deal-maker. He is looking to make deals and he will be creative when trying to get those deals to happen.  I think some of those deals will help unions grow membership. And unions are not going to abandon traditional organizing.

Bottom line for you? Traditional organizing appears to be on the decline.  But does that mean you can rest easy? No way. The organizing data does not track any of the massive uptick in workplace disruptions around things like minimum wage or immigration. Many of those are driven by unions. Also, some industries are bigger targets than others (get the annual report to see where your industry stacks up).

The key is to control what you can. The most important thing you can control is the kind of leaders you develop and the employee relations environment you provide for your employees. Whether you face a workplace disruption, a potential organizing effort, or are just experiencing rapid change, the main thing you can do is develop strong leaders.

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