by Phil Wilson

Aaron Levenstein once said “Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.” February isn’t a great month for bikinis, but it is a great month for union statistics. The Bureau of Labor Statistics announced its annual union membership survey. And here at LRI we released our annual NLRB Elections Report. And this year’s statistics are revealing, suggestive, and vital.

First, the big picture. The BLS reported that union membership is basically stagnant and continues to decline. Overall private sector membership dropped to 6.4% (it was 6.5% in 2017). Only 14.7 million people belong to unions. Compare that to 1983 when 17.7 million people belonged to unions - which at that time was over 20% of the private sector workforce. Public sector workers have much higher member percentages (33.9%) but they continue to slide as well.

What do these statistics reveal? One interpretation is that unions are doing nothing to increase membership. If you look at our most recent NLRB Elections report from LRI RightNow you’ll see that unions had 22% fewer elections in 2018 than they did in 2017. And 2017 wasn’t a banner year for organizing. In August and September of 2018 unions participated in over 40% FEWER elections than the year before. If you judge based on election activity it’s seems obvious that overall representation should be heading only one direction - down.

These statistics are very suggestive. Judging by the number of elections you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that union membership was stagnant. If you also knew that over a quarter of all union members are over 45 (true), or that the Supreme Court basically gave a green light to quitting union membership in the public sector (also true), you’d certainly be excused if you predicted that overall union membership substantially declined.

However, as Levenstein predicts, these statistics also conceal a different story. What do they conceal? If you dig a little deeper into our LRI RightNow election statistics you’ll find that unions actually organized 42% MORE workers in 2018 than in 2017. That’s right. While they held over 20% fewer elections, the ones they won counted. Unions organized over 20,000 more new members in 2018 than they did in 2017. Even counting workers lost in decertification elections, unions gained over 40% more members in 2018.

If you are on the ground in election campaigns as much as we are you also notice a shift. Unions are experimenting in non-traditional units and industries. We are seeing many more pre-petition efforts in retail, digital media, education, and the like. Unions are still heavily focused on traditional units in manufacturing, health care, and logistics, but they are definitely spending time off these well-worn paths.

The impact of Janus on public sector membership also appears to be muted. While there are certainly examples of unions losing members, it appears that Janus has also energized unions to engage and prove their value to members. Ironically this may help unions in the long run - who knew that actually providing value to your customers can get them to continue to pay you money?

I also think the decline in elections in 2018 is an anomaly due to the 2018 mid-term elections. Not surprisingly the biggest drops in union elections last year coincided with the huge mid-term election campaigns that delivered a Democratic majority to the House.

Last summer any organizer worth their salt was deployed to organize in House districts (not companies). If you pull these months out of the election statistics 2018 doesn’t look much worse than 2017. And I’m sure unions and the politicians they support would gladly trade a few thousand more members for the House seats they picked up last November.

I’m not ready to predict that unions have finally stopped the bleeding. I still don’t think their message (or more important their results) are that compelling to the average worker. There is no question that union representation remains a last resort for most American workers, an option you only consider if things are really bad and you can’t (or don’t want to) leave for a better situation. Most companies do all they can to provide a good work experience for their employees, which takes away any advantage to a union.

Nevertheless, the statistics do reveal a bit more than they conceal. Judging simply by number of new members organized you have to call 2018 a victory for unions. The bets they’ve made on political organizing, Fight for $15 and immigration may be paying off with rank-and-file workers. The situation remains unclear but for the first time in a long time, from a union organizers perspective, I think the glass is half full.