by Phil Wilson

The 2018 Outlook for Unions

I think this year will be one of the most important in the history of the labor movement. That may sound like hyperbole. But hear me out.

2018 already started out weird. January petition activity is dramatically lower than the same period last year (around 20% as a write this). Please take that with a huge grain of salt, because it’s not a final number. The brief shutdown impacts the numbers a bit and when you look at 3 weeks of data all kinds of things can skew the totals.

That said, we are comparing petition activity this year against the post-election hangover numbers from 2017. If you compare the first three weeks of 2018 to the same period in 2016, RC petition activity is down about 30%. It is safe to say that unions are not shooting out of the gate doing a lot of new organizing in 2018. At least not yet.

On the ground, however, there is a bit of a different story. Pre-petition activity is happening in some unusual places, and in unusual workplaces. Unions are trying all kinds of new ways to attract attention of workers. Not all of these efforts make a lot of sense. I spend a lot of time these days scratching my head and asking, “what’s going on here?”

Here’s a few big picture guesses.

  1. Unions are preparing for a post-Janus world:Soon the Supreme Court is expected to deal a huge body blow to unions by cutting off the forced-dues spigot for public sector workers. Notwithstanding all the gnashing of teeth over NLRB decisions, this one decision will have the biggest negative impact on Big Labor than anything. Unions still represent over 1/3 of public sector workers (versus 6.5 percent of private sector workers).
  2. Unions are preparing for mid-term elections: Related to item one, I think unions are banking heavily on big wins in the November mid-term elections. Big Labor is hugely important to the fate of Democrats. If they can wrest control of the House and Senate from Republicans (and given the 2016 Presidential election I don’t think any election outcome is out of the question) then perhaps things look different. Their goal will be to make Trump a one-term President, consider this Administration a “blip,” and then start reversing everything in sight. I’m not sure this necessarily gets them very far, since unions didn’t really make a lot of progress under a very favorable Obama-era NLRB. But they certainly would prefer that outcome to one in which the Republicans remain in effective control of all three branches of government.
  3. Unions are focusing on state and local efforts: With all the pixels spilled on what’s happening (or not happening) at the national level, unions are making significant gains at the state and local ballot box. Missouri has a huge vote its new Right to Work law coming up. Paid leave, minimum wage, pay equality, and many other employment regulations are getting passed in states and local communities everywhere. And unions and their supporters are also banking on backlash against the general economic trends here and around the world. While wages are rising along with the stock market it is not clear that either of these will have a big impact on the income gap. It’s not hard to imagine the same populist wave that brought Trump to the White House taking a hard-left turn.

Why do I think this year is going to go down as a big one for organized labor? Janus will create a huge financial reckoning for unions. All of the so-called leaders of the union movement who are just hanging on, hoping to get to retirement will face the music. Some of that already happened when Trump arrived, but Janus will be a whole other order of magnitude. Unions are about to be forced to change in a way they never have before. The bottom is dropping out.

But every action gets an equal and opposite reaction, and the pendulum just seems to swing wider and faster every year. Desperate times will create a lot of opportunity for entrepreneurial (#ironic) organizers and true leaders of organized labor. Unions aren’t going away. I don’t know exactly what that means. But I’ll definitely be watching it carefully.