KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Workers have gained more power since coming out of the pandemic, experts say.
The percentage of wage and salary workers who are union members decreased slightly between 2021 and 2022 but the number of workers who are union members increased, according to data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2021, 10.3% of workers were union members; in 2022, that number dropped to 10.1%. Meanwhile, the total number of union members increased by 273,000.
That discrepancy can be explained by growth in the total number of wage and salary workers, which grew by around 3.9% to 5.3 million.
The 10.1% union membership rate is the lowest on record, something the Pew Research Center reports 58% of U.S. adults believes is bad for the country. Sixty-one percent believe that rate is bad for working people.
In Michigan, the percent of workers who are members of a union grew between 2021 and 2022, going from 13.3% to 14%.
‘BLAME THE MILLENIALS’
Unions across the country are making headlines, with Hollywood seeing strikes from both the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the Writers Guild of America West.
“I think that that the overarching change is that the worker during all of this time has gained power,” said economics expert Paul Isely, an associate dean at Grand Valley State University’s Seidman College of Business.
But he explained that would likely have happened soon anyway — the pandemic just moved the timeline up. The change is largely due to the age of workers.
“We get to blame somebody we’ve spent a lot of time blaming over the last 10 years: We get to blame the millennials,” he said. “Why do we get to blame the millennials? It’s not that they’re doing anything wrong. … It’s just there’s so gosh darn many of them.”
He said the amount of young workers had been increasing until around 2014 to 2015, at which point that number started going down. Suddenly, places like fast food restaurants didn’t have enough workers in the demographic it often relies on.
In Michigan, the number of people in the 20- to 24-year-old age range is expected to continue to drop until the end of the decade, Isely said. That decrease meant entry-level workers were able to ask for higher wages. As the total number of workers shrunk, their power grew, Isely explained.
“They’re showing that power in doing things like having strikes, forcing higher pay raises or unionizing,” he said.
While the number of younger workers decreased, the number of older workers also decreased as baby boomers left the workforce. This would have happened no matter what, but many left early due to COVID-19.
“So you have fewer older workers and you have fewer younger workers,” Isely said. “That was going to happen no matter what during these 10 years. What COVID did is it moved it all to the front end of the 2020s instead of happening across the entire 2020s.”
Isely said union negotiations are starting to run longer and the pandemic “juiced” strikes in Hollywood and a potential UPS strike that was ultimately avoided.
Not only did the pandemic lead to fewer workers, it also worsened inflation, leading to a desire for higher wages. Coming out of the pandemic, workers had higher stress levels and wanted more flexibility and jobs that are better defined, Isely said.
‘SHIP WON’T SAIL’
Lori Batzloff, a registered nurse at Ascension Borgess Hospital and the president of the local Michigan Nurses Association unit, said through the pandemic, many workers started to “really realize their value.”
“You might not be the captain of the ship, but the ship isn’t going to sail without the laborers, without the people doing the work,” she said. “Workers are demanding better from their employers, especially large corporations.”
West Michigan has seen a couple strikes since the pandemic. Health care union workers at Trinity Health’s Grand Haven hospital held a one-day strike in August, while workers at Kellogg were on strike from early October 2021 to the end of December 2021.
“Even in the transportation industry, where they’ve had unions for a long time, we see this resurgence in collective organizing and workers recognizing and using their power to make sure that they have safe working conditions and that they’re being paid a living wage,” Batzloff said.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly earnings for nonunion workers in 2022 was $1,029, compared to $1,216 for union members. It noted, however, that there could be other factors at play.
Unionization rates vary from field to field: the protective services and education, training and library had the highest unionization rates, 34.6% and 33.7%, respectively, while jobs related to sales, computers and mathematics, food preparation and serving, and management saw the smallest rates, all around 3% to 3.8%.
Young people also have low unionization numbers: 4.4% of workers in the 16-to-24 age range are members of a union. The biggest age group is 45 to 54; 12.6% of people in that range are members of a union.
Batzloff said she hopes to see a “resurgence in the union movement.”
“Especially in Michigan, there’s a very large union presence. Many laborers recognize the value of a union and being able to negotiate for a fair contract,” she said.
She added being part of a union is a democratic process and it means colleagues working together.
“When you have a big corporation that has turned millions or more dollars in profit, through a pandemic even, and their workers can’t pay the rent in the community where they work, there’s a problem there,” she said. “Workers are recognizing that if they organize and they stick together, and they demand better that employers will be forced to provide that.”
ATTORNEY: THEY’RE WORKING TOWARD THE SAME GOALS
Grant Pecor, a partner at the Grand Rapids-based Barnes & Thornburg law firm who works on the labor and employment group, represents companies as they work to negotiate with unions. He said many employers have been offering more when it comes to wages and benefits as they face a worker shortage.
He said he has also noticed an increase in significant demands from unions, adding it’s not uncommon to see requests for a 40% wage increase. As the UAW negotiates with automakers and prepares for a potential strike, Pecor said one proposal asked for a 32-hour work week without a decrease in pay.
“Those kinds of things are much more prevalent today as people have tried to get a bigger share of the money that the companies are making and do better for their families in an environment where the price of bacon is going up,” he said.
Employees and companies are dealing with inflation, worker shortages and burnout, he said. There’s also been a shift in politics with President Joe Biden in the White House and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Lansing. Those factors, along with the pandemic, have led to more union activity in industries like retail and Starbucks, where there wasn’t much union activity before.
“The pandemic itself definitely put a lot of pressure and scared a lot of people and made them reevaluate things and maybe shifted their priorities,” he said. “But then you add all the stimulus money that was spent and the inflation that followed and that put … everyone under even more pressure to get things done.”
Pecor said he’s also seen more aggressive tactics from unions.
“You’re seeing a lot more corporate campaigns where they’re either attacking a specific corporation or an industry,” he said. “I think fast food is an example of that: The service employees and their ‘Fight for $15’ movement the last few years has been a good example of their efforts to really go after the quick service food industry.”
Unions have also turned to social media more to organize, he said.
“As people were required to stay home, unions found new ways to rally the troops through online forums and social media networks and I think we’re seeing a lot more of that,” he said.
He said things are starting to stabilize.
“But at the same time, it doesn’t change those people who feel like they put their lives on the line to go through the pandemic, if they were one of the essential workers in particular that had to work through the pandemic, and they’re looking for their payday,” he said.
In the health care industry in particular, Pecor said he’s seeing a lot of essential worker burnout.
“When you go to the bargaining table with those groups, you expect a little bit more anger and frustration when you come in just because they were on the front lines throughout the pandemic,” he said. “I describe some of the tables that I’ve bargained against as having PTSD.”
Many health care workers treated patients with COVID-19 and may have seen people die from it. They were also “working under the constant fear of bringing it home to loved ones and being the person that got somebody sick and maybe caused the death to somebody they really cared about,” Pecor said.
Hospitals have also been hard-hit by staffing challenges. One registered nurse who Pecor used to meet at the bargaining table now runs a coffee shop, he said, one of many nurses who left the profession during the pandemic.
Pecor said ultimately, while management and unions may feel like they have some leverage over the other, “particularly in a tight labor market or bad economy,” their goals are the same:
Brian Peters, the CEO of the Michigan Health and Hospital Association, said health care workers who are represented by a union are in the minority. Many Michigan hospitals “have an excellent working relationships with those labor unions” he said. He said unions and hospitals work collaboratively to find solutions.
“Everybody’s trying to do good going forward or do better for themselves and their families going forward. And you just have to find that balance,” he said.