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Are Unions Declining? The dirty truth about unions

You might be wondering – all unions are the same, they all want the same things, and they are all a pain to deal with. Well yes, they might be painful and sometimes annoying to deal with however, they are here to stay!

However, there is significant difference that exist in dealing with unions from different countries. In the US, the model of unionizing has been in place since the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), “making clear that it is the policy of the United States to encourage collective bargaining by protecting workers’ full freedom of association. The NLRA protects workplace democracy by providing employees at private-sector workplaces the fundamental right to seek better working conditions and designation of representation without fear of retaliation” (29 U.S.C. §§ 151-169). The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) sets a time and place for the election to be held. If a majority of workers vote to be represented, then they are all unionized.

However, in most European and Latin American countries, unions do not bargain at the company level like in the US, but instead they bargain at industry or sector level. This allows the unions to negotiate for all workers in an entire industry rather than just at one company.

For example, in France an employers' association representing restaurants will negotiate with a union representing restaurant workers. A deal is reached, and then the government "extends" the deal to cover all restaurants and all restaurant workers. Everyone in the restaurant sector enjoys the pay and benefits that the union got employers to agree to.

In a recent international comparison of trade union membership was undertaken by the Orgnisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) using 2018 data where the US was at 10%. According to the OECD, membership in the US is considerably lower than other countries such as Belgium (54%), Italy (34%) and Canada (26%). The highest rate of union membership by far is seen in Iceland at an impressive 90%, with the Icelandic Confederation of Labour alone having 104,500 members, about half of the country's employees.

The high figure in these other countries, apart form the US, has been attributed to a number of factors such as the large public sector, strong union campaigning and membership granting access to pension funds. Back in 1985, trade union membership in OECD countries stood at 30% and it fell to 16% by 2018. The OECD is funded by contributions from member countries at varying rates and had a total budget of € 386 million in 2019.

Given growing economic dissatisfaction, slow growth in wages and increasing levels of inequality, there is a renewed interest in the use of trade unions, especially in the US, for strengthening workers' collective voices and bargaining power.

The pandemic has created a paradigm shift, where now some workers have changed their attitudes about which working conditions and level of pay are acceptable after enduring the pandemic and working in challenging circumstances (i.e., Starbucks and Amazon). Union organizing appear to be increasing this year. Additionally, with the use of social media, unions are able to reach more potential members and gain public support for unions. I would not be surprised to see that in the next couple of years, workers may have additional leverage because there will be even fewer prime-age US workers due to aging demographics.

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