Democrats in Congress have reintroduced the Richard L. Trumka Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a bill that would create new protections for workers seeking to unionize. Last week, witnesses appeared to testify to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, including Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO. Speaking in favor of the PRO Act, Shuler’s testimony also included an invitation to workplace leaders: “Unions and the labor movement stand ready and willing to work together with businesses all across this country: innovating together, becoming more skilled and efficient, and creating better outcomes for everyone,” she said.
Nationally, interest in labor organizing is increasing. In 2022, the number of union-election petitions grew by 53%, as reported by the National Labor Relations Board, and the total number of union members increased by 200,000, even while the overall rate of unionization fell slightly as non-union sectors added a greater number of jobs. In the public at large, the approval ratings for unions, 71%, is higher than it has been in more than half a century, according to Gallup.
As interest in unions among professional and desk-based workers continues to rise, navigating the relationship with organized labor is an increasingly important skill for leaders in industries like tech, media, and education. And amidst this groundswell of union organizing, employers have an opportunity to rewrite the traditionally adversarial relationship between labor and management, argues Shuler
We spoke with Shuler about what that shift might look like. Here is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.
How do you explain the recent rise in labor organizing nationwide?
People are fed up. I keep thinking back to that period of time where you would hear about the "great resignation" every single day in the news. Some 4 million people a month were leaving their jobs, and people are like, 'Why is that happening?' Well, people are waking up. They're realizing that they deserve better. They're fed up. They're sick of toxic work environments. They're sick of bad bosses and bad experiences, hostile environments with customers because they're understaffed and underpaid. People are finally connecting the dots that coming together collectively in a union is a path to get there. They're realizing that unions aren't just of the past or for certain industries like heavy industry or manufacturing construction. They're for tech, architecture, museums, video game developers, Apple stores, etc.
Workers are starting to accept this notion that no matter who you are, you deserve to be treated fairly and paid well for your work so that you can make it in the economy. And no matter what type of work you do, you deserve to have a voice at the table and a say in your working conditions, particularly around safety and health. The pandemic was a real wake-up call for people, when they weren't getting the safety protections that they needed from Covid, and a lot of people felt powerless. They were called essential one minute then treated as expendable the next. Combined with economic trends that existed even before the pandemic, with workers already feeling as if they were getting the short end of the stick, the pandemic showed people a path to more power through coming together collectively in a union.
Much of the coverage of labor organizing in recent months has been on adversarial relationships between organized labor and management, like the unionization efforts of Starbucks workers and the response of management, including CEO Howard Schultz. What would a more collaborative relationship look like?
It doesn't have to be adversarial. And that's what I wish Howard Schultz would understand: unions can add value to your business. It’s about listening to your workers and listening to the expertise they have. Having worked on the front lines, either on the shop floor or in the coffee shop, they know the work better than anyone. They know what is going to bring value to the bottom line. Having a seat at that table not only gives them a voice and a measure of respect, but it also helps improve the competitiveness and the success of the business.
We have lots of examples all across different industries—healthcare, auto, entertainment—where companies have said: ‘Workers are my most precious asset. Human capital matters. It is not a cost to be cut, it is an asset to be invested in.’ Microsoft, for example, noticed the trend of workers wanting more of a voice and a seat at the table, so they decided to be neutral. They said, ‘If our workforce wants to unionize, go for it. We'll support that.’ That's a company that sees the potential in the partnership. And not many people know that Hollywood is one of the most highly unionized industries in the country, and they work collaboratively with their unions. We have a decent pay and benefits, and we have an incredible product in our movies and television industry. That’s what a win-win situation looks like: through the contract, workers can support their families, and the union brings added value because they're helping make the company more profitable.
A specific moment where the rubber meets the road is when workers first announce their intention to form a union. For a lot of leaders, including middle managers, it becomes a really scary moment, where they perceive it as an attack on themselves and react poorly. How can leaders reframe this moment for themselves?
At the center of all this dynamic is the notion of this being about power. Often businesses think, ‘Oh, unions are going to inhibit my ability to make decisions.’ Well, yes, they're going to ask for the ability to have input, but they're not going to be able to unilaterally force you to do or not do something. It's about a process of give and take, and seeing the relationship through the lens of a value-add instead of just adversarial. Leaders have to remember that it’s not about you.
We’re seeing a growth in union activity among desk-based and professional workers, who don’t fit the mold of the traditional union worker. What’s behind that?
For the most part, it is about wages, benefits, and healthcare—the sort of bread and butter issues that you would expect—but it's also about having that seat at the table across from the employer to negotiate over the intangibles. That could be work environment, or safety issues, or the ability to have a voice in how technology is implemented in your workplace. For example, in the professional sector, we’re seeing an increasing amount of surveillance going on in the workplace. Coming out of Covid, there’s a new time clock. People are asking for work from home and flexibility, and companies grant that but with conditions. ‘We want you punching in at this hour. We want you working without time away from your desk. We're going to monitor you with your camera, and we're going to monitor you by measuring your keystrokes.’ Without a union, you don't have a voice in that process or the ability to put some guardrails around it.
Having a union helps the worker build power and leverage in shaping these policies, including how that data is used for disciplinary purposes and the use of that data. At the AFL-CIO’s technology institute, we’re putting a lot of energy and focus on worker protections related to how data can be used and the necessary privacy guardrails for workers. That’s a unifying issue that cuts across all work.
Another one of those issues that cuts across all kinds of work is child-care, which the AFL-CIO has been a leader on. What makes child-care a workplace and labor issue?
Well child-care and care work makes all other work possible. We like to say, really, work connects us all. No matter what job you're doing, you're relying on the work of someone else. The care economy is essential to our daily lives, so no one else can do their jobs without the support of the caregivers who take care of our kids, who take care of our seniors, and take care of folks who are differently abled.
The pandemic really shined a bright light on the fact that our care economy is broken. A million women were sidelined during the pandemic because they lacked paid leave and childcare was unavailable. In the labor movement, we believe that this is a worker's issue because it matters not just to women, even though they're disproportionately the ones providing the care, but it matters to families cuts to the heart of everyone's ability to do their work.
We also look through the lens of the child-care workers. The workers themselves should be able to make a decent living to be able to care for their own families. We know that the childcare workforce is disproportionately women of color, and many are underpaid, undervalued, and without a union. In order to make these jobs good jobs in the future, we believe that our country needs to invest in a system of care, while making sure that the caregivers are paid fairly and supported because these jobs are physically and emotionally demanding. It’s a reflection of how our country values our future generations.
What has been the role of the labor movement in building care infrastructure?
This has been a journey that has been going on for decades. And in fact, I think a lot of people don't see the labor movement as a women's organization, but as a woman leader, I often say that we are the largest organization of working women in the country. The care economy is a top priority in the labor movement for that reason, because it truly does matter to working women. That being said, it's not just a women's issue, but a family issue.
It's Women in Construction Week, and I've been thinking a lot about women in the trades and the fact that child-care is often one of the largest barriers to accessing better jobs. Many of these higher-paying jobs are the ones on the cutting edge with new technologies. As we see all these investments with infrastructure, from chips to science to clean energy, we're going to see a huge boon in these highly skilled, highly paid jobs, which women are losing opportunities if they don't see a pathway for themselves.
So one of the examples of our advocacy I would highlight is our work making investments in experiments that might fix this. How can we make it easier for women to enter the trades, especially for women of color, who've been left on the sidelines in the past?
We've also been advocating for federal paid leave policy to make sure that people have the time they need to care for themselves or families and not worry about losing their jobs. Similarly, we've been advocating for investments in universal childcare alongside many of our coalition partners for decades. They've been advocating for decades for greater supports in our social infrastructure, and we're finally at this crisis point, particularly coming out of the pandemic where we see the need for social infrastructure is just as important as the needs for our physical infrastructure
What does the current economic slowdown mean for organized labor?
We're very nervous about what the Federal Reserve has been doing each time it has a hike in interest rates. We believe that it puts jobs at risk, and we've been advocating very forcefully for the Fed to slow down. And we know it's a balancing act, in terms of controlling inflation, but also we haven't had time for these government investments to really start working. When we create jobs and people have more money in their pockets, that will continue to lift up entire communities. All of that is at risk if we're immersed in a recession. So it's this careful balancing act of making sure we're not acting too aggressively on monetary policy, while at the same time ensuring that the investments that the Biden administration has put forward and that the Congress has passed are implemented the way they're intended. If they're successful, we could create whole new industries in the country through investments in highly-skilled manufacturing like semiconductors and clean energy, which will create good jobs. We can't put that at risk by being too aggressive with our monetary policy.