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Union Trends Leaders Need to Know in 2023

Feb 8, 2023

Business leaders across industries continue to place a heavy emphasis on learning and understanding the new challenges they’ll face along with the impact on their unique operations. One facet we’re beginning to hear more about is the topic of unionization, its growing popularity, and what it means for employers.

While the topic of labor unions is nothing new to employers in the U.S., we’re poised to see a very active year for them, for many reasons. Due to this, it’s important for business leaders to be informed as to both why we’re seeing increased unionization activity and how to best work with union stakeholders. Below are some of the main trends we can expect for labor unions in 2023 and what managers need to know.

Increasing Support in the Public Eye

According to Gallup, 71% of Americans approved of labor unions in 2022, a stark increase over the past decade or so, from only 44% in 2010. Why? Consider the drastic disruptions that have hit the market over that time: economic upheaval, social division, geopolitical conflict, global pandemic—to name a few. It’s issues like these that have brought new conversations about compensation, benefits and working conditions to light—three topics near and dear to the heart of unions.

Additionally, more sectors are starting to discuss the potential costs and benefits of unionization, including nurses, teachers, doctors, medical students, pilots, manufacturing workers and others.

Contracts Are Expiring and Getting Shorter

It’s estimated that contracts for 1.6 million union workers are set to expire in the U.S. in 2023. While this aligning of the stars is likely a coincidence, some of the larger business entities affected are the Detroit Automakers, UPS, and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, according to Bloomberg Law.

Due to the extensive changes we’ve experienced over the past few years, laborers are anticipated to begin pushing further for reduced contractual term lengths to better keep up with and adapt to changes in the economy, inflation, and rapid technological advances. Management should expect contract negotiations to start at one-to-two years, as opposed to the three- and four-year contracts many have come to expect. Unions will begin bargaining for new conditions and benefits more recently popularized during the pandemic such as flexible schedules, hybrid options, additional time off for sickness, expected inflationary raises, and bereavement time.

Employee Engagement Will Be a Key Focus

An area many keen business leaders have shifted focus to over the past few years, employee engagement continues to hold true as one of the most important metrics to know when it comes to union trends in 2023.

In fact, according to Gallup, engagement is 6% higher among non-union workers (33%) versus their union counterparts (27%). This should not be surprising to leaders who are following the topic because it’s typical for union employees to hold more loyalty to their union and union rep, the ones advocating for their wants and needs. 

This is a critical trend for leaders to understand. Business leaders can speak directly to their non-union employees, and deliver benefits and concessions unique to their own wants and needs. However, with a union, the collective bargaining agreement caters to the union employees and their agreed-upon wants and needs as a whole. It’s important to note, especially in today’s tight labor market, that the flight risk of union workers is 43% compared to 50% who are non-unionized.

Employee/Employer Communication Is Driving Discussions

If employers are not talking to their employees about their unique wants and needs, they’re fighting a losing battle. As part of management's goal to improve engagement, business and HR leaders can also expect a growing emphasis on proactive and strategic communication—for both union and non-union employees.

Whether it’s to best cater to employees' true needs and wants or effectively negotiate that next collective bargaining agreement, communication is a two-way street. Employers need to educate employees, and employees need to share what they want from employers. If you don’t ask, you don’t know.

Employers and management should be proactive by conducting climate assessments to better understand what they need to do to keep employees engaged, retain talent, and further educate about the costs and benefits of unions.

Business leaders need to understand that simply being informed on the issue is not enough. Take a step back, and through a strategic lens, actively listen to your HR staff to help keep your people happy, rewarded and engaged.

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