The unions’ dilemma in the US: Membership vs leadership

The unions’ dilemma in the US: Membership vs leadership

America’s unions and its leadership have been divided for some time and it has resulted in the election of a president who has furthered the division. The key question is how it will affect the future of unions in the United States.

America’s unions and its leadership have been divided in their goals, ideas, and political views for the past few years. Union members endorsed a charismatic candidate making bold promises, while union leadership stayed with the status quo. The problem is that membership received the leader they wanted and leadership must find a way to work with President Trump in order to appease their members. The key question is: Can it work?

Dwindling union membership

Union membership is declining steeply. The Bureau of Labor Statistics report released in January 2017 stated that the 2016 union membership rate was 10.7 percent, a 0.4 percent decrease from 2015. Union members stood at 14.6 million in 2016 down 240,000 from 2015.

This is in sharp contrast to the early 1950’s, when approximately one of every three American workers were union. In 1983, when the first comparable union data was available, the membership rate was 20.1 percent consisting of 17.7 million union workers. In over half of the states fewer than one in 10 workers are unionized now. Without government employee membership, unions would see a decrease in enrollment to approximately one in twelve.

Hurting the unions has been the decline in Rust Belt manufacturing jobs and that private sector workers comprise only 6.4 percent of membership. Unless leadership makes a bold move to boost membership, union rolls will continue to shrink and lose political and financial power.

2016 presidential race

The division between union membership and leadership manifested itself in Trump’s presidential victory, which included winning a wide swath of Rust Belt states. Trump tapped into the fear and anger that union workers had in losing their jobs, income, and chance for a comfortable retirement. Trump took important votes from Hillary Clinton by his successful strategy of appealing to traditionally Democratic union workers by promising them jobs, better trade deals, and punishing companies sending factories to China and Mexico.

Unions spent over $100 million to beat Trump but Clinton was only able to obtain 51 percent of union households votes, according to exit polling. Making matters worse, Clinton lost union households in states such as Ohio by 49 to 44 percent. Trump touched upon union members’ raw nerves when he spoke at Rust Belt rallies, reminding workers that they were losing economically and were being ignored by Washington, and only he could bring back well-paying manufacturing jobs.

As Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union and chair of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s political committee stated, “We underestimated the amount of anger and frustration among working people and especially white workers, both male and female, about their economic status.”

Clinton had the smallest Democratic win among union households since Walter Mondale’s unsuccessful 1984 presidential campaign against Ronald Reagan. This worries union leaders since Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in 2012 among union households by 18 percent. Trump was able to completely reverse gains Obama made in his presidential campaigns. For example, NBC reported that Trump flipped 225 counties which Obama won in such states as Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania where union registration was above the national average.

The amazing factor is that not just blue-collar workers voted for Trump, but a substantial number of teachers. According to estimates, approximately one in five members of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) cast ballots for Trump while those from the larger National Education Association (NEA) had one in three voting for him.

Financially, the election was a tremendous loss since the NEA contributed $18.1 million into Democratic campaigns while spending $1.4 million on advocacy. Union blue-collar workers and teachers had in common that they ignored their leadership and brought to the forefront the disconnect between a disgruntled membership and union leadership.

Between a rock and a hard place

Union leadership is currently in a precarious situation: they have a membership that supports Trump despite all his machinations, while the leaders are concerned about what Trump and the Republican Congress will do to American workers. Trump promised to rid the United States of illegal aliens that take jobs from union workers, while cutting deals with companies such as Carrier and Ford Motor Company so to keep jobs at home.

Trump talks up his infrastructure plan where $1 trillion will be spent on roads and bridges and create jobs. Blue-collar union workers love the promises but fail to ask key questions such as where the money will come from to pay for such projects and what deals will be cut to keep factories from moving overseas. Union leaders are curious about this, also. But they may follow their members in order to keep their jobs.

Unions such as the Service Employees International Union, the NEA, and federal, state, and municipal employees’ unions vehemently oppose Trump due to his federal hiring freeze, repeal of Obamacare, proposed budget cuts, and opposition to a $15 federal minimum wage.

Union leaders worry that Congressional Republicans can finally repeal 85-year-old legislation requiring contractors to pay union-level wages on all federal projects. Also, their worst fears could be realized if a nationwide “right-to-work” law is passed that could seriously damage union coffers and further deplete membership.

Union leadership must now make drastic changes in their strategies and dealings with membership. The objective must not only be to deal with a Trump presidency and what it means to their unions, but listening to membership and being responsive to their concerns. Leadership must adapt and become innovative to labor’s problems and concerns or else a shrinking membership will be the least of their worries.

Categories: North America, Politics

About Author

Arthur Guarino

Arthur Guarino is an assistant professor in the Finance and Economics Department at Rutgers University Business School teaching courses in financial institutions and markets, corporate finance, and financial statement analysis. The first half of his career was spent in the financial services industry. He has written articles dealing with finance, economics, and public policy.