Increasingly, more Americans approve of labor unions. The latest poll shows that 64 percent support labor unions, which is nearing a 50-year high. Yet, only ten percent of workers are in unions.
Learn why that is from Dr. John Budd, a professor of work and organizations at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. Dr. Budd researches and studies labor unions, strikes, and collective bargaining power.
Below, listen to the conversation or read the transcript, and hear Dr. John Budd’s thoughts on:
- Why workers are striking more in recent years (1:39)
- How the Fight for $15 would help alleviate workers’ frustration (3:43)
- Why public support for unions is growing, but membership isn’t (5:54)
- If labor unions will make a comeback (7:38)
- If unions are as necessary today as they were in 1900 (8:57)
- The pros and cons of labor unions for employees and employers (10:24)
- How labor unions lost power in the last 50 years (11:52)
- If co-workers can discuss or disclose their salary (13:00)
- How important money is to job satisfaction (15:41)
Want to hear more from Dr. John Budd?
Coursera: From Coursera, this is Emma Fitzpatrick, and today, I’m talking with John Budd, a professor of work and organizations at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.
We’re hearing his thoughts on work overall, specifically the uptick in strikes, how Americans currently look at unions, and employee compensation on the job.
So, let’s go ahead and dive in.
Before we jump into strikes, unions, compensation, and employment, I’d love to hear how you went from focusing on economics to getting into this specialized field. Could you tell me a little about that?
[00:00:42] Dr. John Budd: Sure—happy to. Economics has studied labor issues for a long time—decades, centuries. But economics can be very mathematical, and sometimes it can be easy to lose track of how that’s actually connecting to the real world.
And so then, I found this field called industrial relations or employment relations, which does exactly that. It looks at work and institutions, like labor unions, through a very rich, robust multidisciplinary lens of history and law and psychology and ethics.
And I think that’s really how I gravitated towards that, and then again, the fact that work is so complicated and has such a rich history and lots of influences—legal influences, technological influences.
Recent Strikes Today (2017, 2018 2019, 2020)
[00:01:29] Coursera: Yeah, that makes sense. You can’t talk about life without talking about work, especially lately. It feels like every time you open up the paper;there’s a story about work.
Specifically, strikes have been a hot topic—the Chicago teacher strike, the GM strike. And 2018 was dubbed the year of the strike by some because it was the highest number of U.S. workers who went on strike since 1986.
Within the last couple of years, strikes are in the news and in our world in a way that they haven’t been for close to 30 years. I’d love to hear your take on why you see this uptick in more workers striking.
[00:02:11] Dr. John Budd: Labor relations is really about so much more than strikes, and strikes are really just the tip of the iceberg if you will.
But of course, they’re the most visible to the public and can be the most disruptive to the public. So, it’s natural to talk there, but it’s important to keep in mind that again strikes—in the grand scheme of things—are actually very rare and a very sort of a small piece of the puzzle.
But in terms of why there’s been this uptick in strike activity over the past couple years, I think it simply gets down to worker frustration.
There was the recession a decade ago, and workers made sacrifices. And companies said, ‘we can’t give you raises. We can’t invest in you because we’re just trying to survive.’
State budgets, government budgets, at various levels, sort of have the same stories. They had a period of austerity, and workers really felt like, ‘Okay, we’ll make sacrifices when times are tough, and we want to be rewarded when things turn around.’
And things have turned around now for a number of years, and companies don’t want to pay the workers for their sacrifice.
So, workers are just really frustrated, and they feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick, and they’re not benefiting from the improving economy.
[00:03:23] Coursera: Yeah, I love your take about how strikes are what get a lot of attention and buzz, but it’s just a snapshot of some larger things going on that need to be discussed, like income.
Do you think that raising the minimum wage could help alleviate some of that worker frustration?
[00:03:43] Dr. John Budd: Yeah, so the minimum wage debate is very important. It really goes hand-in-hand with the increase in strikes.
There’s been a lot of worker advocacy groups, who have really been pushing hard for improving minimum wages and other basic protections for workers. The Fight for $15 movement is really at the forefront of that, which connects back to organized labor.
So, we’re talking about a lot of the same important trends here. Some of them even come together when we have short-term fast-food strikes. And certainly, there’s a lot of importance in raising the floor and giving low-wage workers a route out of poverty and paying them more fairly for their labor.
So, I think there’s a lot of symbolic importance there. There can be some practical importance there.
But it really is—just as the name indicates obviously—the minimum wage, and so, it’s really going to take a lot more than simply increasing the minimum wage to alleviate these much deeper problems.
[00:04:39] Coursera: From your point of view, what other actions would need to be had to make that more successful?
[00:04:46] Dr. John Budd: Well, simply, workers just need more power.
There’s been a lot of initiatives—or lack of initiatives over the past couple of decades—which have had the cumulative impact of just weakening workers and their bargaining power within the economy.
We’ve seen the rise of non-compete agreements, not just for high-skilled, very uniquely talented professionals, but for low-wage workers as well.
We’ve seen the weakening of unions. We’ve seen the stagnation of minimum wages. There’s no requirement for paid sick leave or anything like that.
And so, we just need institutional improvements that can protect workers, give them more power, make gig employees actually treated as workers so that their companies are legally liable for minimum wages and other types of things, right?
Just a whole host of initiatives to really increase worker power is what’s needed.
Public Opinion and Support for Labor Unions in the United States Today
[00:05:45] Coursera: Yeah, and you shouted out that workers need more power, and I would love to hear your thoughts more on unions specifically.
Increasingly, more Americans approve of labor unions. The latest poll came out that it’s 64 percent, which is nearing a 50-year high, and yet membership in unions has been falling for years and decades. Currently, only ten percent of workers are in unions.
How do you see those two forces playing together?
[00:06:16] Dr. John Budd: Yeah, and we can even make the comparison more pointed because there are additional studies, beyond the opinion polls, which have consistently shown that between a third and sometimes as many as half of all non-union workers would vote to have a union represent them in their workplace today if they were given the opportunity.
So, that gets to the point even more strongly. So, why isn’t that happening more frequently?
It’s because labor law is really weak, and the deck is really stacked against workers and unions in terms of trying to take non-union workplaces and become union-represented workplaces.
There’s sometimes a cumbersome legal process that the parties need to navigate. The employers can have lots of influence—can object to different legal rulings, can delay, can stretch things out, cannot legally threaten workers—but there are no penalties really for violating prohibitions against threatening workers.
So, without getting too far down into the details, it’s just a very cumbersome process to become unionized that the employers definitely seem to have the upperhand in.
Will unions make a comeback?
[00:07:24] Coursera: Recently, Tesla employees are trying to unionize. As you mentioned, more workers are interested in joining a union, but it’s really tough. Do you see unions making a comeback?
[00:07:38] Dr. John Budd: Well, some of it will depend on how the next presidential election goes. The candidates on the Democratic side, especially Sanders and Warren, have come out with very strong pro-union platforms.
And so, if they’re the next president and they’re able to push at least some of their agenda through Congress, that might be some legislative reform that would help organize labor.
Short of that, unions are going to have to continue to be creative. A number of them have tried to avoid going through the government process of becoming a union and rely more on card checks or other ways of getting workers organized.
You’re going to see unions and workers really having to exercise their power in more disruptive ways.
For example, while this wasn’t a drive for unionization per se, there was the massive Google walk last year—or the teacher strikes in places last year, like West Virginia, where strikes are illegal.
When workers get so frustrated with the limitations of legal machinery, sometimes they feel like they have to take matters into their own hands and sort of take to the streets. And so that might be the future of organized labor if there isn’t labor law reform.
Are labor unions still necessary today in the 21st century?
[00:08:44] Coursera: Do you think that unions are still as necessary and important today as they were back in the early 1900s?
[00:08:57] Dr. John Budd: Yeah, that’s always a tough question. One thing that I’ve emphasized a lot in my own research are different frames of reference for thinking about the employment relationship.
Do we think about it in a purely free-market approach, where workers and employers are equals and just contracting with each other when it’s in their own self-interest? Or are there more systematic power imbalances?
If we see employers and employees largely as equals, then there really isn’t a need for unions.
But on the other side of the equation are people like myself who see most of the time, the employment relationship really being one of imbalance rather than of balance, then there’s still a continuing need for unionization.
We can also look at it in a more pragmatic way. Even though there’s weaknesses, there’s a lot more legal protections around anti-discrimination and worker safety than there were a hundred years ago.
Even though we can criticize some companies, right, many companies have really improved their human resource management practices over the last few decades or more. Those types of things tend to remove the need for unions in certain situations.
Unions might not be as necessary in some cases as they once were, but it would be a much different matter to say there’s no longer need for unions.
Pros and Cons of Unions for Employees and Employers
[00:10:16] Coursera: Let’s take a step back. Could you like out some of the pros and cons for employees and unions?
[00:10:24] Dr. John Budd: Sure. Well, on the employee side, the clearest gain for being unionized is collective power.
Workers have more power when they’re aligned with each other rather than dealing with their employer one-on-one.
Research always shows that unionized workers have higher wages and better benefits compared to comparable non-union workers. Unions can also provide better information about policies that workers are entitled to like family leave or unemployment insurance. Unionized workers typically have protections against being unfairly discharged, so you need a good reason to discipline somebody or fire somebody. So, there’s a whole host of important benefits for employees.
On the negative side, some people might point towards union dues. I think sometimes that’s a better soundbite than an actual negative because the positives—in terms of increased compensation, etc.—routinely outweigh the cost in terms of union dues.
Some people might not want to have somebody else speaking for them. The union has an obligation to represent everybody in that bargaining unit, and the terms that they negotiate have to apply to everyone.
Why are unions declining in membership?
[00:11:40] Coursera: As we’re talking about the pros and cons of unions and knowing that unions over the last half a century have become less of a player than they used to be, how did that happen? And how did we get here?
[00:11:52] Dr. John Budd: There’s been a host of specific events as well as sort of longer-term trends, dating back to the 1940s.
There’ve been changed legal rulings. So, the Trump labor board, for example, is making it harder for graduate students to unionize—making it harder for other employees to organize.
Some of it is more managerial practice. So, companies are a lot more likely to permanently replace striking workers now than they were, say, before the 1980s. Companies have become more aggressive and more emboldened for whatever reason.
Some of that might trace back to the pressures of globalization. So, there’s another long-term trend that’s at work here.
Increased protections for workers, in terms of safety and other ways, have maybe made some people see unions as less necessary.
So, it’s really a complicated, long-term story.
Is it illegal to discuss salary with co-workers?
[00:12:44] Coursera: One thing, as you were talking about the pros of being in a union, that really caught my ear was collective bargaining power and specifically using that for compensation.
I know as we were talking that getting that collective power is tough, so in light of that, is it helpful for employees to discuss their wages more among themselves?
[00:13:11] Dr. John Budd: Yes, in fact, that’s one of the classic starting points.
One of the great shames today is that most people believe that U.S. labor law only really applies to unionized situations.
But, in fact, we should see labor law as applying to quote-unquote union-like situations. What I’m referring to here is really any situation where more than one worker joins together to try to understand better and ultimately improve their own working situation.
So, you can have as few as two people coming together to share what they’re being paid, what they’re being asked to do, and ultimately, approach a manager and say, ‘We’d like to see some changes here.’
That, through the eyes of labor law, is really seen as union activity, and that’s protected by U.S. labor law.
So, when all the Googlers walked out if they had said we’re on strike. We’re joining together to try to improve our terms and conditions of employment. That’s protected by labor law, and they can’t be fired for engaging in that activity.
Think of unions in a very organic sense as a group of co-workers who are joining together to try to improve their own working lives.
There tends to be an association in the public imagination of thinking of unions as very large bureaucratic organizations, like the United Auto Workers or American Federation of Teachers. And certainly, that’s true.
But really, at their core, unions exist and are founded when small groups of workers come together to exercise their voice in their workplace to have some say into their employment terms and conditions—and ultimately try to get a better deal for themselves.
And I think that’s a more productive way of thinking about unions than to fall back on thinking of them as big bureaucratic, centralized organizations.
[00:15:06] So, yes, workers can talk with each other. And in fact, there’s a lot of companies who would like you to believe compensation is private, and you can’t talk with each other. But, in fact, it’s illegal for a company to prevent employees from talking with each other about their wages and other working conditions.
And that type of sort of micro-organic activity is exactly what can lead to sort of greater collective solidarity and ultimately greater collective power.
How important is money in a job?
[00:15:41] Coursera: So, do you see income and what you’re making on the job as the number one factor for job satisfaction?
[00:15:48] Dr. John Budd: Like a lot of other things with work, job satisfaction is complicated. Some people would say it’s very important. Some people would say it’s actually of secondary importance.
We don’t want to discount the importance of pay. Sometimes, the people who want to discount pay are the people who are very well paid. And so, we don’t want to be too self-centered and say well, pay’s never important—because that’s more of a privileged position where somebody might be so well-paid that it’s really not an important factor for them.
But among low paid workers that’s certainly an important factor, but a lot of people in all types of jobs, all types of income levels, want to feel like they’re doing something meaningful, want to have good relationships with our co-workers, good relationships with their managers.
[00:16:30] And my course on Preparing to Manage Human Resources is the first course of a multi-course sequence on human resources, especially helping people who find themselves in a position where they have responsibilities for managing others, but don’t really have training in that important skill.
So, my course really lays the foundation for that, and one of the main goals is to remind people of how complicated the employment relationship is, how complicated work is.
And you might say well, what does that have to do with human resources or managing other employees? Really, the importance is that, as a manager, you have to remember that workers who are working under you might have very different views of work from you and they might be coming to the office or the restaurant or wherever they’re working with very different values, very different goals.
And so, as a manager, it’s very important to be aware of the diverse reasons why people might work and to think about how you can best engage and motivate them. So, that’s the big takeaway from my course.
We also talk a little bit about unions and laws and different types of HR strategies—just to prepare people, as the course title suggests, for thinking about human resources—and that lays the foundation for follow-up course work, getting into more practical skills, like interviewing employees, compensating employees.
As always, thanks for listening and happy learning.