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Addressing Union Membership Decline by Lowering Barriers to Entry

By Jackie Lam | May 18, 2020

The majority of Americans (55%) view unions favorably. However, that doesn't necessarily translate to robust union membership.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in 2019, about 10.3% of all wage and salary workers belonged to a union. In 1983, that rate was at 20.1%.

A handful of reasons could explain this union membership decline. For one, jobs in the fastest-growing sectors — restaurants, hospitality and health care — typically aren't unionized. Some laws also make it more difficult to form unions and organize.

How can union leaders recognize obstacles that stop people from joining unions, and encourage more people to join? To start, it's worth digging deeper into why barriers to union entry exist in the first place.

Affordable Union Dues

Some potential members may not be able to afford the dues that come with membership. If your goal is to broaden access to membership, reassess your dues and payment cycles. Changing the number and amount of contributions, the payment structure or the payment cycle could lower the barrier to entry and encourage new members to join.

If that's not a viable option, inform potential members of all the benefits of being part of a union to highlight the value of what membership dues cover. Emphasize the financial benefits of being part of a collective bargaining unit that negotiates fair wages and benefits on your behalf. Discuss the other benefits of membership, such as community meetings, development opportunities, members-only events and group discounts, as a personal investment.

Inform Employees of Union Rights

Some employees may hesitate to join a union for fear of losing their jobs. Alleviate their worries by informing workers of their rights. For instance, employers are violating the law if they threaten an employee with loss of employment or benefits for joining a union.

It's a misconception that an employer can perform a "subtle act of punishment" — like a wage reduction or denial of a raise, reassignment to a less favorable position or rejection from valuable training opportunities — on a worker simply because they are part of a union.

To dispel misconceptions and ease their fears, distribute educational material, or post content online explaining workers' rights.

Help Members Assert Their Influence

According to a PBS survey of workers' interest in joining unions, one of the most significant indicators of who would actually join is their perceived influence. If they had a greater say on important issues, such as job benefits, promotions and compensation, they reported being more inclined to join. Consider hosting meetings and opportunities for potential members to voice their concerns and discuss issues that are most crucial to their well-being and livelihoods.

To learn which aspects of membership are most valuable, create a questionnaire covering pressing issues for your constituency. You can drop these in the mail or send them online. Their responses will help you know what to prioritize for the next round of negotiations, as well as which types of programming and educational opportunities to offer.

Another way to help members assert their influence is by creating committees to represent different demographics. These could go beyond gender, race and ethnicity to include age, common challenges in the workplace, or shared professional goals.

Draw Inspiration From Industry Trends and Successful Sectors

Studying industries where union membership has already increased can help leaders discover ways to boost their numbers. For instance, according to BLS data, in 2019, union membership rates increased in warehousing and transportation. The growth of e-commerce and online shopping could be responsible. What's more, union activity in logistics, the service industry and health care has spiked. This may be because these sectors are experiencing a lot of disruption and change.

Also consider generational trends. Millennials are the largest generation in the labor force. Older Americans are increasingly likely to delay their retirement in favor of working. These groups each have their own priorities, but union leaders can find common ground to reach them — for instance, the desire for strong benefits. Millennials who are used to job hopping may be surprised to learn that they could hold on to their benefits when they switch jobs, as long as they remain union members and are working for eligible employers. Older members who don't plan to retire but have greater health needs may see the appeal of the health care or pension benefits membership can provide.

To reverse union membership decline, leaders want to take a careful look at barriers to entry. In unraveling precisely what these barriers are and why they exist, it's possible to find ways to remove these hurdles and boost membership.


Jackie Lam is a personal finance writer who has written for both Fortune 500 companies and fintech startups. In a former life, she worked in the communications department of an entertainment labor union. Now a full-time freelancer, she enjoys helping fellow freelancers build a successful business.