Some believe better times may be ahead for unions, in part because of an improved dialogue with management in companies across the U.S.
Less than 11 percent of wage and salary workers in the U.S. were union members by the end of 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That compares to 20 percent union membership in 1983, the first year in which comparable union data was available.
Union membership was battered during years of recession and the flight of U.S. manufacturers. Another setback could be in store, as the U.S. Supreme Court soon will rule on whether public sector unions can collect fees from employees who don’t join.
More positively, both unions and management seem inclined to make the most of an improved economic environment to tamp down on their traditional tensions.
“The current level of cooperation between labor and management is the highest I’ve ever seen in the 21 years I’ve been here,” Unite Here Local 54 President Bob McDevitt said.
The Atlantic City-based local he heads has about 9,500 members and represents hospitality workers across nine South Jersey counties in hotels and casinos, convention centers, food service other organizations.
Adrienne Eaton, dean, Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations
“We had a decade of contraction in Atlantic City, and now we have to find ways to pull together,” McDevitt said.
Memories of discord remain fresh, however. Unite Here went on strike against the Trump Taj Mahal, which prompted then-owner Carl Icahn to shut it down – eliminating 3,000 union jobs.
“It’s true we had the strike against the Taj, but that was the exception,” said McDevitt. “We were able to settle with other Atlantic City properties, including Caesars and Tropicana; so other than the Taj the rest of the industry went well.”
There was some “healthy back-and-forth” discussion, he added.
But overall, the negotiations were constructive, McDevitt said, especially compared to some past actions. Those include the 2004 strike that saw about 10,000 hotel and restaurant workers in Atlantic City casinos walk off the job to marches, engage in civil disobedience and other actions.
As an example of today’s kindler, gentle atmosphere, McDevitt pointed to recent talks his union’s having with the Casino Association of New Jersey about providing hospitality training and jobs for “under-served” communities, such as the chronically unemployed, recovering drug addicts and others.
“We’re still working on this, but the talks are moving in a positive direction,” he said. “We’ve never had anything like this get off the ground before.”
Greg Lalevee, business manager of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825 and chairman of Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative, agrees.
“In construction, it’s almost essential that we work together,” Lalevee said. “ELEC Executive Director Mark Longo meets regularly with management, along with other representatives from other trades. We may conflict at times, but we’re always looking to advance our common interests. After all, companies need to be profitable to keep hiring.”
Said John Romeo, a director in the Employment and labor law practice of the Gibbons law firm: “Unions operate as a business. So to the extent that a more cohesive relationship with management makes sense, they’ll engage in it. But they still have to answer to their membership.”
Elizabeth Elmore, Stockton University economics professor whose father was a Teamster, said companies supporting right-to-work laws or changes in overtime regulations can place tension on relations with their unionized employees. Shifting workplace processes also make clear management and labor perspectives remain at odds at times.
“The effect is greater in some industries than others,” Elmore said. “Even the hospitality industry is using tablets to place orders. The reason is the drive to minimize the cost of inputs while maximizing profit.”
Adrienne Eaton, dean at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, also noted differing situations among various business sectors.
“The industries in which we see the most formal labor-management cooperation now are those that can’t escape their unions through moving production overseas or to less union-friendly parts of the United States,” Eaton said. “For instance, there are several interesting labor-management partnerships now in the health care industry. The most well-known example is with Kaiser Permanente, the original HMO that operates primarily on the West Coast, and two coalitions of unions. This partnership has been going on for over two decades now and has been very successful in improving outcomes for patients and for employees.”
New Jersey Chamber of Commerce President Tom Bracken recalled that when he chaired New Jersey Forward — a coalition that earlier advocated for replenishing the state’s then-nearly depleted New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund — business, labor and other interests presented a united front on some related initiatives.
“The coalition worked very closely with business, labor, the [administration of then-Gov. Chris Christie] and the Legislature to replenish the TTF and eliminate the estate tax [among other reforms],” he said. “This is the kind of model than can work for many kinds of challenges the state faces. A large, diverse coalition carries more weight and can achieve better results compared to a narrow one.”