By Mitchell Schnurman, Business columnist
Aug. 31, 2018
Unions are having a moment, and it’s not just the Labor Day holiday. Even in Texas, where union membership is far lower than the national rate, there are signs of momentum.
Organizing activities have been ramping up on several fronts. Union officials pointed to a big push for paid sick time in Dallas, Austin and San Antonio, and to union campaigns that signed up about 1,500 hospitality workers in Houston. Another effort led to a first-ever contract for 500 hotel workers in San Antonio.
Statewide numbers also show some growth. In 2017, Texas added 81,000 union members, and their share of the workforce ticked up from 4 percent to 4.7 percent.
It’s too early to declare a union revival, given that membership has declined steadily for decades. In 1983, 20 percent of U.S. workers were in a union; that number has fallen by almost half.
It wouldn’t be nearly that high without government workers. Nationwide, union membership is over five times higher in the public sector, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In Texas, participation peaked at 7.5 percent of workers in 1993. The state initially adopted a right-to-work law in 1947 and modified it in ‘93, and it prohibits employees from being required to join a union as part of their job. A long decline followed.
Texas brags about its pro-business climate, which can mean a lot of things: low taxes, limited regulation, public incentives for expansion and a workforce that’s largely not unionized. But the recent union gains may be part of a broader shift in attitudes.
In the spring, teachers from West Virginia to Arizona staged giant protests over pay and benefits, and many saw their efforts pay off.
In Missouri, Republican lawmakers passed a right-to-work law that prompted a petition drive to put the issue on the ballot. In August, voters in the Show-Me State rejected the law by a 2-to-1 margin.
“Working people are getting fed up with the system,” said Willy Gonzalez, the Texas chapter president for Unite Here, a labor union that represents 270,000 in North America. “They’re open to coming together to improve their rights and working conditions. You can really feel the energy.”
He cited a recent effort underway with 2,700 catering employees for United Airlines. That group, which includes about 800 workers in Houston, will start voting on joining the union in mid-September.
Other factors contribute to the higher numbers in Texas. There’s been growth in local government, which includes teachers, police and firefighters in unions. And several major employers with big union shops have been growing. In D-FW, that group includes American Airlines, Southwest, AT&T, General Motors and Lockheed Martin.
At American and Southwest, the vast majority of workers are in unions — 85 percent at American, 83 percent at Southwest. Both have had high-profile conflicts over contracts, and American’s high labor costs were one factor in its 2011 bankruptcy.
But Southwest has a 45-year record of profits (and profit sharing with employees). And Southwest leaders have often boasted about being so heavily unionized.
The new American, led by former leaders of US Airways, worked hard to turn around financial results and build a new culture. The unions have been essential at every step, starting with backing the merger of American and US Airways and lobbying Washington.
“I can’t imagine why a company would fear unionization or fight it,” said Elise Eberwein, American’s executive vice president of people and communications. “That’s old-school thinking.”
She made those comments on the same day that flight attendants picketed American’s headquarters, pushing for better sick leave policies. While the public clashes may be frustrating for management, they’re part of the process — and much more often, she said, the groups collaborate in a positive way.
Every quarter, American’s executive team meets with union leaders to dig into financial results and discuss emerging issues among front-line workers. For a company with 126,000 employees, it’s imperative to nurture those lines of communication.
“We have 27,000 flight attendants, and you can’t possibly synthesize all those views without some mechanism to bring them forward,” Eberwein said.
A few years ago, reservations agents wanted to add stand-up, sit-down desks, an issue that came up in a meeting with union leaders, she said. The company made the improvements.
Of course, you don’t need a union in order to be responsive to employees. But some matters, such as adding health or retirement benefits, can be negotiated more effectively as a group.
Union shops also tend to have lower turnover, an advantage when unemployment is near historical lows and companies are competing hard for talent.
“But it’s also harder to get rid of people,” said Danyelle Williams Ackall, a longtime human resources executive who teaches at Texas Christian University’s Neeley School of Business.
And retirement plans are great, she said, “as long as they’re fully funded.”
That’s a nod to the many pension plans, in the public and private sector, that were badly underfunded. While the problem affected a range of employers, union shops had some of the largest liabilities.
Some workers would benefit from union protections on job security and health benefits, Ackall said, but others haven’t gained much. The same general principle applies to employers.
“A company gets the union it deserves,” she said. “Treat employees well and the union works with management. Treats employees poorly and they’ll have an adversarial relationship.”