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Over the last 25 years, the number of U.S. workers who are members of unions has dropped from about 16.7 million to about 14.8 million, even though the total workforce has grown significantly over that period of time.  According to Bloomberg Law Labor Data, however, the number of strikes has dropped six times faster, from 793 in 1990 to 102 in 2015.  Strikes over the years have historically been considered the only real power the unions have.  So why are strikes withering away?  Undoubtedly, opinions differ on this subject.  Let’s consider this writer’s opinions. 

The beginning point is probably to look at the financial implications of a strike, and the attitudes of both unions and management in negotiating collective bargaining agreements (CBA).  In general, strikes are so expensive that few unions can afford them.  The expense comes from first, the elimination of union dues during the period of the strike.  Second, at a minimum, unions have to engage staff members, lawyers, and others to manage the strike.  Also, many unions provide at least minimal financial assistance to the strikers during the course of the strike.  All these things add up to an enormous expense.  In a recent strike involving less than 2,000 electrical workers in New York, the strike cost the union over $4 million in strike funds alone.  A business manager of the local on strike candidly stated that the union was going to try to help the people but he didn’t know if they were ever going to go back given the position of the company. 

Another risk for unions, besides financial, is decertification.  Generally, union members crossing the picket line are harassed by the union, and the new hires have no interest in joining the union, thus creating a "perfect storm" for union decertification.  Unions know they have this risk when they strike.

Employers, on the other hand, often have greater ability to withstand strikes today.  They have learned how to build up inventory, to shift work to other plants, to use labor services to bring in replacements, and to otherwise survive a strike.  It is much more difficult for unions to boycott company products today than it used to be, another factor.

Of course, strikes cost companies tons of money as well.  Further, companies know that when strikes end, sometimes it takes a long period of time to build back the comradery in the workplace that promotes efficiency.  Companies, too, want to avoid strikes.

But it is probably the attitudes of the parties that explains much of the decline in strikes, rather than finances.  Unions are not organizing that many new employers today, so most collective bargaining relationships are long-standing.  The companies have become accustomed to dealing with unions, and many companies candidly admit they are not opposed to the union.  Some companies may feel they get "breaks" with government enforcement agencies or public opinion by having a union.  Some may feel they can tell workers to "blame the union" over the problems, not the company.  Others feel that the union actually helps the company solve problems.

But it is the attitude of union negotiators that has particularly changed.  In the "old days," labor negotiations were extremely adversarial, with "pounding the table" and the like.  Today, negotiations are much more accommodating.  Both union training and business schools are teaching cooperation in labor-management relations.  Unions skillfully phrase their arguments on how their proposals can actually benefit the company, making the company much more supportive of the union’s position.  In the "old days," unions pushed to build a common "labor standard" in entire industries, or entire areas, so that the cost of labor would not be a part of industry competition.  Unions have largely abandoned this philosophy, and are willing to look more at local conditions in resolving negotiating issues.  Both parties increasingly seem to have common interests in hiring and retaining a qualified workforce, thus lessening the controversy over wage proposals.  To some extent, the same common interest applies to benefits.  Further, unions at one time insisted on employer participation in "union benefit plans," but that push by unions has also declined.  Unions are increasingly realizing and saying that the success of the union depends on the success of the company as well. 

Nevertheless, employers as a whole that are union free generally wish to stay that way.  There is an administrative cost that goes with having a union, including dealing with union stewards, negotiating labor agreements, and the like.  Unions’ preference for seniority-based systems and equality in pay rates works against management philosophy in some cases.  Some believe that the increasing significance of healthcare costs may create controversies in union-management relations.  Whether union or non-union companies are more efficient is a matter of continuing debate.

Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider & Stine

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