Labor Unions in 2024: Debunking Common Myths About Unionization in Today’s Workplace


Labor Unions in 2024: Debunking Common Myths About Unionization in Today’s Workplace

By Tara Walker and Ann Freeman

From our work as Labor attorneys, we’ve seen plenty of occasions when the term “labor union” strikes fear in managers. But we need to reckon with one truth: labor unions are more popular than ever. From Hollywood to Starbucks to even the knights, queens, and squires at Medieval Times dinner theatre, employees are organizing. The year 2022 saw US approval of labor unions at its highest point ever.

In Maine, the data is less clear, but the trends certainly suggest a surge in union activity: after many colleagues have spent their entire careers without bargaining labor union contracts with newly formed unions, we have done 11 in the past 3 years, which does not include any of the campaigns that did not result in a union. Once we get through the organization process and get to the table, we have a unique insight on what motivated workers to get to bargaining.

But with these trends come myths and misunderstandings about unions and why employees are organizing.

Dispelling Myths About Labor Unions

Through our work, we’ve been able to identify three common myths about labor unions that are worth highlighting.

Myth 1: Unionization is All About the Money

While wages may be a factor, they’re not usually the driving force behind unionization. In fact, in the 11 contracts that we have negotiated, when we get to the table and start negotiating terms, it has become abundantly clear that this is not what drove the employees to form a union.

Myth 2: Unions Form Due to Poor Working Conditions

While poor working conditions can spark complaints that human resources directors hear most about, they’re not what we see as being the catalyst for unionization. Often, when we get to the table, there may be one or two pet issues from the bargaining team, but this is not what we’ve seen motivate workers to sign authorization cards.

Myth 3: Unions are a Response to Management Issues

While conflicts with management can, at times, fuel organization efforts, once again, they’re not the sole reason for union formation. Worker motivations are multifaceted and often extend beyond grievances with management.

Unionization: A Movement Beyond the Workplace

What is driving this increase? Several factors are contributing to the rise of unions, but in many cases we have seen workers align with unions for broader political and social reasons. Their effort is bigger than their own desire for a wage increase, more remote work days, or some workplace condition. Unions are increasingly also looking to the private sector for its membership and dues after the 2018 Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME, where they were prohibited from collecting fees from employees that did not elect to join the union in the public sector. It makes sense that they reach out in the private sector to the “low hanging fruit” or those most politically aligned with their cause.

Redefining Responses: The New Unionization Landscape

Because workers are not only organizing to get better wages and benefits, it’s essential to recognize that even companies or organizations with excellent compensation, responsiveness to employee concerns, and good employee relationships can face unionization.  And for those companies or organizations, the traditional approaches—with a myopic focus on union dues, what benefits the employer is providing, and the things that they have offered in the past—end up being just white noise to most of those employees who are sympathetic to a union.

Employers need to radically change how they respond to union organizing. Both unions and employers must adapt to a rapidly changing landscape. We’ve seen these changes in other contexts, marked by technological advancements and political polarization, and the same is true for responding to labor unions knocking at your door. Having the right allies in your corner is essential. And if your company or your organization ends up being one of those, like the others we have represented through a new contract, remember, the world won’t burn down. With the right approach, you can navigate the challenges of unionization and emerge stronger.

For legal guidance on labor unionization, contact Labor and Employment Shareholders Ann Freeman or Tara Walker.