Partnering with unions

Why This Matters

Labor unions have been advocating for job quality for over a century. Over the last 50 years, union membership has steadily declined, but recent union activity at Amazon, Apple, and Starbucks has reignited enthusiasm. Trends in federal violations of employee protections have shed light on the role unions can play in protecting workers and encouraging government agencies to use strategic enforcement and co-enforcement to drive job quality.

In the 1960s, nearly 1 in 3 workers belonged to a union. In the 1980s, the ratio declined to nearly 1 in 5. Today, 10% of workers are represented. Most Americans think this decline in union membership is bad for workers and bad for the United States. The 2021 Gallup national opinion poll reported that 68% of Americans approve of unions, the highest approval level since the 1960s. In addition, a 2017 national survey conducted by MIT Sloan found that 48% of nonunion workers said they would vote for a union if an election was held at their workplace, up from about one-third of the nonunion workforce in the 1970s and 1990s.

The Problem

Unions are critical partners for workforce agencies advancing job quality but haven’t always reported positive experiences with workforce boards. Organized labor leaders are focused on expanding their membership and increasing gender and racial diversity, particularly in the building and construction trades. In many communities, partnerships between union and public workforce development programs can be better aligned to advance shared job quality and equity goals.

The Solution

Under the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act (WIOA), 20% of local workforce development board members must be representatives of organized labor or other organizations representing workers. These local leaders and the workers and organizations they represent are critical partners in advancing shared job quality and equity goals, including:

  • Pathways to good jobs through apprenticeships for diverse populations

  • Joint advocacy to address pay gaps for workers in a specific industries or localities

  • Increased worker knowledge of union benefits and supports

  • Diversification of workers in union jobs to include underrepresented populations

This section outlines how workforce agencies can improve their partnerships with unions to create better job quality programs and services for clients.

Recommended actions can help workforce and economic development agencies advance strategies to finance their job quality strategy for the long term.