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ANALYSIS: Workers May Be Complaining, But Not About Their Unions

July 14, 2021, 9:00 AM

The problem with analyzing labor trends these days is that it’s too soon to tell whether havoc-ridden 2020 was an outlier or an outrider. The current headline-grabbing news about labor relations seems to focus on dramatic, “We all quit!"-type moments in the service and hospitality industries. But what if those stories are more than one-off labor-market anomalies and instead augur a whole new paradigm in how America works? If so, has this recent (and current) period of turmoil made the sea change so vast that the conventional measures no longer apply?

Take union satisfaction—that is, workers’ satisfaction with the performance of their union representatives. One reliable way to track it has always been to see how many union members are filing unfair labor practice complaints with the National Labor Relations Board against their own union locals. (The issue is usually about whether a worker felt a local failed to adequately represent them in a grievance or other dispute.)

The NLRB received 2,547 such complaints in 2020, by far the lowest annual total on record. But amid reopening worksites and stories of workers flexing their newfound strength in a wide-open job market, are complaints against unions resuming their former pace?

If the first six months of 2021’s NLRB filings are any indication, this year will have more in common with 2020 than with its predecessors. Only 1,258 ULP charges have been leveled at unions from January through June. Doubling that number puts expectations for a full-year total very close to 2020’s all-time low.

And what about those service and hospitality workers? Are the NLRB statistics showing any signs of rising dissatisfaction with their unions during this turbulent time?

Not so far. In fact, among the most-cited unions since 2019, the Service Workers and UNITE HERE have actually seen fewer ULP complaints in 2020 and 2021, relative to their peers: The SEIU is no longer the top target, while UNITE HERE has dropped out of the top 10 entirely. (The UFCW, which includes both production and service workers, has ranked consistently the same.)

In another hard-hit industry, complaints against the Longshore Workers plummeted in 2020 but rebounded in 2021, following a more predictable work pattern. But workers in the service and hospitality industries haven’t followed suit. If they are indeed angry, they don’t seem to be taking it out on their unions.

Bloomberg Law subscribers can access, search, and run reports from both the NLRB Elections and Settlement Summaries databases by using our Labor Plus: Organizing and Bargaining Data resource.

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