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Amid organizing buzz, union membership lags, but leaders still see hope

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Monday, November 20, 2023   

States such as Minnesota have seen a tidal wave of union organizing amid public support to improve pay and workplace conditions.

However, labor leaders acknowledge the slow growth of membership, prompting questions about the movement's future.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says nationwide, the number of union jobs last year increased by nearly 2%, but the actual membership rate declined to 10.1%.

In a recent University of Minnesota panel discussion, Bernie Burnham -- president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO -- said the dynamics of organizing have changed, including smaller groups of employees pursuing contracts.

"Like in retail, there are a lot of places that use self-checkout," said Burnham. "So there are less workers in these stores and they're not going the traditional route, the old-school route of joining these bigger bodies that are the bigger unions."

Despite the differences, she suggests there's a lot of energy among the newer voices.

The experts added that corporations are taking a harder line on organizing and that under most laws, it's hard to enforce "anti-union" messaging.

Minnesota recently bolstered its laws, but some panelists noted most workers today don't come from a union household and could use more education and awareness.

Kathy Megarry, vice president for human resources and labor relations with the Metropolitan Airports Commission, suggested there are workers who want to see more value in the dues that are required.

"I have seen unions make actual political changes in terms of how they service their members," said Megarry, "put more money towards organizing, less money to servicing their members. That's a strategy. But then when you do not service your members well, I've seen that hurt some unions, not all."

She said that can be a hindrance for workers who sympathize with the cause but aren't ready to sign up for a union.

Meanwhile, the panelists said they see hope for more diversity within organized labor amid a shift from older white males leading organizing efforts.

They said having more women and people of color taking charge can potentially help with recruitment.



Disclosure: Minnesota AFL-CIO contributes to our fund for reporting on Budget Policy & Priorities, Civil Rights, Livable Wages/Working Families, Social Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.


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